Smart Village Scotland – A European perspective on Connected Nations

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Plockton in Wester Ross is a small village of around 380 inhabitants, which capitalises on its very attractive coastal setting on Loch Carron and its close proximity to the magnetic tourist appeal of the Island of Skye.

In the eye of the visitor, Plockton is a perfect community with pubs offering accommodation and enticing tourists with attractive menus. During the summer, the waterfront with its row of palm trees, and pleasure boats anchored in the bay might suggest it was a Mediterranean village if it were not for the Highland cattle, typically Scottish floral gardens with heather and of course, the good old Scottish weather.

This is a thriving community but like many others, there are good times and quieter moments during the winter months. For Plockton, Tourism is vitally important to support the local economy and this is true for quite a few Scottish communities. For many more, they do not depend on tourism, yet.

This brings home the fact that no two communities are the same, each has different needs and needless to say, different levels of aspiration and ambition to make the best use of local assets.

Through our membership of European Network for Rural Development and Smart Village Europe, we learn that the same is true in Scandinavia and across European countries.

A European perspective

Life in a village has both advantages and downsides. In Europe, smart villages are all uniquely different. A smart village is generally about rural people taking the initiative to find practical solutions to existing and future challenges. It’s about local people taking stock of local assets drawing on the best available local knowledge and taking action.

In European villages, ‘smart’ means using every tool available. Digital technology is important in a modern world, but just one of many tools that may be required. A smart village builds new partnerships, thinking beyond the local community, involving the surrounding countryside, linking with other nearby communities, to small towns and links to cities.

Just like rural Scotland, villages in Europe and Scandinavia face the threat of depopulation, but even if a village is settled and growing, there are challenges with low density and an ageing population, which makes it difficult to sustain essential rural services.

Kainuu Finland

With Thanks to Sirpa Lavikainen for the photo.

For example, villages in the North East region of Kainuu in rural Finland, face major challenges in an area where there are as many reindeer as there are people.

Tourism is a significant factor in the regional economics of Kainuu. The two most important seasons for the region’s tourism are winter and summer. Winter season is the more popular one amongst the tourists and travellers.

The single most popular month for the overnight stays in Kainuu is July. Domestic tourism forms a major part of the annual tourism. Around 9-10% of the annual tourism of the regions is International.

In Finland, a smart village is one that actively seeks new solutions for providing services in areas such as healthcare, education, food and energy production, mobility, retail, hobbies and culture.

Further North in Finland’s Lapland region some Northern communities face a drive of up to sixteen hours to reach the capital city of Helsinki. To overcome their remoteness, the local people in this region have launched a wide range of projects for renewable energy, fast broadband, distance learning, social care and cultural activities. In healthcare, medical consultations are brought to the doorstep along with high-speed broadband delivering essential medical care.

Lapland (Sweden)

How much can a village in Sweden’s Lapland do with its own resources? Vuollerim by the Arctic Circle is a living example of crowd-sourcing and social village capital. The idea is built on strengthening the local economy and local development. All local village community-based businesses reinvest 100% of their profits into further growth of their company and into the local economy.

Teamwork is the key. The phenomenon of crowdsourcing, the power of creating things together, has been around for a long time in Vuollerim, a small village in the heart of Swedish Lapland. Vuollerim has about 800 inhabitants, 60 companies and 40 non-profit organisations.

Traditionally the district has embraced entrepreneurship and private initiative. Vuollerim has taken advantage of the kind of local resources and capabilities that exist in every community and has put them to good use. This tradition carries on with exciting new projects emerging all the time.

Fraunhofer Germany

The Fraunhofer Institute is testing a holistic approach to the wide digitisation of rural services in several pilot villages in Germany. Through the creation of a common digital platform, they are developing new solutions for the supply of local goods, communication, mobility and e-government.

The platform enables the creation of shared services and common rules, and the incorporation of basic tools such as payments, login, data usage controls and partner networks. Local residents are working with interdisciplinary teams to create a range of user-friendly apps.

Catalonia Spain

In Catalonia in the North East corner of Spain, eleven action groups teamed up to develop software to monitor energy use to calculate the cost of the transition to using more renewable energy sources and reducing consumption. This has had a significant impact in helping to sustain the local villages.

