A 5 minute read by Matthew Phan
Interpolating the features of the modern city to local communities may be the future of human settlements.
Since 1950, the world’s urban population has dramatically grown from 751 million to 4.2 billion in 2018, a six-fold increase in total population. 2018 saw 55% of the world’s populace urbanized, and as trends continue to tick upward, an estimated 96% of increased urbanization is expected to be centered around cities in low and lower-middle income countries.
Though the future of living has often been described as an urban dream, this vision is troubling news for the other half of the world’s population that do not live in cities, which encompasses more than 70% of the world’s poor. For the 1.2 billion that lack access to basic amenities like electricity and sanitation, the contemporary appraisal of cities suggests that their futures lie in mass migrations to overcrowded urban areas with sparse accommodations, low-level jobs, low wages, and few opportunities to advance careers or educations.
Geographers and experts have pushed for improving the conditions of cities in order to meet the demands of the projected migrations; indeed, the United Nations emphasizes this point in Goal 11 of their Sustainable Development Goals. But increasingly, more and more have turned to an alternative solution: Developing local communities into “smart villages.”
The smart village
According to a paper written by Dr. Bernie Jones, Head of International Policy at the Royal Society, what constitutes a “smart” village is adaptable to the needs of individual communities, insisting that what may be “smart” for one place may be less imperative elsewhere. To clarify, though, Dr. Jones suggests that the essential components of “smartness” must include quality education, healthcare, finance, information and communication technologies, clean water and sanitation, improved livelihoods, and empowerment of entrepreneurial endeavors. On top of that, smart villages are designed to be interconnected yet independent.
Jones notes that infrastructure and energy are the catalysts for those developments, the most basic of which manifests itself in things like access to light and phone charging. Solar power is often tapped as the best option for providing this capacity, being unbound to a central grid, sustainable, easy to repair, and able to be remotely accessed.
Following the availability of energy is the development of information and communication technologies. The rise of cloud-computing, remote-access data, and access to the global human knowledge-base is instrumental to the efficacy of smart villages continuing to develop and grow in a self-sustainable manner. Data and communication can be shared between communities and the greater world, providing greater opportunities for investments and improvements.
The key to the success of a smart village, however, is the discernible improvement of residents’ livelihoods. Jones makes it clear that no matter how great the improvements in services and infrastructure, if growth is not felt in residents’ jobs and lives, then there will be no impetus to remain in villages. With the majority of rural poor living off subsistence farming, implementing agricultural best practices in cultivation and processing is widely regarded as the best economic stimulus for growing villages. Entrepreneurship tends to emerge following agricultural gains, which is essential to maintaining a self-sustaining community.
Smart villages in practice
In Malaysia, low-carbon smart cities and smart villages initiatives have rendered much success. Communities were designed to lift rural incomes and promote environmental sustainability. Each smart village covers around 50 acres each and includes about 100 affordable homes, high-tech educational and recreational centers, and provides residents with a sustainable aqua-farming system. Monthly incomes have tripled to around $475 USD.
The European Union has also shown interest in revitalizing rural communities as smart villages. As part of a more resource-plentiful ecosystem, the EU’s smart village strategies often rely on what is referred to as “soft investments,” which include animation, advice, training, research, and technical studies alongside small-scale, tangible investments to principally develop access to broadband digital connectivity.
With 80% of its population living in rural areas, the country of Niger in West Africa has been seen as the perfect breeding ground for smart villages. Part of the Niger 2.0 Strategic plan involves the Smart Villages Project, which is regarded as an investment in information and communication technologies. The project affirms the futures of the nearly 60% of Niger’s population under 24 years old, leveraging young start-ups and digital technologies to create economic and social mobility.
The Smart Villages Project has been heralded as the gateway to rural development, creating feasible and responsible solutions to health, education, agriculture, and commerce issues. The use of digital services is paramount to its success, with 15,000 administrative villages expected to be digitally connected to one another in order to coordinate data programs and investments. The project is an example of a recent initiative in smart villages, which was funded by the World Bank in 2019. Its results are not expected to come in for at least another several years of growth.
Building the smart village
The primary challenge to developing smart villages is focusing the efforts of the parties involved in creating them. Because smart villages necessitate cross-sectoral development in unique communities, several different organizations, small to medium enterprises, and other donors that specialize in a certain field must be brought together to administer developments. That process involves inter-organizational management alongside coordination with local and regional governments, development banks, and other actors in the regulatory and financial sector.
The major hurdle of the process also happens to be the first step, and that is the typically high up-front investment in energy systems. To sustainably and effectively power developments in the smart village often requires a mini- or micro-grid to harness solar and hybrid systems of power. Individual investors and governments are unlikely to forward the capital needed to begin community-wide growth, especially when organizations work uncoordinatedly, thereby limiting results and returns on investments.
Turning the vision of the smart village into reality requires a careful balance of bottom-up and top-down input. Local communities are integral to voluntarily remaining in their villages and asserting their unique needs that must be addressed; meanwhile, organizations and governments must collaborate in a similarly unique manner to address individual communities on a case-by-case basis.
The ultimate goal of the smart village is to encourage communities to become sustainable agents of their own growth, and to do so requires residents to feel safe, hopeful, and respected. To that extent, an MPDI study accurately summarizes the challenges to creating smart villages. First, the short-term and mid-term emergencies of life and death situations or safety risks may push residents to emigrate to cities, which require immediate action to remedy. In the long-term, the most important questions to the smart city involve governability, accountability, and the preservation of cultural heritage.
This is a relevant concern to end with, because it highlights one of the greatest motivators for the creation of more smart villages. The possibility of mass human migrations to cities is bound to overwhelm urban accommodations and services without improving livelihoods much. Migrations of this sort will be for survival, leaving the legacy of ancestral homelands, communities of individuals and families, and regional cultures destined to die or fade away under such circumstances.
In defense of a global diversity of rich cultures, strong bonds, and empowering each other in compassion and hope, smart villages seem to be the solution to the plight of billions soon to be forced away from their homes.