I digged into the Estonian countryside during a two week stay in MAAJAAM, an artist residence in Neeruti Küla, a dispersed village near Otepää. In this text I reflect on what a desired future could be for the countryside, starting from the case of Neeruti Küla in Estonia. I widen the reflection towards networks of villages in rural regions, in Estonia and elsewhere. By setting up a smart village office, ‘Nutiküla Stuudio’, with a highlight during the Open Farm Days of July 20th and 21st 2019, I exchanged ideas with different visitors about do’s and don’ts and inspiring success stories of initiatives in rural Estonia. The Nutiküla Stuudio was an experiment whether a co-creative methodology could work in the Estonian countryside, taking into account the theme and the inhabitants.
The Estonian countryside – like many other rural regions in the world – is rapidly changing. Due to global evolutions and migration towards cities as Tallinn and Tartu, farms are abandoned and the dispersed villages gradually become the domain of IT specialists, artists, pony farms and former city dwellers while the farm lands fall prey to big landowners.
Characteristics of a smart village
Unlike what most people seem to think, digital connection is one but not the most important characteristic of a smart village. At best it means a combination of both digital and physical connections of people– neighbors and others – on the one hand, and spaces– the local setting and the world around it – on the other hand. This in order to shape a community of people you can rely on in good and in bad times and make life in rural areas resilient throughout the seasons. Participants in the studio – ranging from local farmers and entrepreneurs over young urbanites to regional officials – all acknowledged that.
Amongst other characteristics of a smart village figure qualities ranging from contacts with neighbors, easily accomplished by regularly shared resources as farm products, labor, knowledge and skills, to clean energy and biodiversity. Additionally there should be ample attention for balances. A smart village should be a living place, able to accommodate freedom and an informal atmosphere, and not a museum or a theme park (unless we would really decide that that is the goal). Nor should the emphasis lie on digital communication alone. It should be inclusive for all ages, and children should be part of it.
How to realize a smart village?
Although the first reflections of most participants in Nutiküla Stuudio pointed towards the individual personality of most Estonians, there are some interesting practices which can form a starting point to realize a smart village as defined before. The Estonian tradition of ‘talgud’is certainly one of them. The tradition – in which people are invited to work together on a job that is too big for the host in exchange for food, accommodation and celebration – is still vivid. During the aforementioned Open Farm Days MAAJAAM organized the event following the same principle. Regional nature parks – e.g. the Otepää looduspark in which MAAJAAM is situated – might have a management structure in which farmers work together. Where at first sight for most people it seems to be a bridge too far to share machines and soils for agricultural practices, machineries are actually shared in ecological forestry. During events like Open Farm Days people can get to know each other and share skills, knowledge, opportunities and experiences. The event also forms an opportunity to make people aware of successful initiatives. The communication about success stories could still be exploited further, e.g. with more emphasis on the creation process of the initiatives. But more is needed…
How to realize an intrinsically smart network of smart villages?
It is clear that one isolated smart village only has a limited impact. If not monitored, a multitude of individual decisions potentially has undesired effects on the landscape and the resilience of the region. Therefor a regional vision for the landscape and a network of smart villages should be developed, preferably in cocreation with (representatives of) all possible stakeholders, taking into account a coordination structure and mechanisms which can sustain, evaluate and adjust the network of smart villages in the future if necessary.
The methodology which AR-TUR, the Belgian centre for architecture, urbanity and landscape, uses in its ‘Kempenlab’ (Campine Lab) might be a useful source of inspiration for the development of an intrinsically smart network of smart villages, in Estonia and elsewhere. In Kempenlab AR-TUR brings together all possible stakeholders in a free cultural space. This cocreation process makes use of cultural activities, ranging from inspirational excursions, workshops, lectures, research by design, publications and exhibitions, performances and movies on location, public debates, and so on. Starting from a specific challenge on a particular place in the region AR-TUR thus gathers existing knowledge and forms innovative insights, meant to be inspiring for complex spatial challenges and other cases in order to improve the quality of the built environment.
The Nutiküla Stuudio already showed that Estonian people are aware of the challenges of the countryside and are willing to share their thoughts. That is definitely a promising start for further change trajectories.
Special thanks to Timo Toots and his generous MAAJAAM residence.