Cocotte France

A project known as the Hub is situated in the small market town of Murat in the southern Massif Centrale in France. The origins of ‘Cocotte’ lie with a public service hub set up by the association of local authorities of the Murat region in 2005. From the beginning, it included a multimedia room, internet access, digital education and training and tools to support the delivery of public services in a remote upland area.

Visitors and regular users of the centre soon began to ask if a ‘quiet working space’ could be added to the facilities. A distance working centre (Télécentre de Murat) was opened in 2007, a training centre was set up in 2008-2009, and a website and the first distance workers’ forum in 2009.

Cocotte France

By the end of 2009, 6 digital entrepreneurs settled in the area and set up businesses following training. The work hub had 100% occupancy and a ‘welcoming’ strategy had been put in place to assist new inhabitants and their families to settle in the area.

In 2010-2012 the programme attracted digital entrepreneurs and a full-time coordinator in the area through National and ERDF (Massif Central) funding. In 2011 the predecessor of ‘Cocotte’ was set up as the first co-working space in the Cantal with an increasing set of activities. This shows that “smart thinking” is not a new phenomenon, its been around for many years.

Skibereen Cork Ireland

The Ludgate Hub is in Skibbereen, in the periphery of Cork in the South West of Ireland. Skibbereen was selected as a pilot town by SIRO, a joint venture company between ESB and Vodafone to deliver a 100% fibre-to-the-building broadband network, to install for the first time in an Irish rural town 1GB of internet connectivity. With a 1000MB connection, the Ludgate Hub utilises the digital age for job creation and innovation.

Before the project, Skibbereen had very low-level broadband and some areas had no fibre connection. Skibbereen was also the only town in West Cork that does not have an e-centre or enterprise park and has limited opportunities to facilitate incoming mobile workers. The hub was initiated by a board of eleven local people operating on a pro-bono basis.

The Hub building was once a cinema from 1941-1981, then a bakery, and in the mid-90s was left unoccupied. Board member John Field made the Bakery Building available to the initiative. The hub which is in the centre of Skibbereen town is now a beacon of innovation and has already started to encourage fringe enterprises as a spin-off.

David Puttnam – Ireland’s former digital champion

The Ludgate Board is determined to achieve all ambitious goals, ultimately resulting in a return of the diaspora, creating an ecosystem of creativity and innovation, and progressing the facilitation of job growth via digital technology. The long-term vision is to make Skibbereen a hot-spot for technology start-ups and multinationals to locate and prosper.

Projects like these are springing up in many parts of Europe, projects in; transport, education, food, farming, food, care, green energy and digitization are becoming more evident.

Many of these projects in Europe, Scandinavia and in Scotland are supported by EU funding. With so much attention going understandably to the major cities, where the majority live, there is a risk that rural communities may be left behind. However, not everyone is able to live or work in cities, which are already over-crowded. Commuting can work both ways with many businesses moving out of cities to more urban and rural locations sometimes as part of cost-cutting measures.

We see this in Scotland with a gradual exodus of people from other parts of the UK moving to Scotland’s rural communities in pursuit of a quieter or quality life at lower cost. Many Europeans work in Scotland, we welcome their valued contribution to our rural communities, however, fears over Brexit are causing a many to move away creating a few businesses serious concern over staffing levels. This is specifically noticeable in farming, fruit growing, fishing and tourism businesses.

There is a fine balance to be sustained in rural communities to manage changes that happen now and could happen in the future.

Smart Village Scotland is an initiative delivered through Digital Scotland, aimed at inspiring new ideas on rural development and where appropriate, to include tourism.

Working in collaboration with key stakeholders within tourism, community action and development, the Scottish government and digital partners, we help to inspire aspiration and ambition to encourage rural villages to make those small changes that can have a positive impact and start to pull the community together on the design of improvements and a better future.

There are small signs of a trend reversal in rural Scotland with more young people choosing to work locally rather than travel away to cities to seek employment. This is a welcome change in parts of the highlands and Island communities and increases the need for digital connectivity.

