Key Insights

Smart Villages: the Digitization of Rural Areas

ESI ThoughtLab

Becoming a smart territory is not only the prerogative of large metropolises. Small rural towns have also decided to adopt a smart and connected village approach, and to embrace the digital revolution that is taking hold across the world. Innovative solutions, from big data to IoT, have reached some rural areas and are being used to develop and improve their social, economic, and environmental conditions.  

In 2018, 55% of people across the world lived in cities, and the number is projected to increase to 68% by 2050, according to the United Nations. Faced with an urban exodus and aging population, many villages have turned to smart solutions for survival. While some experts predict that the post-COVID-19 world will revert the urbanization trend as more people flee large cities, rural areas must still adapt. Bridging their digital gap will prove essential to attracting potential residents.  

Building a solid internet infrastructure and developing the talent to utilize digital tools are the biggest obstacles for villages. According to the European Network of Rural Development, 93.5% of urban residents in Germany enjoy a broadband accessibility of 50 Mbps or more. However, this is only the case for 50.5% of Germans who live in rural areas. The deployment of high-speed broadband networks, therefore, has been a major priority for smart village initiatives. Spain, for instance, is aiming to cover 95% of its population with high-speed internet access by 2021.

While reliable access to the internet is an important goal for smart villages, their initiatives go beyond connectivity. Smart initiatives also have the potential to improve educational opportunities, access to quality healthcare, and generate more jobs. Villages across Southeast Asia have focused on implementing climate-smart initiatives to integrate climate resilience into the agricultural sector. The Malaysia smart village project launched in August 2019 boosted  internet access and improved education services in small towns by powering smart classrooms and digital libraries. Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals were also able to practice telemedicine and monitor remote patients from cities.  

Climate-smart agriculture has also been a big focus in Latin America, where some villages have aimed to generate evidence-based information to guide agricultural decisions. The Climate-Smart Village (CSV) approach was adopted in remote towns to help farmers make informed decisions and employ technology and data. Even when the technology available is mainly rudimentary, smart initiatives that utilize data can help farmers. Agro-climactic forecasts using rain gaugers and thermometers have allowed planters to become self-sufficient or to increase their output.  

The implementation of newer, advanced technologies would also greatly benefit rural areas. AI solutions could improve crop and environmental management, as well as help to optimize health services. Utilizing big data would allow an in-depth analysis of climate changes, water consumption, livestock movements, and other information essential to rural communities.  

But for now, despite some advances made, rural areas across the world are still deficient in digital infrastructure. Improving connectivity remains a challenge, as does accessibility to cities through sustainable and efficient mobility. As a result, with the intention of reducing the digital gap between countryside and city, smart village initiatives have become a priority for many global leaders.