Smart countryside during the Covid-19 pandemic

A field report from weeks in my home village

The Covid-19 pandemic is shaking up the cities and the countryside, but at the same time it is opening up new perspectives. In the first five weeks of the lockdown in Germany I was fortunate to be able to spend the time in the countryside with my two small children (three and six years of age). We stayed in my home village in Germany in my parents‘ old house, which has now become our family weekend house. My wife, with her essential services job, had to hold the fort alone in Bremen, our actual residence, during the week. Fresh country air for an extended period of time in multitasking mode with children and home office management also provided me with sharper insights into what the countryside has to offer and what is possible. During these weeks we experienced many dynamics, which gave us private, general and special insights into the countryside during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now back in Bremen, a fairly large city in the north of Germany where we normally live, I find myself back in a relatively normal everyday environment (with emergency kindergarten care and babysitting facilities, and exchange of working hours with one’s partner during the day). Now there is again a bit of time for reflection: what learning experiences did we have in the last five weeks? What happens to the „smart country“ life in times of crisis? What potentials was I able to observe for dynamic development processes? What additional potentials have become more apparent? What have I learned from life between the city and the countryside? In this blog post I distinguish between

  • The discovery of smart experiments which I found amazing to observe, and
  • Observations about additional future potentials

 I. The discovery of smart experiments in the countryside

Appreciation vs. living and living space

How lucky you are! Imagine if you would now have to live in your city apartment with a small balcony„, was a frequent comment by both village- and city-dwelling friends. Yes, they are right. Both city dwellers and country people are rediscovering the well-known advantages of life in the countryside. In recent weeks I have even heard city-dwelling friends express a longing for space, nature and freedom in these times. Regard for the countryside is now being rediscovered. And rightly so. In many cities, the size of the living space depends on income, but in the countryside rent and houses are cheaper and fresh air is available to everyone. The nearest field and the nearest forest are not far away. The free space for everyone also reduces the perception of social differences.

Short-time work vs. continuity

In our rural areas, more people are still self-employed or are employees in local service sectors (restaurants, retail, medical services, etc.), crafts or industrial professions. Through circles of friends and acquaintances the gap is widening. On the one hand there are those who are particularly affected by the crisis. They are stuck in short-time work or fear job loss. Others, on the other hand, are hardly affected economically because orders are sufficiently stacked up or customers and employers are mainly in the public sector.

Digitization and learning loops

Topics of conversation demonstrate what is currently of concern to people. Freelancers like myself, who are used to working in a mobile mode with their computers, are now the experienced „digital home workers“. This is different for example for the local head of the municipal fire brigade who has just started with a „home office“, or for the village teacher who for the first time has had to do „home schooling“. For both of them it opens up a new world, with all its advantages and disadvantages, and technical and personal challenges. I have never before talked to acquaintances in my village about different software formats for the best digital communication, about the unusual life in online mode at home, the challenge of self-discipline and finding a new work structure. „Online conferencing“ is now on everyone’s lips in the village. Most of the inhabitants have at least looked once into one of these conferences or video calls. Who would have thought it possible two months ago? Even the mayor has been entering people’s houses regularly via self-made video which is accessible to everyone through social media channels. His voice and information now reach more citizens than any of his speeches did before.

Coworking model in the countryside

Solidarity

Younger people shop for the elderly, often not only for their own parents but also for their neighbours, relatives and friends. This is labour and time intensive, which is not immediately apparent. In the countryside people like to gossip about each other, anonymity is rare. But when it comes down to it, you can rely on more helping hands. In some places, initiatives for the care of the elderly on a larger scale have emerged, new online delivery services have been organized quickly and unbureaucratically, and the organization of purchases, pick-up and delivery services have been realized through self-organized initiatives. This also eases the burden on direct family and neighborhood assistance. It shows an attitude of implementing what is possible with the resources that are available.

