Developing Sustainable Solutions for the Future of Rural Villages
Living in rural villages in Germany often brings challenges to everyday life. Where the village post office, the corner jack-of-all-trades convenience store and the local bank once stood, now the only things that remain are vacant buildings. Local pubs and restaurants, once central meeting points of a village, are slowly disappearing and public transportations options are few and far between. For residents, that means errands which were once easy to do on foot now require a car and much more time, and the lack of central meeting points means less and less interaction with neighbours. In many cases, the only thing keeping a village community alive is a local club or society.
An interdisciplinary team of researchers at Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences has a plan to meet these social challenges head-on by developing future-oriented, sustainable solutions. At the heart of their effort is the project Smart Villages, which is partly financed by a research grant from the Ministry for Innovation, Science and Research of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia to the tune of €240,000.
For their "test subject", researchers chose the local Lower Rhine village of Grieth. On warm, summer days, when nearby cities and boardwalks on the banks of the Rhine are bursting with people, Grieth's narrow streets and commercially-struggling market square are only visited by a handful of people. The last remaining pub in the village closed its doors months ago, leaving behind a hotel and a single restaurant which mainly caters to tourists out on a day-trip. Residents don't have anywhere in the village to buy groceries or supplies, either. In short, Grieth is a model that represents the many villages in Germany struggling with the same structural and social problems. By developing tangible solutions for Grieth, researchers are aiming to develop general solutions that can be extrapolated to any number of other villages across the country.
Project Objectives and Goals
In Smart Villages, the focus is on people: Together with residents and officials of the village, researchers brainstorm and develop new ideas and concepts for reviving village life. To provide residents with a point of contact and new research activities with a good jumping-off point, the team has established a project office in the village for a time. Additionally, the team has set up a Wiki page for residents, discussion forums, online questionnaires, a newsletter, an online mailing list as well as established a social media presence for the project, all with the goal of encouraging the exchange of ideas with residents via many different mediums.
Together, researchers and residents think outside the box to come up with new concepts and solutions. For example, how might Grieth benefit from an all-in-one store, which contains a small post office, a bank, a meeting point for ride sharing, a health and advice point and an internet café with on-hand user assistance? This kind of solution would create a new meeting place for residents, who could interact with each other in new, interesting ways, forge new contacts and exchange ideas and information. This is just one possibility along an entire spectrum of ideas and concepts being developed together with residents, and subsequently analysed and evaluated on their merits by the expert team of researchers.
Researchers are also keen to improve the public transportation situation plaguing many villages in Germany. In a vicious circle of sorts, buses come through Grieth so sporadically that residents have grown accustomed to relying on other means of transportation, which sends the signal to transportation authorities that buses aren't needed and and service can be cut back further, when exactly the opposite is the case. Project reseachers want to put an end to the endless waiting on buses and encourage residents to reconsider public transportation. One solution would be a new 'regiotaxi' service to fill the gaps. Another solution might be developing new concepts for car and ride sharing based on new assumptions and unconventional approaches.
The project won't stop there, though. In a later phase, researchers are planning on investigating other important topics and areas with large amounts of potential, such as energy, tourism and e-mobility, flatsharing for seniors, student accommodation and improving internet infrastructure.