Explorations in the Estonian Countryside: How to Make Villages Smart?

During a two-week stay in MAAJAAM, an artist residency in Neeruti village near Otepää, Belgian architect Edith Wouters reflected on what a desired future for villages in the countryside could be. She set up a smart village office ‘Nutiküla Stuudio’ in the hamlet Ojaveere in Neeruti village, during the Open Farm Days on July 20th and 21st 2019, in which Estonian villagers, citizens and experts participated.

The Estonian countryside is changing rapidly. Due to migration towards the cities and upscaling of agriculture, numerous farms have been abandoned and the dispersed villages are gradually shrinking. In the best case, former inhabitants are replaced by urban citizens looking for peace and inspiration in the countryside. But what does it mean for the resilience of the villages, for the social networks and living environments in the countryside?

Let’s have a closer look at a typical hamlet like Ojaveere in Neeruti village, consisting of five traditional farms. The impact of the aforementioned larger influences like the move towards the cities, the shrinking of villages and the nostalgia for the countryside is also visible in this small section of the countryside. Other farms in the neighbourhood are inhabited as weekend retreats, which usually shows by the way people treat their land. It often looks a bit too clean with planted flower borders amongst others. In Ojaveere, one of the farmhouses was abandoned years ago. What remains are its ruins. Its land is cultivated by a large landowner. Some ten years ago, an older couple bought another farm in the same hamlet with the accompanying farmland. They gave it a new life, turning it into a pony farm. When a third adjacent farm was sold, they bought its land, including the farmhouse. This is where their son founded a cultural project space, supported with subsidies of the European LEADER-program1. The fourth farm is still in use. Recently the heirs of the fifth farm put it on the market. The large landowner showed his interest in the land but not in the farmhouse, meaning the farm will probably fall prey to the elements in case he becomes the owner while the community of the hamlet will become less resilient. What would be smart to do for this kind of village?

Summarizing map of Nutiküla Studio

How do we define an essentially “smart” village2? The word cloud of characteristics of a smart village I gathered from participants in Nutiküla Stuudio includes concepts ranging from the need for community building activities, inclusiveness for all ages and cooperation between people and organizations over biodiversity and clean energy to shared assets and skills. All this can be encouraged by a platform for information, communication and transactions. It is clear that digital connection is one but not the most important characteristic of a really smart village. The real challenge is not about collecting digital data or realizing another platform or application, it is all about people, how you shape a strong community of people and how their living environment and essentially their quality of life can be improved. At best, a smart village combines both digital and physical connections of people – neighbours and others – on the one hand, and spaces – the local setting and the world around it – on the other hand. This is 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. 

So, could it be a scenario for the village that the remaining inhabitants take matters in their own hands and try to strengthen their community and improve their living conditions by attracting related souls who might be interested in buying the farmhouse? No doubt this is easier said than done and it asks for negotiation skills of the residents and good will of the owners of the land which will be sold. 

While the dynamics might be a bit different, the Dutch concept of the “connected compounds” (knooperven3) is an inspiring example to deal with the challenges. While every year some 4% of farmers stop their farming activities, the Dutch countryside is gradually transforming from an agricultural area to a landscape of citizens. Farm compounds are connected with paths and planting, thus organizing the landscape with its tentacles of routes and plants. Meanwhile the – often new urban – inhabitants of the hamlets are encouraged to take responsibility for the maintenance and management of the characteristic planting which connects the compounds. While it improves the quality of the environment for the inhabitants and the accessibility of the rural area, the historical values of nature and heritage are ensured. The practice thus tries to couple agricultural development in a small-scale landscape development with a high-quality community life in hamlets, turning challenges into opportunities.