Appreciation for the countryside

Creative approaches

What becomes clear in these times is the demand for and shortage of home office space. There is hardly any publicly accessible space to work peacefully outside the home. On weekends, when my wife came to visit, I was able to work in my cousin’s hotel apartment, which was not occupied due to the ban on tourism. He is the owner of a reputable restaurant in my home region (Münsterland). He and his colleagues in the industry are currently hardest hit by the crisis. And yet he was the first in the hospitality sector in my village who looked for new opportunities. Together with his wife and children he started to offer a weekly menu “to eat at home“. This was something completely new for him and the village. There had never been such a service before. At the same time, it illustrates the creativity and courage to experiment in these difficult times. Local entrepreneurs from other industries are discovering other possibilities, such as setting up a simple but effective web shop to sell products directly. Another entrepreneur started with online consulting for her customers, and yet another entrepreneur and acquaintance shared with me his experiences of the advantages and disadvantages he was experiencing with his employees working from home: „We don’t distract ourselves so much anymore. I never thought that this could really work.“

I also met a family doctor who lives in the village but has his office in another larger city. He was experiencing less patient traffic, especially of older patients due to their increasing fear of infection. This led to an increase in telephone consultations and video calls. These are the first steps in telemedicine which is a wonderful opportunity for him to get close to his patients. However, the devil is in the detail. Due to the rigid health assure rules , it is difficult for the family doctor to bill his patients for an online service, and thus he only gets partly paid for working in this way.

This is true: The above-mentioned new services were born out of the pressure of business survival. But it also becomes clear that the services would not have been implemented (so quickly) without Covid-19. Without wishing to sound ironic, I feel a spirit of experimentation and a new energy in the village, which I have not experienced so noticeably before.

II. Observations about additional future potentials

Something else became clear to me during the past weeks in the countryside: in contrast to my company partners (in Vietnam, South Africa, Argentina and Great Britain) and our clients in other countries, we have been well off in Germany in general and in the countryside in particular. My partners and clients are experiencing far stricter lockdown rules. We wouldn’t have wanted to be in the city either in this first phase of the German lockdown. However, all the fresh country air hasn’t taken away my view of reality either. I also saw that many companies, and active and supportive people and organizations, are feeling quite lonely nowadays, despite the solidarity, financial support and sympathy. They are searching for new solutions to better cope with the crisis. The individual creative examples outlined above illustrate the creative dynamics and potential in the countryside. It is necessary to create more space for the organic emergence of creative initiatives that also ease individual efforts. Such spaces nurture many experiments that link social, ecological and economic perspectives. It creates context-specific, innovative solutions. “How can we create these experimental spaces in locations, either in cities or villages?” is a question that we at Mesopartner are continuously trying to answer in practice.

New initiatives 

To create these spaces it is not enough to have active inhabitants in the countryside. It is also true that small plants cannot be transplanted from the outside. Local enthusiasm, motivation and the willingness to realize ideas is the starting point. Both are present in many towns and villages. The Covid-19 crisis makes this even more apparent. What also becomes apparent is that making use of further potentials cannot be done by local volunteers alone. If the latter could get a stronger tailwind, more would be possible. This is where the municipalities and support organizations in rural areas, economic development agencies, politicians, entrepreneurs, environmental and even agricultural associations are asked to come in. They need to make space with the local inhabitants for the experimental space. They can play a strong supporting role.

During my time in the countryside some ideas of what could be possible came to mind:

The home office boom opens up opportunities for coworking even in small villages

Many people in the countryside as well as in the cities got to know the „home office“ virtually from one day to the next. They are experiencing just how difficult it can be to concentrate when working from home. A demand for a quiet working space has arisen. It makes coworking spaces possible, not only in larger cities, but also in smaller places. During the days that I spent in the countryside, some friends and I revived the idea of creating snug digital “working islands” in the village. The rooms of the old savings bank (which today only houses two lonely ATMs) could be used, and vacant holiday apartments and hotel rooms could be rented temporarily. These are small initiatives that could have a huge impact. The conversion of the old farmhouse in the village centre as a larger project could also be possible in the longer term.

