Bringing digitalisation to Europe’s most remote areas – challenges, solutions and innovative approaches for SMEs

  • On 11 May, the European DIGITAL SME Alliance held a workshop during the European Regions for Smart Communities Summit in Alentejo, Portugal on innovation gaps currently hindering the deployment of digital solutions in Europe’s most remote rural areas.

  • The session highlighted the importance of having an extended ecosystem where citizens and small businesses are part of the innovation process to bring social and economic value to the local communities.

  • The biggest challenges refer to communicating the added value of a digital project to citizens: lack of trust, understanding and competences among the actors involved are the major obstacles identified in the session.

  • DIGITAL SME’s Focus Group Smart Communities is the community where players from the supply- (technology providers) and demand- (local administration) side work together to overcome such obstacles by fostering collaboration and exchange know-how in the Smart Communities domain.

The first part of the event was mostly dedicated to best practices coming from European SMEs sharing their experience in developing digital services for rural areas. Presentations from the Digital Success Programme, Hungary and the DIH4Society initiative in Romania outlined key points when it comes to thinking of a digital innovation ecosystem that is specific to rural areas.

Highlights and recommendations:

  • Define the appropriate level of necessity and demand: rural communities around Europe are all different. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach.
  • Island-like development is preferred: leveraging local traditional advantages and strengths, considering inclusiveness, increasing the attraction of villages to solve depopulation.
  • Siding the deployment of digital services with appropriate skilling programmes (competency development).
  • Extended ecosystem that includes local governments, R&D, product development, citizens’ feedback, media sector to increase acceptance through mass promotion.
  • Validation process: each integrated digital solution needs to be validated by all the actors of the ecosystem.
  • Monitoring is essential to learn from successful pilots and correct fewer effective outcomes.
  • The “Smart city” concept became obsolete. The definition of a “smart territory” or “smart communities” is more appropriate to underline the involvement of all players in the ecosystem.

Challenges and possible solutions

CHALLENGE 1: Governmental structures are usually fragmented and hierarchical. Smart projects remain isolated and managed by one department, not communicating with other Ministries and bodies.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

  • Citizen–oriented administration and public services.
  • Public Authorities need to foster coordinated, holistic problem-solving.
  • The “Once-only” principle to avoid replication of existing solutions, and maximise capitalisation and scaling-up efforts.
  • Ensure the efficiency of collaboration and dialogue among different structures.

 

CHALLENGE 2: Lack of sound digital innovation policies

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

  • Digital Transformation Strategies should be coherently embedded in any update of laws and regulations in any field.
  • Public administrations should build a regulatory framework that considers building digital trust among the citizens: clear and simple rules on privacy and data protection are necessary.
  • The digitalisation of public administration services should be smooth so that citizens can continue using the services they need in the transition phase.
  • Digitalisation of public services should target each department to consider and ensure specific citizens’ needs in that particular field.

 

CHALLENGE 3: Lack of specialised digital skills in both public servants and citizens is the biggest obstacle to the full deployment of digitalisation strategies.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

  • Digitalisation should be accompanied by a massive up- and re-skilling. Training programs need to be integrated into the overall digitalisation strategies.
  • To be able to do that, an initial assessment of the current level of staff digital competences is a must.
  • The public sector should reform its recruitment process to attract specialised IT human resources to the public sector faster (more agile recruitment processes are recommended).

After the presentation of the best practices, the event continued with a discussion session on the specific challenges of the deployment of digital services in rural areas within the AURORAL project. The audience was split into two groups, and partners, including pilot leaders, shared the main obstacles they are facing in the implementation of the project.

Obstacles to the deployment of digital solutions in rural areas

  • Difficulties in sharing the added value of the digital services with the local citizens. Pilot leaders are struggling to find a communication channel with the citizens, who look disoriented and agnostic towards the technology.
  • Citizens seem to look at digital services as an external imposition that will hinder the status-quo of their life in remote areas.
  • Lack of communication among technical and operational partners within the project is also making the communication hard. Operational partners do not always get the technical specificities of the deployed services, thus making it hard to share information with end-users and the added value of the project itself.

To overcome these challenges, the following recommendations were discussed:

  • To create a forum in the pilot regions where citizens can voice their concerns to be addressed by technical partners, as well as to include them in the process of development and make it a participatory activity, in line with the latest recommendation of Smart Communities development (enhance democratic participation).
  • To identify the added values of the digital solutions (and the AURORAL project) and divide them according to the target audiences: local administrations, technology providers, and citizens.
  • To create visual material and infographics that should help visualise complex technical specifications of the solutions and services.

The European DIGITAL SME Alliance Focus Group Smart Communities is the community where players from the supply- (technology providers) and demand- (local administration) side work together to overcome the obstacles described above, by fostering collaboration and exchanging know-how in the Smart Communities domain.

This workshop was a joint effort from the DIGITAL SME Focus Group Smart Communities and AURORAL partner SINTEF.

Join the group and participate in the discussion

 

Presentations:

Digital Success Programme_Adam Csiky-Meszaros, Hungary

DIH4Society_Andrei Kelemen, Romania

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