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Smart country.
Fuelled by a rural exodus, urban populations are exploding and city rents shooting up, all the while properties are being abandoned and farms lie fallow in the countryside. Curiously, it’s exactly this emptiness that is drawing others away from the megacities to start a new life away from the rat race—their Rural Life 4.0, powered by a digital era that enables them to connect to their work anywhere. As long as there’s a human connection, too. And there is. What people seek and sow, the budding networks and blooming villages, how the countryside is coming back to life, and where it’s already buzzing is all well worth a closer look. Because the rural revolution is well under way.

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The Hohe Fläming Nature Park south-west of Berlin is a model of rural innovation that has developed over a very short period of time. In the municipality of Bad Belzig lies Klein Glien—home to 75 people and, since 2017, the Coconat workation retreat where people can go to work and play. In a former farm house, a coworking space has been created where freelancers or even corporate teams can connect with nature while getting some work done at the same time. And it’s a hit with its Wi-Fi and organic vegetarian food attracting people from as far afield as San Francisco. 

But the Coconat is just the start. The owners persuaded the mayors of Bad Belzig and the neighbouring town of Wiesenburg to jointly apply to become a Smart Village—a title they managed to win in a competition organised by the joint media authority of the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, mabb. . Since then, Bad Belzig mayor, Roland Leisegang, and his colleague from Wiesenburg, Marco Beckendorf have become a driving force behind an increasingly smart region.

They want to build communities of people with similar interests, but who also complement each other well, centred on the ability to work and live in one place.
Putting down roots.

Work on a “KoDorf (co-living village) near Wiesenburg railway station began in 2019, which, when completed, will consist of 40 Tiny Houses, workshops, community areas for co-working, yoga and much more all around a former saw mill. There are even plans for a farm shop, village pub and a nursery and the village will act as a scalable model for other locations.

The non-profit thinktank neuland 21 located, perhaps unsurprisingly, in Bad Belzig, is thinking big with political scientists, design thinkers, innovation researchers and communications experts all focussing on the development of regions with weak infrastructures, In particular, they are researching ways to improve the quality of life and public services in rural areas through digitalisation. They create studies, work out best practices, develop projects, and consult and support local authorities and other players as they make it all happen on the ground.

For instance, together with the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, neuland 21 looked into the question of how digital work can bring city people to the countryside in their “Urban Villages” study. It is in fact these urbanites that are the driving force behind new projects. Ideas to create modern living environments in the countryside typically fall on fertile ground at digital conferences, where the idealistic and the pragmatic go hand in hand.

Those behind the projects see a blank canvas to blueprint their perfect “habitat” instead of just making do with the realities and constraints of the city. They want to build communities of people with similar interests, but who also complement each other well, centred on the ability to work and live in one place. Of course, not everyone is able to do this, but for those who can work online, nothing is standing in the way which is why a region’s connectivity is both a pre-requisite and a lever. If its internet is not up to speed, a region can quickly fall behind. Fast data lines and also good transport links, are highly attractive. The railway is key, more so than motorways, as the majority of those moving to the country want to be able to commute sustainably. In a nutshell, no infrastructure means no projects.

They want to build communities of people with similar interests, but who also complement each other well, centred on the ability to work and live in one place.

Regions that want to drive innovation become ecosystems in which individual players often wear a variety of hats. They don’t just do their own thing, they inject their particular skill sets into other projects, too.
Cultivating new shots.

Of course, local authorities can’t help it if railway stations were closed years ago. And there’s only so much they can do to get providers to put fibre internet within their reach. Still, by now it should be abundantly clear to everyone how important digitalisation is for rural developments to create e.g. the public transport and decentralised energy systems that populations need, regardless of incomers from the big city. In a digital transformation study, 95% of the municipalities in Brandenburg surveyed admitted they had no digitalisation strategy and 88% had no digitalisation officer. More interestingly, 55% have never touched on the subject of smart cities while 47% say they are already taking steps towards becoming one. The latter, however, are largely referring to the availability of public Wi-Fi and administrative processes. Understandably, there is a lack of on-site expertise which is why some city-based digital specialists are stepping up to plate.

Silvia Hennig, founder and managing director of neuland 21 knows that motivated, civil society innovators are just as important as the underlying infrastructures. Those behind projects such as Coconat and KoDorf are adept at creating visibility for their ideas online and on social media, and so they quickly attract other interested parties, they meet other people and quickly create cohesive groups. Silvia Hennig has seen the spark created by these project drivers ignite in the minds of regional officials, too. Today, the mayors of Bad Belzig and Wiesenburg are ardent advocates of smart rural solutions. Within a short period of time, their communities have seen a flurry of activity.

