3 mins

Now is the time for territorial, smart and ambitious investments!

Elisa Ferreira

Europe's response to the crisis is unfolding a once-in-a-generation investment to rebuild our common future. As a consequence, there are many new opportunities for territorial development. Teleworking and digitisation have been expanding over the last year, providing a tremendous opportunity to rethink our patterns of development.

In the recent past, a few large urban centres in Europe have acted as providers of growth and jobs, hubs of innovation, and service centres for the broader economy. This key role has been essential and welcome, but the new growth of teleworking and the new digital economy opens the door for smaller and medium-sized centres to equally play this role for their benefit and the benefit of their regions.

Could this be Europe's territorial moment? An opportunity for the next generation in our Union?

We must make sure that we put together substantial new investment levels, digital opportunities and territorial knowhow to redraw the economic map of Europe to the advantage of all our regions.

Half the funding of 2021-27 for a smarter and greener economy

In the 2021-27 cohesion programmes we are setting aside around half of the funding for ambitious investments in a smarter and greener economy. That is around 80 billion for innovation and digitisation, and around 100 billion in green projects. Investments in digital infrastructure, e-skills, e-inclusion and e-governance, business development, green public transport, renewable energy and smart grids, and much more, mainly in the least developed parts of Europe.

These investments must be smart and they must be ambitious, but most of all, they must be territorially smart. In particular, there are two challenges.

Smart and green transformation starts with cities

Cities are centres of economic activity, of knowledge generation and innovation, of citizen and community engagement. Cities play a key role as service providers for the surrounding areas, and this is particularly crucial for small and medium-sized cities.

And this is why cities will have access to considerable investments. In particular, 8% of the European Regional Development Fund - around 16 billion euros - is set aside for local development projects led by local decision makers. Moreover, we have created a new instrument: the European Urban Initiative, to finance innovations and experiments, scale up successful prototypes and disseminate lessons learnt.

"Smart specialisation is not just for cities. It is highly relevant for rural areas. Here we need a new concept of innovation"

The role of ESPON

This new model of development requires a territorial approach and territorial intelligence, to allow tailoring the technology to the needs of the area. ESPON with its evidence, and network of experts from across Europe can play a pivotal role, providing territorial data, innovative methods and territorial impact assessments, based on decades of experience in territorial analysis.

For example, ESPON's recent findings show that smart city solutions so far have been largely dominated by technology "push". This is something we need to balance with policies that support market and community "pull", reflecting the needs of the citizens.

Elisa Ferreira is the European Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms

Smart villages - and innovation in rural areas

Smart specialisation is not just for cities. It is highly relevant for rural areas. Here we need a new concept of innovation. Not just science-based innovation, but a broader narrative: Innovation to manage environmental transition and environmental risks; innovation to manage social transition, including demographic challenges.

Cohesion policy already has many successful examples of innovation building on local activities and local culture. One particular opportunity is agri-food, since the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector tends to show lower levels of innovation than the overall economy.

And, since over 40% of EU rural regions are also cross-border regions, we must also remember the new "Interregional Innovative Investments", that link innovation systems across borders.

Another welcome development is the "EU action for smart villages". Working with the local community, we seek to improve access to services, develop short food supply chains and develop renewable energy sources.

The European Commission encourages Member States to support Smart Villages by investing in broadband, IT training and SMEs outside the farming sector. We should strengthen small and medium-sized centres and rural areas.

All these areas, from rural innovation, and interregional innovation, to smart villages require investments. But it also requires something more: territorial intelligence. Every territory is a different world, with different conditions, different opportunities. Investments must be driven from the bottom up.

In essence, the territorial dimension will be crucial to ensure green and just recovery for all European regions. We rely on ESPON to provide evidence to support our effort to design a future for all places.

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

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