Smart Villages and Smart Cities: An Avenue for Reconstruction?
Funding the reconstruction of towns and villages will have to go well beyond replacing the stones and tiles, bricks and mortar of the physical structures. To ensure that people return to their long-lost homes, there will need to be economic opportunity.
The curious term ‘Smart Village’ surfaced very conspicuously in the Caspian regional press back in January 2021. The term was used back then by Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, suggesting that such a concept would likely underpin any successful reconstruction in vast swathes of land that Azerbaijan regained following the 2020 Second Karabakh War. A large percentage of these de-occupied regions had been left in ruins - essentially de-populated buffer zones - during nearly three decades under Armenian control. Even before that, much of the region had had a modest rural economy based on low-profit agriculture. Funding the reconstruction of towns and villages will have to go well beyond replacing the stones and tiles, bricks and mortar of the physical structures. To ensure that people return to their long-lost homes, there will need to be economic opportunity. The idea of ‘smart settlements’ is part of such a holistic approach to make such reconstruction viable.
Is “Smart Village” just a politically savvy buzzword? Not so, it would seem, if a recent report by the World Bank is anything to go on. That report, initiated both before Covid-19 and well ahead of the 44-day war, was originally conceived as sketching a general pathway for improving life outside the main metropolises of Azerbaijan. Now it is all the more relevant as plans for wholesale reconstruction become urgent.
The 2021 report takes an in-depth look at the whole structure of Azerbaijan’s rural economy, pointing out that – before 2020 – rural to urban migration had been significant in 50 of Azerbaijan’s 56 regions, albeit somewhat counterbalanced by higher rural birth rates. Covid-19 effects were expected to cause a further 2.8% of the population to fall back into poverty, “reflecting the vulnerability of many households who are ‘one shock away’ from becoming poor.” The report sees ‘Smart Villages’ as a way of enabling communities to bounce back through private-government partnerships, a way of working on bottom-up/participatory approaches to local economic development “with better connectivity and improved services.” At first glance, that looks like managerial verbiage. So what does it mean in practice?
What is a Smart Village, Anyway?
The term Smart Village isn’t new: indeed it has been used in the context of the EU for several years, notably featuring in a prominent 2018 report on revitalizing rural communities. The European Network for Rural Development has an online portal for Smart Villages, allowing a forum to report and share rural development success stories. Their rather involved working definition of a Smart Village is elaborated here. In summary, it points to innovative solutions and the mobilization of digital technologies to build on a location’s existing or potential strengths. These might include quality of lifestyle, short food chains, tourism attractiveness and the accessibility of renewable energy. Another important element identified is to ensure that Smart Villages exist in coordinated clusters rather than in isolation, allowing symbiotic growth. For de-occupied regions whose settlements are currently in a state of almost total ruin, the difficulties of rebuilding are thus balanced by the unrivalled opportunity to create an infrastructure built from scratch according to a blueprint that will enable such ideas.
For de-occupied regions whose settlements are currently in a state of almost total ruin, the difficulties of rebuilding are thus balanced by the unrivalled opportunity to create an infrastructure built from scratch according to a blueprint that will enable such ideas.
President Aliyev also noted that the recovered regions enjoy plentiful water resources and has pointed out solar and wind energy production opportunities while calling on international investors to help the country with agricultural innovation. The president didn’t offer specifics but was clear that the country needed to catch up and keep up with high-tech developments in agricultural technology or risk falling behind in a competitive world. This comes when farming cooperatives are being once again encouraged after the post-Soviet backlash in which large state farms were broken up and privatized - with very mixed results. Cooperation between clustered settlements will be crucial if ‘smart’ agricultural ideas such as ‘irrigation debit card’ systems and smart-sensing technologies are to take off.
Bridging the Digital Drive
Undoubtedly a key feature of making rural economies viable in the 21st-century marketplace will be overcoming the “digital divide.” The computer/tech-savvy younger generation is seen to be a phenomenon specific to urban societies, but that need not be the case. Azerbaijan has made great inroads in its attempts to create a simplified e-bureaucracy through the ASAN network. It is frequently observed that Azerbaijan enjoys an unusually high level of digital connectivity through very wide-ranging 4G mobile networks. And that means that the skeleton of a digital infrastructure is already well established in rural settings, awaiting harnessing.
Already in 2017, reports suggested that 99.1% of all households had access to at least one mobile phone. Not unpredictably, bandwidth and connection quality remains lower in village settings than in urban centres. Internet commerce remains limited, but a major part of the basis for Smart Villages is that, given new infrastructure, and access to capital through innovative finance (crowd-funding, social bonds, micro-credit), local players will develop locally suitable economic ventures for themselves. This could swing the balance, encouraging a new attitude of the tech generation to consider looking at a rural lifestyle as a viable, high-status alternative to city stress.
These ideas chime in well with the report Azerbaijan 2030: National Priorities for Socio-Economic Development, a general plan for diversifying the economy beyond oil dependence and seeking what the report calls a “dynamic, inclusive and socially just society” with “competitive human capital,” “modern innovations” and “green growth.” They also come in parallel with the 2016 Strategic Roadmap for Development of Telecommunications and Information Technologies, which aims to liberalize telecoms, to better enable digital payments, and, amongst many other goals, create an “end-to-end integrated e-health infrastructure” benefiting rural communities as well as cities.
There are further high hopes for the success of such a policy coming to fruition since it is under the stewardship of the newly appointed minister of communications & transport, Rashad Nabiyev (Rəşad Nəbiyev). A US-educated technocrat, he has previously led AzerCosmos, Azerbaijan’s hi-tech space and satellite venture.