Sheildaig-Wester Ross, Scotland with permission from Visit Scotland

Grass roots approach

Smart Village Scotland adopts a bottom-up, grass-roots strategy within a community to help encourage those simple changes that can have an immediate impact. This process needs to include key members of the community with representation from local groups, community council, schools, and local business.

From within this group, we try to find champions that are willing to help gather local information of value to the village. For some villages, listings on local history, heritage, wildlife and attractions could help local residents appreciate where they live and is more than useful in attracting other communities or tourists to consider a visit. This information could include web site URLs of every group or business web site wishing to be included in a Smart Village application

Up in the Clouds

The purpose of gathering this information becomes evident as Smart Village Scotland is building a Cloud environment to serve every village community and town in Scotland.

The Cloud will host a standard offering of useful information such as weather warnings from the Met Office, Flood Warnings from SEPA – Floodline, flooding advice from Scottish Flood Forum, road closure reports from Traffic Scotland, links to Council services and links to the popular Social Media avenues including a community blog plus more.

On top of this information, additional information can be added by village champions with links to events, meetings, walks trails and any other items of general information such as transport links to bus and trains services.

Local businesses can be included in the business side of Smart Village Scotland, opening up new channels of digital marketing to all of the other cloud communities throughout Scotland and the world.

This will be of wide interest to all tourism channels including camping and caravan sites, cafes, bed and breakfast, guesthouses, hotels, self-catering and all shopping outlets, attraction providers, distilleries, museums, galleries.

This link is endless in its reach. To further enhance the cloud environment, smart technology such as IOT (internet of things) devices can be included within the cloud. This could be air quality monitoring, weather feeds from rain gauges, wind speed indicators, river level and flood warning devices, alarm devices village cameras, information boards and much more.

Smart Village Scotland clouds at village level, are all networked to other smart villages, to smart towns and smart cities creating a digital Scotland.

For all residents and national charity groups in Smart Village Scotland, access to their cloud is free. We ask businesses to make a token annual payment for hosting costs. The model is simple, the potential is incredible in its benefits value to Villages, Towns and Cities in Scotland.

Connected Nations

A great overall context for this is Lesley Riddoch’s connected nation campaign.

In an interesting series of inspirational documentaries, Lesley Riddoch shows how communities such as the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway have thrived as successful nations. In the case of the Faroe islands with only 1% of the Scottish population and a key commodity of fish, they have achieved an amazing status as a digitally connected nation.

Iceland has 10% of the Scottish population, it is a nation of extreme volcanic conditions and faced bankruptcy in recent times. Iceland has bounced back as one of the worlds most equal and successful nations. Natural geothermal power sources have been harnessed with a positive impact on sustainability and profitability within its rugged rural environment. As has happened in Scotland, Hollywood has gone to Iceland in a big way with some blockbusting movies, attracted by its stunning natural landscape.

Norway often described as Scotland’s twin nation, with a similar population, landscape, strong cultural and heritage links and where we share the fish and oil of the North Sea, we are quite similar. Norway is the worlds most democratic nation. It has been able to build a massive wealth through its oil fund and has a thriving rural population.

Many of the positive outcomes covered in these informative videos, can provide useful learning for rural Scotland and show what can be achieved with good vision, aspiration and ambition within local development plans. The Smart Village Scotland initiative aspires to reflect a positive vision in support of rural communities to be all they can be, within a connected nation.

Bridging the Gap

Smart Village Scotland is ideally placed to bridge the gap that exists between the growing digital network in Scotland and potential users. It fills the gap between rural development and Tourism by encouraging enhancements to the community and where it is possible creating tourism appeal.

This drives the need for digital connectivity. This grass-roots, bottom-up approach, is particularly effective in rural communities where there is lingering aspiration and ambition through local community action plans to take full advantage of fresh ideas.

Smart Village Scotland is the Initiative title and is delivered through Digital Scotland. We are currently building good collaboration with key stakeholders within Scottish Government, Digital Technology providers, Visit Scotland, Scottish Local Authorities, Scottish Enterprise, National Parks, SEPA, Scottish Flood Forum, Met Office, Neighbourhood Watch, Rural Scotland and European Network for Rural Development.

Kenny Higgins

With thanks to ENRD & Sirpa Lavikainen – Kainuu Finland & Visit Scotland for information

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