Contrasts between urban and rural areas also exist here in the editorial office. There is the village kid, who views any settlement with a population of more than 10,000 with deep suspicion, and then there is the city dweller, who considers any place with fewer than 50,000 residents to be a sleepy backwater. People famously argue over matters of taste, but there is one thing that is indisputable: When it comes to the Internet and smart technology, the city dwellers have the edge. For now.
Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute in the Rhineland city of Kaiserslautern are carrying out research to make rural areas fit for the technology of the future. This is partly designed to prevent migration to the cities, but it is also intended to benefit elderly people with restricted mobility in particular. The “Smart Rural Areas” are pilot projects that have been set up not only in the Rhineland, but also in Bavaria and – somewhat surprisingly – Berlin.
Around 90 percent of Germany is classed as rural – eastern Germany in particular is only very sparsely populated. The rural exodus has been continually increasing for a number of years. This means that young people in particular are moving into the cities for a number of different reasons. Key factors are jobs and education, not to mention poor or even a complete lack of infrastructure.
This is precisely where the Fraunhofer Institute’s “Smart Rural Areas” project comes into play. The main aim is to improve the infrastructure in the area of online and smart, software-based solutions. The underlying idea is to create attractive, rural regions that offer a genuine alternative to the smart city. A first step in the right direction involves expanding network coverage and fast Internet access, because it is simply not possible to work efficiently without these basic requirements, let alone live in the modern world that moves between Facebook and Amazon. However, it is a matter for the politicians as to how quickly the basis for a smart rural area – fast Internet access – can be created. Little has happened thus far, apart from trite statements of intent.
The researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute have nonetheless made a start, choosing Betzdorf and Eisenberg/ Göllheim in Rhineland Palatinate as test villages. The primary element of the pilot project is the “BestellBar” app, which is available to every resident. Regional retailers use this platform to offer their goods and services, while private users offer help in the garden or babysitting services. All of these “orders” (known in German as Bestellungen, hence the name of the app) are either placed in the form of an exchange transaction or purchased using “DigiTaler” (a play on words: Taler were silver coins used in Germany for almost 400 years). In turn, these Taler can be used to make another purchase on the “BestellBar” app. The two apps are complemented by other special apps such as “Tauschbörse”. These applications focus on subregions or use familiar and established systems such as car sharing models or online booking for doctor’s appointments.
Let’s take an easy example: Karl-Heinz Müller buys a birthday cake for his daughter from a bakery in the neighboring village. This village is 20 kilometers away and Karl-Heinz Müller doesn’t have a car, because he works in the local branch of a bank and doesn’t need one. So he places an order on the “BestellBar” app to get the cake delivered to his home. Adelheid Schmidt sees the request on the “LieferBar” app and is happy to help, because she drives past this bakery every day on her way to work. She accepts the order, picks up the cake on her way home and delivers it personally to the home of the birthday girl.
Both apps have been programmed by the Fraunhofer Institute and are the foundation blocks of the digital villages. That’s because every order placed on the “BestellBar” app initiates an order on the “LieferBar” app (this word is derived from the German word liefern, meaning “deliver”), which any app user can accept. This has two consequences: Firstly, Karl-Heinz Müller gets his cake delivered hassle-free and without any unnecessary environmental pollution that would have been created by a second vehicle on the road. Secondly (and this is the major benefit), the rural community grows closer together. The formula for the “Smart Rural Area” is a combination of digitalization – i.e. expanding networks and providing various apps – and civic engagement.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Every single person can play a part in helping their village to become smart, in ensuring that it doesn’t die out, and in creating a living and social model that is fit for the future in rural areas. Yet the launch and use of the apps to foster cooperation is by no means the end of it. After all, what do people associate with the countryside even more that the village inhabitants themselves? That’s right: the farmers, which is why another project is known as Smart Farming or Cyber Farming. Cows are tracked, their health data can be viewed, and the optimal time for milking them or bringing them into the stalls can be determined.
And who knows? If it proves successful, maybe our friends will come back from Berlin.