4 mins

How to harness the potential of rural areas to m ake them suitable places for innovation opportunities?

Eugenio Giani

In her speech during the closing session of Rural Vision Week, Commissioner Elisa Ferreira predicted that a bright future awaits rural areas, stressing how the current health and economic crisis may open up new possibilities and opportunities if we are able to design a new vision for the future of rural areas.

The new 2021-2027 EU programming period has begun, carrying with it a great deal of expectation twinned with the acknowledgment of the many challenges ahead, especially for rural areas, particularly in the two 'met a-trends' of inequality and technological innovationidentified by the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System, which permeate all other trends and indeed all aspects of human life.

The Regional Government of Tuscany Region took the opportunity to put forward its viewpoints on the occasion of the consultation regarding the communication on a long-term vision for rural areas that the European Commission is due to adopt in the second half of 2021.

In Tuscany, we believe that policy tools allowing for innovative practices and solutions not only must have a special focus on those sectors that are vital for our rural territories and economies, but ? in order to be effective -primarily need to reach a socio-economic environment ready and prepared to exploit them to the full.

To do so, a twofold strategy has to be fostered:

We need to stop adopting compensatory approaches along the urban rural dichotomy and start seeing rural areas as places of opportunities beyond only agriculture. We should rather address their basic needs and exploit their full potential through place-sensitive, tailor-made policies able to leverage local assets, enable them to take advantage of globalisation trends and, ultimately, attract more people and investment.

We need to accompany the push for innovation that comes from the macro challenges covered by the European Green Deal and the Digital Europe programme, which have been further amplified by the pandemic.

"one of the most relevant tools to foster innovation in rural areas is the European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability"

Rural areas are places where innovation can flourish, but we must nurture it and provide the right tools and a level playing field in relation to other territories.

One of our first concerns is to make sure that new digital services can be easily available, ensuring that broadband infrastructures cover all areas where there are currently weaknesses.

As demonstrated by the pandemic, availability of material and immaterial endowments is essential, but often not sufficient. Other elements creating room for experimenting, and removing the isolation that may affect rural communities can help rural areas to be more attractive and rural communities to become active innovation agents.

The EU offers several new and consolidated opportunities and tools to foster innovation potential and for better connecting rural communities, such as enabling local innovators to get together and find peers, knowledge and opportunities outside their traditional innovation ecosystem.

For example, one of the most relevant tools to foster innovation in rural areas and help rural communities to support their innovators is the European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability  but new tools are taking shape such as Horizon Europe partnerships the European Innovation Council and Digital Europe.

At the same time, in order to break down silos and raise the innovation potential of rural communities, it is of paramount importance to support a broader adoption of public-private partnerships to create new synergies among sectors and more investments in education, training, social services and security. Valid initiatives adopting a multisectoral approach in different areas that are worth continued promotion are Smart Villages, Digital Innovation Hubs, LEADER initiatives, bioeconomy strategies and Living Labs, just to name a few.

"Tuscany Region since 2012 has engaged with enlarging the discussion around innovation in rural areas outside the regional borders. We created an informal platform the network of European Regions for Innovation in Agriculture, Food and Forestry (ERIAFF)  where regional and local authorities can discuss and make synergies to help their territories to collaborate and circulate innovative ideas. Today, we have more than 80 partners."

Building on the experience gained from participation in the ERIAFF network, in 2016 Tuscany promoted the S3 High Tech Farming Partnership with the aim of reinforcing inter-regional cooperation among regional innovation ecosystems that are harnessing the potential offered by their Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation to specifically target the farming sector.

"Rural areas are places where innovation can flourish, but we must nurture it and provide the right tools and a level playing field in relation to other territories."

These initiatives are intended to ensure that proactive public policies are in place to ease the flow of ideas and break down sectoral and territorial barriers, enabling the many innovators that are already developing solutions and entrepreneurial activities to bring more benefits to rural areas.

In that respect, the main suggestion from the perspective of a public administrator is to make sure that national, regional and local authorities take advantage of already existing initiatives and experiences, identifying EU champions that may help or inspire local innovators and forerunners in making the difference, and helping our long-term vision for rural areas to become a reality.

Eugenio Gianni is President of the Tuscany Region

This article appears in Rural areas: an eye to the future

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