Financial aspects often seem to be the least of the problems. The challenge is rather to bring together existing human resources and the right motivated people. The people to take on board as key players, apart from a group of motivated individuals, could be the following:

  • Entrepreneurs and private individuals interested in investing in real estate: they can also be found in the countryside. The same applies to savings banks and local cooperative banks. Identifying local investment opportunities which, in addition to the financial income-generation incentive, are also interested in contributing to the longer-term common good (such as a coworking space) that creates win-win advantages.
  • Business promoters, development agencies, NGOs and municipal and district representatives can contribute to creating experimental spaces by sharing information about new development initiatives in other places, and by establishing links with other coworking spaces or other initiatives from towns and villages.
  • Network facilitators to moxerate the search processes would also be an important input. They would support the locations through bringing people together and get paid for their work. For reasons of both, time and lack of experience in networking, volunteers cannot do this alone, at least not if the countryside should make a major leap forward.

Support for self-help networks

The Wuppertal Institute, one of the most renowned research institutes for sustainable development in Germany, has adopted the term „Economic Development 4.0″. This term puts less emphasis on digital solutions than on new cooperative and sustainable initiative models. Examples are support of local production cycles, social and sustainable community initiatives and business models such as village shops, repair cafés or local supply and purchasing services. Shared economy approaches, for example bicycles, cars and flexible forms of living, are also placed at the centre of local development models. Many local development agency actors and politicians have been observing these new socioeconomic activities with interest, but do not yet see the promotion of such approaches as their role. The Covid-19 crisis is offering the opportunity to change this attitude now.

Opening up opportunities for more flexible medical care approaches

Economic Development 4.0, Source: Wuppertal-Institute

Telemedicine will play an important role in the future in less populated areas. Medical treatment can never be implemented solely by digital methods. Humans need the trust of, and contact with, a doctor. At the same time, telemedicine as an add-on service offers a range of advantages, such as eliminating long transport of patients and making use of digital data acquisition. Especially in smaller towns and villages there is great potential for greater use of telemedicine if the bureaucratic hurdles in the employment and billing of such services through changes in legislation can be overcome. Initiatives such as Dorfgemeinschaft 2.0 are expanding telemedicine in the countryside. 

Supporting experiments to try out new ways of doing business

In the current crisis, smaller entrepreneurs who are affected not only need financial resources, but also support in developing, for example, future scenarios and ideas for new business models. Small experiments that do not jeopardize everyday business but allow the testing of low-risk options should be developed with entrepreneurs. Here new cooperation formats with local and regional development organizations and experts can also open up new opportunities.

Communication, education and participation in rural areas beyond home schooling

The educational gap between town and country still exists. It is impressive how a whole system of home schooling was set up in such a short time locally and nationally. It shows that learning is not restricted to the location. Every village has the chance to become a digital knowledge hub or to create local learning academies that are connected to the outside world. There is an increasing demand for online offers, for example, the professionalization of voluntary work, further vocational training independent of location, or online consulting for companies. Communication using digital media is experiencing a boom in both private and professional contexts. The digital video messages from our mayor, together with the increased online experience of most citizens, offer new possibilities for citizen participation and communication in all aspects in the future. Direct online conversation between citizens and politics is feasible.

Networking beyond the end of one´s own nose

There is usually something very enlightening about looking beyond the end of one’s own nose, whether voluntarily or compulsorily. The many experiments and creative approaches that are made and implemented locally, nationally and internationally in these times offer many learning possibilities. Whether these are social, environmental or economic initiatives, there is now the chance to seek exchange, to learn from the city and the countryside, to make successful initiatives known, to make them accessible and to discuss them in smaller towns, and to initiate and moderate the implementation of ideas.

I mentioned it earlier in this blog and would like to emphasise it again: for the creation of local experimental spaces, even beyond the current lockdown, we must have not only engaged local inhabitants and local associations, but coalitions are required with local and regional agencies, business associations, NGOs, political representatives and the creative class. The Covid-19 crisis could help to strengthen these coalitions.

 

 

 

 

For us the opportunity to live in the countryside during this time was a blessing. At the same time it was itself an experiment, not least because for the first time dad and children were alone without mum for long periods of time. I am writing this blog post from a coworking space in Bremen while enjoying the advantages of the city again. But many of the advantages that exist here in the city can also be implemented in the countryside. And the advantages of the countryside are more apparent now than before we were afflicted by Covid-19.

frank waeltring  

This article in German and our overall conceptual approach to smartes.land you can find on this page.

 

 

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