Photo: Timo Toots

The drawings we made in Nutiküla Stuudio show the possibilities of how the different houses of the hamlet can be spatially and socially connected, which functions can be imagined or negotiated and how the hamlet can be connected spatially with its surroundings. It shows the essential need for physical connections prior to envisioning a digital platform. To give an example, it is so much more logical to ask a neighbour to share his or her vehicle than to use a car sharing system for a car which is miles away from your home. A resilient village means that there are people you can rely upon, people you might share machines or vegetables from your garden with, people who can help you with a difficult task or children to play with. It is interesting to notice that an intervention of former residents in the project space MAAJAAM already made the natural lake accessible with a path and a raft. The shelter at the bus stop with its five letter boxes and a bench form a mobihub where one can not only wait for the bus or a ride but also pick up post and packages and find announcements or questions of the neighbours. These two examples show the opportunities which spatial interventions and preliminary design can offer for a digital reinforcement of a smart village.

Some interesting traditional Estonian practices could form a fertile base to realize a smart village. The Estonian tradition of “talgud” – 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 certainly one of them. Regional nature parks (like the Otepää looduspark in which MAAJAAM is situated) often 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 share skills, knowledge, opportunities and experiences while also making people aware of successful initiatives. But more is needed…

Photo: Timo Toots

On the digital side recent evolutions go towards decentralized and autonomous platforms where people control their own digital data. People can connect their own digital avatar with different digital platforms like the hamlet, a car sharing platform, public transport or local market platform. Within these platforms people are able to transact, communicate and share information in new ways.

It is clear that one isolated smart village only has limited impact, while a multitude of individual decisions potentially have undesired effects on the landscape, the quality of the built environment and the resilience of the region. Therefore, a regional vision for the landscape and a network of smart villages should be developed, preferably in co-creation with stakeholders, and with a coordination structure and mechanisms which can sustain, evaluate and adjust the network of smart villages in the future.

Photo: Edith Wouters

In Nutiküla Stuudio I tested whether the co-creative methods we use with AR-TUR, the Belgian centre for architecture, urbanity and landscape, could be transferred to the context of the Estonian countryside. In its spatial laboratory for the Campine region (Kempenlab), AR-TUR tries to imagine better future scenarios for the region, based on expert meetings, cultural activities and research on specific locations. Recently we have tried to broaden our approach by searching for mechanisms and strategies which can stimulate built environments of higher quality as well as stronger communities who can manage and maintain those qualities. As positive experiences and existing initiatives encourage people, we always try to make references to those examples. 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 in order to improve the quality of the built environment.

The enthusiastic participants in Nutiküla Stuudio proved that Estonian people are aware of the challenges of the countryside and are willing to share their thoughts. That is definitely a promising start, a process already towards the right direction. So, the missing link might be a platform to gather these existing inspiring initiatives, to bring different stakeholders together, and to imagine future scenarios towards realizing smart villages connected in a smart village network.

Many thanks to Timo Toots for his generous hospitality in the MAAJAAM residency program.

EDITH WOUTERS runs the cultural architecture practice CAPasitee, and is artistic director of AR-TUR, the centre of architecture, urbanity and landscape in the Campine region, a rural region in the north of Belgium. In the Campine lab, AR-TUR is in search of new insights into spatial challenges in the region, bringing people together in a free cultural space. www.capasitee.com / www.ar-tur.be

Photo above: Timo Toots

Article is published in Maja’s 2020 winter edition Rural Insights (99)

1 https://linc2019.eu/leader-eestis/

2 The working definition of the European network for Rural Development is as follows: “Smart Villages are communities in rural areas that use innovative solutions to improve their resilience, building on local strengths and opportunities. They rely on a participatory approach to develop and implement their strategy to improve their economic, social and/or environmental conditions, in particular by mobilizing solutions offered by digital technologies. Smart Villages benefit from cooperation and alliances with other communities and actors in rural and urban areas. The initiation and the implementation of Smart Village strategies may build on existing initiatives and can be funded by a variety of public and private sources.”

 3 More information about ‘knooperven’ at https://edepot.wur.nl/117414