a smarter way to work

MICROPOL : promoting development and innovation through Smart Work Centres in non-metropolitan Europe

As rural areas in Europe are being depopulated or changing into dormitory/second home zones ; young people and graduates are often the first to leave. At the same time technology is developing rapidly and is making it possible to work anywhere at anytime...

From 2012 - 2014 Micropol was engaged in discovering how this shift in work culture can favour more distance working and the opportunities offered by the 2.0 economy could help to re-vitalise rural Europe : by improving ICT infrastructure ; digital entrepreneurship & literacy and by increasing qualified job opportunities through the development of non-metropolitan Smart Work Centres.

Micropol was financed by the INTERREG IVC Programme dealing with the promotion of ICT and smart work in order to restore life and growth in rural areas across Europe.

The Interregional Cooperation Programme INTERREG IVC, financed by the European Union’s Regional Development Fund, helps Regions of Europe work together to share experience and good practice in the areas of innovation, the knowledge economy, the environment and risk prevention. EUR 302 million was made available for project funding but, more than that, a wealth of knowledge and potential solutions were also on hand for regional policy-makers.

1. Background

MICROPOL brought together partners from across Europe who are looking to tackle the social, economic and demographics challenges to rural communities through sustainable economic growth. While many of Europe’s rural communities are experiencing depopulation and decreased labour demand in traditional industries, developments in ICT infrastructure and services are simultaneously opening up new opportunities and breaking down geographical barriers to work, making it possible for knowledge based workers to work remotely. Focused on research and knowledge exchange to improve practice, the project developed and shared an extensive evidence base on the potential role Smart Work Centres (SWCs) can play in supporting economic growth and sustainable communities across rural Europe.

2. What are Smart Work Centres ?

While Smart Work Centres across Europe encompass a wide variety of forms appropriate to specific local needs, a broad definition can be identified as locations which : -* Provide a flexible base for knowledge based workers and businesses ;

  • Allow for interaction and collaboration with others through co-working ;
  • Provide high level information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure and capabilities, such as high speed broadband networks ;
  • Provide proactive managerial, administrative, technical and social support services for business users.

Flexibility is key to the SWC model, providing users with opportunities for short terms access to a variety of working spaces and shared facilities. SWCs also bring a focus on business support and incubation, providing a managed and enabling environment to support the growth and development of business users, through formal and informal support networks.The ‘human’ element is therefore central to the SWC model, with the growth of a community of co-operation central to their ongoing success.

While SWCs and co-working spaces provide a primarily business function across urban Europe their role often incorporates wider community uses within rural areas. This can include co-hosting business space with public services, such as employment support, library and tourist information services and public access to ICT.

It is important to recognise that there is no one-size-fits all sustainable SWC model which will meet the needs of each rural community. Analysis of rural SWC models across Europe has identified four different types of rural SWC, each of which each of which have a different focus and role within their local economies and communities. Details on these types of SWC and the factors which influence the shape of SWCs in different rural areas and provided in the SWC Typology Report (available here – document not yet online) and the Comparative Analysis Study : available here.

3. Rural SWCs : What are the benefits ?

SWCs and high speed broadband can have a positive economic, social and environmental impact (hyperlink to impact section in comparative analysis) in rural communities. A social return on investment study : available here commissioned by MICROPOL showed that every € invested in a rural SWC generates significant returns which exceed investment costs.

Examples of impact include :

  • Economic : De Drentse Zaak SWC in the Netherlands has supported the creation of 50 new jobs through start-up business support ;
  • Social : Télécentre des pays de Murat, an SWC in rural France has successfully attracted over 20 new entrepreneurs and their families to the area ;
  • Environment : users of rural SWCs travel less distance to work than the average for employees living in rural areas, reducing the carbon footprint of users.

