In regards to the provision of services and maintenance of infrastructure, many rural and smaller urban areas are getting caught in a vicious cycle: as more working-age individuals leave an area, fewer resources become available for public administrations to provide services and maintain infrastructure (schools, sport and care facilities, etc.). As a consequence, these areas become less attractive for newcomers and to start new businesses. On 24 January 2023, the project “Regional population diversity and social cohesion in the local context” invited eminent experts from science, policy and civil society to discuss place-based solutions and digital tools to provide services and maintain infrastructure in depopulating regions. In two thematic panels, the workshop participants from various European regions exchanged their views and experiences on how to improve the quality of life in shrinking regions and attract newcomers:
- Panel I: Place-based solutions: Boosting administrative collaboration at the local level
- Panel II: Digital tools: An instrument to improve the quality of life in shrinking regions?
Following, the outcomes of the transdisciplinary exchange are presented in more detail:
Can collaboration in the provision of services break the vicious cycle?
- Providing access to services and maintenance of the infrastructure is one of the greatest challenges of our time in securing viable and sustainable living conditions in depopulating and rural areas. In addition to geographical challenges causing territorial isolation and restricting human activities and mobility, the accessibility of services relies on multiple key factors like access to information on the existence of the service, its proximity and travel time to it, the opening hours or its costs, as well as cultural and social barriers, i.e. in the case of digital tools.
- Administrative collaboration as well as cooperation between local administrations and civil society can be a key to overcoming these challenges by working together and extending their capacities and reach. Municipalities in depopulating regions can counter the rising costs of services because of demographic changes, like for example increases in the need for care services and infrastructure supply through collaboration and cooperation. Regional cooperation can also be a way for local administrations in shrinking regions to expand public services beyond their municipal capacities and overcome the lack of financial and human resources.
- Indeed, as a recent study in Germany shows, municipalities might be more willing to cooperate in areas defined by high fixed costs and repetitive processes like IT and digitalisation, but also in sectors like fire departments, or maintenance yards, since storage areas for machines and materials require an extremely high level of personnel and equipment and could easily be shared by institutions. To keep the local life vivid and make the area more attractive, municipalities should also cooperate in the promotion of tourism, business development and culture. In all these spheres, trust between partners is a must, and it can also be achieved with small-scale collaborative initiatives before moving to large-scale cooperation.
- Municipalities and local administrations can be supported by EU and national funding targeted to promote collaborative work. The development and structural funds can be designed and offered in inter-regional and inter-municipal frameworks to foster collaboration of local administrations in maintaining or improving the infrastructure. This would help to avoid municipalities competing for the same funding, for instance, as it is currently the case for funds on digital and green transition or local development.
- To support local municipalities and communities, legal assistance and non-financial backing provided by regional and national entities are particularly important. Collaboration as well as national and EU funding programs might require complex regulations and constraining legislations, which can discourage municipalities with lesser resources and personnel for collaborative work. Funding programs might require more time spent on managing the projects rather than delivering results. The removal of legal hurdles, consulting services, templates for agreements and contracts can ease the workload of local administrations.
Digitalization of public services: How to avoid digital divides?
- Digitalisation offers advanced solutions for maintaining public services and improving their reach and access in depopulating and sparsely populated areas. Technological advancements in digital healthcare and social care can enhance the quality of life, for instance, in mountainous and sparsely populated regions with lesser chances of physical access to these services. Remote health and care services can replace some tasks done by health and care personnel in person which can help older citizens to continue to live in their homes longer and healthier.
- Digital tools can also promote new and better communication between local community members and administrations. Locally or regionally hosted exchange platforms and apps can help the residents to be better informed about public, private or communal services (meetings, events, new places, changing service hours, job or help offers, etc.) and bolster the feeling of local belonging and mutual support.
- Digitalization can achieve its promises if everyone is included: Remote and digital solutions can improve access to certain services and their reach if the necessary infrastructure is provided (for instance a reliable internet connection). Local citizens must be informed about the existence of digital services and how to use them in confidence: In addition to older generations, younger people should not be taken for granted: there are a substantial number of young individuals with poor digital skills or confidence that must be considered and supported by training on digital services.
- Technological advancements can help improving the overall attractiveness of depopulating regions by facilitating remote work, offering access to online education and training, improving life satisfaction and access to services. Implementing digital solutions at the local level often requires substantial changes in legal regulations as well as in the concrete responsibilities of public and private actors. Local administrations and communities can be key actors in providing digital solutions if adequate legal regulations are in place.
- Simply reproducing digital solutions in different places is not a good practice: The success of a digital tool in one place can be a model for other places but it needs to be adapted to local needs. Co-creation, participatory development and readiness of multiple actors at the local level are important steps to define and meet local/context-specific needs.
Public services and trust in the democratic system
- E-technologies can mitigate the lack of infrastructure and resources in depopulating and underserved regions, but it is equally important that citizens have access to local administration and the government in person. The visibility and reachability of state institutions can build legitimacy for the democratic system as a whole. Regardless of the numerous benefits of remote services, citizens need physical structures to meet and exchange in person and take collective decisions.
- Critical decisions about the existing infrastructure or changes in the provision of services involve the local community. Citizens should be informed about the present and future needs and challenges and have a say in the next steps: How should health and care services be structured? Do we need to relocate our education facilities? Citizen participation in projects related to infrastructure and the provision of services can reinforce social cohesion and the well-being of residents.
- When the protection of privacy, reliability and safety of data are concerned, municipalities, local administrations and state institutions are often perceived as more credible and trustworthy than market actors. The involvement of local and national administrative actors can improve trust among citizens on the digital solutions and help to define the responsibilities of all actors involved more clearly.
Speakers or Panel of Experts
Céline Dacy, Project Manager, ADRETS - Association pour le Développement en Réseau des Territoires et des Services
Javier Sancho Royo, Lead Project Manager, SARGA - Sociedad Aragonesa de Gestión Agroambiental S.L.U.
Johanna Jokinen, Senior Research Fellow, Nordregio
Jonathan Hopkins, Research Scientist in the Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences Department, The James Hutton Institute
Klaus Niederlander, Former Director, Active & Assisted Living (AAL) Programme
Lauren Mason, Policy and Advocacy Manager on Youth Participation & Digitalisation, European Youth Forum
Louise Skoog, Post Doctoral Researcher in Political Science, Umeå University
Mario Hesse, Research Fellow and Deputy Managing Director of the Competence Centre for Municipal Infrastructure Saxony, University of Leipzig
Matthias Berg, Project Manager / Digital Villages Platform, Fraunhofer IESE
Serafin Pazos-Vidal, Senior Expert on Rural and Territorial Development, AEIDL - European Association for Innovation in Local Development
 Kratzmann, Alexander (2020): Interkommunale Zusammenarbeit im Freistaat Sachsen – Eine Bestandsaufahme, KOMKIS Analyse, Nr. 15, Leipzig, DOI https://doi.org/10.36730/2020.4.komkisa.15