Are cities REALLY the model for villages?
When it comes to the digital revolution, it doesn’t make much sense to differentiate between cities and the countryside. Before our very eyes is taking place a radical Transformation 2.0 of all aspects of society, which extends far beyond cities and is beginning to connect the whole country from end to end. The new technologies are natural enablers of synergies between different regions, so that within a few years a complete ecosystem looks set to emerge, linking every town and every village, from the largest agglomeration to the smallest administrative area.
Just like major urban areas, rural regions have their own specific advantages when it comes to transitioning to the ‘smart village’ of the future. They often have more detailed knowledge of the needs of local residents, see more active citizen participation on environmental and agricultural issues, plus also tighter budget restrictions, which motivate them to look for innovative solutions that will help to reduce overall expenditure. As we speak, our villages are on the point of becoming ‘smart’.
Rural affairs 2.0
Rural politicians are totally up to speed on technology issues. They understand what technology can mean for the development of their region, whether we’re talking about the economy, health or education.
The Ruralitic forum, set up twelve years ago on the initiative of the Cantal department council in south-central France, with the support of the Caisse des Dépôts bank, Orange, SFR, Nokia and energy company Enedis, is on a mission to push ahead with the transition to digital technology and help pool people’s energy and ideas. Ruralitic advises villages which have decided to go the digital route. Since it was founded in 2005, the organisation has steadily increased the number of discussion groups, meetings and workshops it runs, to ensure that as many mayors as possible can take part and share their experience, analysis and information about projects.
Ruralitic has just launched a manifesto, which has already been signed by 158 elected representatives. It outlines a set of objectives and commitments which together form a roadmap for Smart Villages: high quality Internet connections for every household and every company; a high degree of citizen participation; crowdfunding based on digital tools; environmentally-responsible approaches in the regions; the designation of eco-districts; sustainable building practices; the development of human capital, including initiatives to improve local residents’ skills and influence; locally-rooted entrepreneurship; public services that are fully accessible online; the building of international relations, including twinning partnerships with villages abroad underpinned by digital technology; locally-sourced food; more organically-grown foodstuffs; and the establishment of networks linking together everyone who lives in the same administrative district.
REDRAWING THE RURAL MAP
The 'Smart Rural City'
SENSORS IN OUR villages
Proof positive that things are already on the move: a number of communities are already acting as pioneers in this field. One especially noteworthy example is the small village of Cozzano in Corsica, perched up at 700 meters right in the centre of the ‘Island of Beauty’, as the French call it, which has for many years enjoyed an excellent reputation for its high-quality pressed meats. Some months ago, with the help of environmental science researchers at the Pascal-Paoli University of Corsica (UCPP), the village began to deploy a network of connected sensors designed to help manage expenditure on energy more rationally and optimise agricultural production. The village’s three hundred remaining residents are now keen to combat the steady exodus of its population and enter the modern world, becoming what they are starting to call in the local dialect a ‘Smart Paesi’.
Explains Thierry-Antoine Santoni, a senior lecturer at UCPP who heads up the ‘Smart Paesi’ project: “Drawing on the results of our experiment here in Cozzano, we intend to put forward a development model that can be used for other villages, based on current and future technology. Our goal is to breathe life into the concept of the ‘smart village’ by using digital technology, with a strong focus on sustainable development.”
A small commune can easily incorporate ‘Smart City’ technology. Saint-Sulpice La Forêt is part of the city of Rennes, which has a lot of startups specialising in issues relating to the Smart City and the Internet of Things. We made use of this pool of companies to set up our project.
With its environmentally-responsible programme comprising a drive to install solar panels on the roofs of the houses, create a biomass heating system for public buildings, bury power lines underground and build a water treatment plant and a ‘green’ micro power station, Cozzano is aiming to become a ‘positive energy’ area. Meanwhile, the arrival of broadband Internet connectivity in the village will enable many digitally-based citizen-participation projects to get off the ground, connecting up residents and allowing them to play a greater role in the life of village. Cozzano is also building a Digital Innovation Centre so that the researchers can try out a range of innovations and connected objects, use artificial intelligence to grow crops, analyse energy data, test out tools for breeders to track their herds and flocks, and so on. The basic purpose of all these initiatives is to roll out digital technology that is 100% useful to village residents. Cozzano is currently sketching the outlines of a model that could easily be duplicated in other communities in Corsica and elsewhere.Other similar initiatives are already underway. The small village of Saint-Sulpice La Forêt in Ille-et-Vilaine in western France, which has 1,500 inhabitants, has since 2016 been rolling out a series of ‘smart’ projects run in partnership with Wi6labs, a startup that designs sensors for Agriculture 2.0, and Alkante, a company specialising in data processing and connected objects. They are looking at how connected objects could help to better manage the village’s energy spending, assist its transition to renewable energy use, and promote a reduction in CO2 emissions.
Digital technology fundamentally changes the farmer’s job: it calls for new skills and it enables a larger area to be farmed. Digitally-managed farms cans also run themselves to a greater degree. So this really is a ‘big bang’ that we’re seeing in the world of agriculture.
Quite apart from ‘digitalising’ villages and getting the locals to take a more environmentally-friendly attitude, this regional wave is also transforming both crop growing and livestock farming, the twin essential elements of rural life. As in Epinal, in eastern France, farmers are in some cases now leading the way. The last twenty years have seen the farming business transformed by state-of-the-art technological advances, such as programming robots to milk cows and installing GPS systems on tractors.
Today sensors, self-driving vehicles and connected objects are on the point of increasing yields while at the same time reducing the amount of pollution generated on farms. In fact a number of the sector’s most traditional companies are already adopting these innovative systems. Milking equipment manufacturer DeLaval, founded in 1883, which has always been an industrial partner to the dairy industry, has now come up with a ‘smart farm’ programme. Farmers can use its ‘Herd Navigator’ system to get real-time data on the status of their herd: analysis of the cows’ temperatures so that the farmer can anticipate when they are about to give birth; detection of sick animals; and measurement of daily milk production to the nearest millilitre. The system serves as a real digital assistant, enabling farmers to optimise their output and reduce pollution by using only the strict minimum of energy required.
satellites and gps HELPING TO OPTIMISE PRODUCTION
Moreover, innovation in the farming sector is now going even further. The use of satellite-based real-time systems, which observe and record crop yield data with a view to refining the doses of fertiliser needed, is booming. Meanwhile, drones are starting to be used on smaller farms to map fields and guide tractors via their GPS systems to areas which have been prioritised for prompt work. In the same vein, self-driving tractors are likely to open up a new era of precision agriculture in the next few years. A farmer could then obtain an overall view of his/her crops by looking at a tablet and then drive the tractor remotely. All these innovations are bringing agriculture into the 21st century, and at the same time helping the countryside as a whole to embrace new technology, thus radically transforming rural areas and making them just as ‘smart’ as the cities.
Smart Village projects are now being run all around the world, especially in Africa and Asia, where large areas of land are still devoted to farming. The Smart Village is in fact a global phenomenon, which demonstrates the determination of country people to move into the modern world. But perhaps even more importantly, it clearly shows just how broad is the digital revolution that is now affecting every aspect of our society. It looks certain that the paradigm shift brought about by the Internet is not about to leave anyone on the sidelines.