    4. Rural SWCS : What Micropol has Learned

While rural SWCs have the potential to have a significant impact it is important to recognise that a number of factors are integral to their success, without which such facilities will fail. Analysis of over 25 case studies from across MICROPOL partner regions revealed a number of key learning points and critical success factors that are essential reading for any funder, developer or operator supporting or interested in rural SWCs. Overarching themes covered by these learning points and critical success factors are :

  • ICT and broadband – access to reliable broadband is essential to SWCs and smart working. This creates an enabling infrastructure and environment through which enterprise and employment opportunities can be developed, productivity increased and e-services provided ;
  • Governance – in all of the case study examples, public investment has been essential to kick start the development of rural SWCs with strategic leadership essential to their ongoing success. However, the private and no-for-profit sectors have an essential role to play in the development, management and ownership of rural SWCs, particularly against a backdrop of public sector austerity ;
  • Communication – the need for effective promotion of smart working and SWCs cannot be over-emphasised. This requires leadership, marketing to potential ; disseminating success stories and the benefits of smart working and SWCs and effective branding ;
  • Rural Development – SWCs can play a central role in rural development and diversification, helping communities to maximise existing assets through new uses ; supporting the co-location of businesses and organisations to stimulate collaborative development and growth ; and developing virtual as well as physical networks.
  • Services – SWCs must provide a strong, flexible and diverse support package offering to their business users. SWCs also have a potentially important role to play in the delivery of public and e-services. The co-location of various services and offerings to businesses and the wider community can significantly enhance the viability and sustainability of rural SWCs, especially in remoter areas where scale of demand and provision is a major issue.
  • Social Impact – SWCs can play an important role in tacking disadvantage and tackling rural population decline by driving skills development, supporting unemployed people into work or to start-up a business and attracting entrepreneurs and new residents.

These learning points and the links to corresponding case studies are provided in the Table below with more detail available in Annex A of the Comparative Analysis Study (included in final report), available here.

5. Recommendations and Next Steps

The development of SWCs has been facilitated through technological improvements and a shift in working practices and employer cultures and attitudes. However, despite MICROPOL identifying numerous SWCs across rural Europe, there remain a number of challenges and barriers to the development and sustainability of rural SWCs and policy makers and the public sector have a central role to play in creating an enabling environment and taking forward this agenda across rural Europe in partnership with private and not-for-profit partners.

The MICROPOL project has brought a focus on gathering evidence and developing guidance and recommendations to highlight where action is required to take forward the SWC agenda across rural Europe. A detailed document outlining policy recommendations for the project are available here : SWC MATRIX - SWC Policy Recommendations - SWC Business Plan. Broadly these recommendations can be summarised as relating to :

  • ICT : policymakers need to ensure the availability and improvement of ICT infrastructure and fast broadband across rural Europe and ensure that citizens, business and entrepreneurs have the skills that enable them to take advantage of digital opportunities ;
  • Communication : policy-makers need to utilise European Structural and Cohesion Funds and explore cross-border collaboration opportunities to develop the infrastructure and facilities and working cultures that enable smart working in rural areas ;
  • External services : SWCs do not necessarily have to be new builds. Policy makers and potential SWC funders and operators should consider reusing and reinventing existing rural structures, particularly where these have played a prominent economic or civic function in the community ;
  • Rural programmes : Policymakers need to deliver proactive promotion, business incubation and enterprise support and cluster and network development to drive the success of rural SWCs in supporting and attracting knowledge based entrepreneurs and businesses
  • Public-private partnerships : While public sector investment has proved essential to establishing rural SWCs, they also require private sector involvement as owners, operators and occupiers. This requires policymakers to develop partnerships with the private sector which build on establishing, sharing and promoting effective public-private partnership models ;
  • Social impact : Approaches which are community-led can be more likely to succeed than those which are imposed from above by policy makers. Policymakers at a local level should seek to work with communities to empower them in developing SWC solutions that are appropriate for their community. Such approaches, can play an important role in sustaining rural communities and populations, particulary where opportunities are provided for younger people.

Behind the project were11 partners from 10 countries :
- North Denmark Region
- Province of Drenthe
- West-Pannon Nonprofit Ltd.
- Business Support Centre Ltd. Kranj
- Northumberland County Council
- Municipality of Teramo
- Public Foundation for the Development of Industry
- Riga Technical University
- Nièvre Numérique
- Estonian Advice Centres
- Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Jaen

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