Stakeholders call for the establishment of accelerators and incubators in partnership with universities, to forge rural innovation networks across Europe and reduce the EU’s innovation divide
The European Commission has given political backing to a grassroots manifesto for a Rural European Innovation Area, as it prepares for the launch of a long-term strategy for the countryside in June.
“We need to empower innovation stakeholders in rural areas, so that local players can unlock the innovation and connectedness potential,” Mariya Gabriel, EU research commissioner told the launch of the manifesto. “I'm happy to endorse the new platform,” she said.
The manifesto calls on entrepreneurs, investors, advisors and other public and private stakeholders in Europe to put rural innovation on the EU policy agenda. The Rural European Innovation Area brings together 70 partners from 17 countries and is being coordinated by the University of Salamanca. They call for the establishment of accelerators and incubators in partnership with universities to forge rural innovation networks across Europe.
Cristian Bușoi, the chair of the European Parliament’s industry committee ITRE, said he will be “a partner and will help in any area that this initiative will need political support.”
Gabriel said innovation and technology played a critical role in restarting the European economy after the 2008 financial crisis. But in the process, the innovation gap between rural and urban areas increased further. “As we turn the page on the coronavirus pandemic, we need to ensure that rural areas are also well addressed in our health, climate, and socio-economic actions, or we face the risk of further increasing the innovation divide,” she said.
The Commission is preparing a strategy on the long term vision for rural areas, which is scheduled for launch in June. This will outline what policies and investments are needed by 2040. “It’s important to understand that rural areas have the same potential as urban areas,” said Normunds Popens, deputy director general at the Commission’s directorate for regional and urban policy.
According to Gabriel, the rural innovation manifesto will be “a key contribution for the new long term strategy for rural areas that will be announced this June.”
Rural areas account for 83% of the total land area of the European Union. But over 50% of rural settlements are remote and many are at risk of being abandoned because of ageing populations and an increasing lack of economic opportunity. The Commission expects rural areas will lose 16% of their population over the next two decades.
However, a recent study by the Commission's Joint Research Centre shows that rural areas can become innovation hubs, since they offer more attractive conditions, such as lower living costs, closer proximity to nature, less pollution, more space and a better quality of life.
To provide more opportunities for innovation in rural areas, the Commission will look into ways of using the new education and skills exchange programme Erasmus Plus to help young people in rural regions.
The Commission has already launched a joint action plan with the Committee of the Regions aimed at reducing the innovation divide between regions in Europe by coupling the EU research framework programme Horizon Europe with Erasmus Plus and the European bioeconomy strategy. “We need here to see how we can unlock the potential and to see how we can generate innovation and growth in rural and coastal areas,” said Gabriel.
Innovation in the new agriculture policy
In 2012, the Commission launched the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) for agriculture productivity and sustainability, a network of over 7,000 members which has implemented so far over 2,000 local innovation projects, including 315 research and innovation projects funded through Horizon 2002.
According to Roberto Berutti, a member in the cabinet of EU agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will focus even more on knowledge and innovation. Member states are being invited to come up with national CAP strategic plans by 2023 that include a plan for integrating knowledge and innovation in agriculture and rural areas.
The new CAP has a budget of €336 billion for the next seven years and aims to modernise farming and rural areas by promoting knowledge, innovation, and digitalisation in agriculture. “Support could be in the form of investment in the emerging sectors of precision farming by economy, low carbon sector, automation and artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and drones,” said Berutti.
However, rural areas should also look beyond agriculture and diversify their economies. “Agriculture is not the only answer to the development of rural areas,” said Popens.
José Enrique Garcilazo, director for regional and rural policy at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said the EU should invest more in the digitalisation of rural areas and increase the number of villages with access to high speed internet connections. According to OECD data, only 55% of rural areas in Europe have internet connections of 30 megabytes per second or faster. “When it comes to digital skills the gap is tremendous,” Garcilazo said.