Bad Belzig has its own Smart Village App which provides a wide range of information and services to its citizens. It even allows people to search for car-pooling opportunities and includes a village podcast. Plus, the app is open source so the program code is accessible to any other local authority that would like to set up something similar.

One particular project promotes local journalism, helping local media outlets modernise their offerings, connecting media professionals and building skills through workshops, for example, on how to produce a podcast. Above all, the project aims to enable citizens to contribute their own news and develop formats to do so.

The smart village has recently become a 5G model region for an autonomous on-demand ride-pooling offer to trial and, ideally, establish a 5G-based smart public transport system. It could also see a rural test track for autonomous vehicles, all financed through an innovation competition set up by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure. Other projects, too, are supported through funding without which nothing much would get off the ground. This brings another important aspect to the fore—you need to have people who know how and where to get their hands on this funding, and these people often have to be brought in from the outside.

Regions that want to drive innovation become ecosystems in which individual players often wear a variety of hats. They don’t just do their own thing, they inject their particular skill sets into other projects, too. One key to success is sharing knowledge and a readiness to collaborate with others and this includes making successful solutions available to other regions so that they can scale existing concepts to their needs and interface with others instead of creating isolated fixes that can’t connect to anything.

There are, of course, obstacles to be overcome such as a public administration that is lethargic or even hostile to innovation. A key person married to the past can stop the smartest project dead in its tracks. Without the right sponsors—who at the beginning of projects tend to give their time voluntarily—innovation will either never get off the ground or will struggle to gain momentum. And without a sufficient number of comrades-in-arms, even a project that got off to good start will eventually crash and burn. And finally, it needs a broad base. No one is really helped and no sustainable development effective if a “digital elite” emerges as a parallel society within existing structures.

The Summer of Pioneers.

Frederk Fischer is the mastermind behind KoDorf in Wiesenburg and he always has something cooking. He’s the one who got the town of Wittenberge, half way between Berlin and Hamburg, to host the very first Summer of Pioneers. In 2019, Wittenberge invited 20 digital workers from larger cities to try out rural life for six months. All 20 were provided with a furnished apartment and a spot in a specially created coworking space in a former oil mill on the banks of the River Elbe. A second group of city dwellers are currently trying out this new way of working. Wittenberge is also attractive because it is well-connected with hourly regional trains, but also express trains to Berlin and Hamburg running several times a day. Over the last few years, the town has had to cope with its inhabitants—particularly the younger generations—moving away. Wittenberge even featured in reports as an example of rural decay. Thanks to the Summer of Pioneers, the tide is turning. A lot of media outlets, some as far away as the UK, have been reporting on the positive changes and, just as with Fläming, other initiatives have sprung up, for example, Stadtsalon Safari, which is a space for events, workshops, exchange and networking located in a former shop on Bismarck Square.

The Summer of Pioneers has now spread 300 kilometres away to Homberg an der Efze in northern Hesse, which is part of the Cittaslow organisation—a network of 22 German and 200 global municipalities with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants who subscribe to the idea of sustainability and the promotion of regional specialities. The goal is to maintain and/or breathe new life into the quality of life in smaller towns and in Homberg, this included Europe’s largest broadband project which was co-coordinated by the town administration and saw a total of 2,200 kilometres of fibre optic cables being laid to deliver fast internet to 570 sites across northern Hesse.

For Homburg, the future is a blend of nature, tradition and innovation. The region has applied to be recognised as a natural preserve and there is even a community of young organic farmers. The Pioneers are planning to create a campus for the rural life of tomorrow around the city centre’s historic market square. 24 companies organised in the HOMEberger start-up network are offering car sharing services, sustainable smartphones produced under fair working conditions, and everything in between.

This summer, 20 new inhabitants will take up residence in Homberg’s listed timber-framed buildings to trial living and working together and also bring new ideas for future projects. While the town doesn’t have its own railway station, it does provide e-bikes and cargo bikes and gives people the opportunity to  car share or take a community bus. So, the infrastructure has room for improvement—fast internet, check, but the fast trains are a short drive away, but having said that, it’s not a bad place to be. Not just for pioneers.

Here are some links in german for those of you who are interested in a smart rural life:

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Published on Jul 20, 2020.