Digitalisation is a central theme within rural policy both at the European level and in several EU Member States. This is exemplified by the fact that digitalisation in rural areas was one of the four main themes addressed by the SHERPA Multi-Actor Platforms (MAPs) across the EU in the previous, third SHERPA cycle of 2022. This theme was selected by the Finnish MAP due to its high relevance for rural development and rural policy in Finland. In its MAP Position Paper, the Finnish MAP addresses digitalisation from various perspectives, including challenges and opportunities related to digital skills and capabilities, the utilisation of information, infrastructure, rural attractiveness, and how digitalisation can be a catalyst for reshaping the future of rural areas.
In this blog post, we present some of the main challenges and needs identified along with recommendations from the Finnish MAP on how to better tap into the potential of digitalisation for the benefit of rural areas.
Addressing key challenges and needs
Finland is among the global leaders regarding digitalisation but there are still several unresolved challenges from a rural development perspective. For example, there are noticeable territorial differences in broadband availability, both between and within regions, and these differences are significant also in a European comparison. Finland has the largest urban-rural differences in next generation access (NGA) broadband coverage and fixed very high capacity network (VHCN) coverage within the EU (DESI 2022). However, digital exclusion has a noticeable urban-rural divide in Finland. As a result, we lower shares of internet use in rural municipalities than in cities.
Building broadband infrastructure in areas without viable market conditions is a major challenge in Finland and it requires multi-level governance solutions. This is vital for harnessing digitalisation throughout the country and for ensuring that Finns have equal opportunities to participate in the digital society and the digital economy, irrespective of where they live. Services are crucial for the vitality and attractiveness of rural areas, and digitalisation can help provide better and more efficient public and private services, while remote working hubs are key for improving the connectivity of rural communities. The role of the private sector in developing job opportunities connected to the knowledge economy and multi-locality is another emerging issue on the Finnish rural policy agenda. Developing digital skills is essential for numerous reasons, ranging from improving crisis preparedness and the deployment of new administrative tools, to enabling business development and promoting inclusion. Overall, digitalisation is linked to several unanswered questions regarding the future of rural areas, and it can serve as both a tool and catalyst for change.
Tapping into the potential of digitalisation
In order to fully uncover the potential of digitalisation for the benefit of rural Finland, several key aspects need to be acknowledged. Firstly, the need to further invest in developing digital competences to overcome digital exclusion and the existing urban-rural divide. The preconditions for participating in the digital society differ between population groups and places of residence, and it is only by overcoming these barriers and obstacles that we can fully harness the opportunities offered by digitalisation to benefit the whole of society.
Another key issue is improving broadband infrastructure, which is an investment to strengthen the vitality and attractiveness of rural areas, and also to overcome territorial disparities concerning digitalisation. As the construction of adequate digital infrastructure cannot rely solely on market conditions, public support is essential, and strategies need to be tailored to local needs and conditions and be based on coordination across sectors and governance levels. In this context, it is also crucial to better acknowledge the interlinkages between rural and urban areas and the emerging rural-urban continuum.
In our position paper, we also highlighted the need for more knowledge on how digitalisation relates to rural development from various perspectives, to allow for better evidence-based practice and decision-making. This includes acquiring a better understanding of the role of citizens and local communities in digitalising rural areas, to grasp the preconditions and effects of digitalisation on different population and stakeholder groups. It also relates to funding which should be targeted to support knowledge and capacity building to help achieve digitalisation objectives in rural policy and development.