Lead project

Smart Villagers: Digitalisation and Social Innovations in Rural Spaces

Research department: Economy and Civil Society

IRS Research Topic: New Social Practices Research on Innovation Processes Shared Knowledge - Locally and Over Distance

Project Leader within IRS: Prof. Dr. Gabriela Christmann

Project Team: Nicole Zerrer Dr. Christian Reichel

Duration: 01/2019 - 12/2021


Smart cities are often talked about – but smart villages? Rural areas, particularly in structurally weak regions, are often affected by out-migration and a growing backlog in digital infrastructure and innovation dynamics. Both trends reinforce each other. However, there are examples of villages in which innovative initiatives do not just strive to compensate for deficits, but develop new, situation- and problem-specific local solutions. In doing so, they combine new services with creative uses of digital technologies and sometimes improved digital infrastructures. Hence, the subject matter is digitally supported social initiatives. In this area, a large diversity of approaches is evident – from app-based mobility services and telemedicine to coworking spaces, which make more flexible forms of work, typically associated with urban areas, accessible in rural areas. Furthermore, such initiatives are characterized by their decided bottom-up orientation, which does, however, not exclude the possibility of external support, for instance via policies by the federal states.

The research goal in this lead project is to better understand such initiatives regarding their content, actors and actor constellations influential in them, their process character and their effects on everyday lives in rural communities. Rammert’s concept of ‘societal innovations’ serves as key conceptual reference point. It is supplemented by considerations of mediatization of social action. Regarding content and agency, the questions how various technological and non-technological elements are recombined, and whether digitalization is a driving force or rather a consequence or sub-aspect, take centre stage. In terms of process, the focus is on place-specific development trajectories as well as diffusion in space and in substance. Questions about the effects of digital initiatives address accelerations and decelerations of everyday life through global connectivity, new spatial constructions in everyday geographies as well as socially differentiated effects (on different groups) of digitalization.

The objects of research are digitally supported social initiatives, of which one respectively will be reconstructed in a detailed qualitative case study. In total six case studies will be collected, five in German rural communities and one in Estonia. The latter serves as a reference case for initiatives in a highly digitalized society. For data collection, focused ethnography will be used which combines expert interviews, document analyses, media-biographical interviews, problem-centric interviews and participatory observation.

Photos: dusanpetkovic1/stock.adobe.com; agenturfotografin/stock.adobe.com; dusanpetkovic1/stock.adobe.com; alexbrylovhk/stock.adobe.com;


Over several years, the research unit "Dynamics of Communication, Knowledge and Spatial Development" has been researching how social innovations are driven in rural areas, what problems they can solve and how they can be supported politically. Now it is publishing recommendations for practice; on the one hand in the form of a German-language policy paper, on the other hand in the form of an English-language practice manual. more info


Sept, A. (2020). Thinking Together Digitalization and Social Innovation in Rural Areas: An Exploration of Rural Digitalization Projects in Germany. European Countryside, 12(2), 193-208. https://doi.org/10.2478/euco-2020-0011
Sept, A. (2019). Breitbandausbau, und dann: Digitalisierung im ländlichen Raum als Herausforderung für Praxis und Wissenschaft. Planerin, (1), 29-30.
Zerrer, N., & Sept, A. (2020). Smart Villagers as Actors of Digital Social Innovation in Rural Areas. Urban Planning, 5(4), 78-88. https://doi.org/10.17645/up.v5i4.3183
Sept, A. (2021). Die Dorfapp als Ersatz für die Dorfkneipe? Erfahrungen aus einem Dorf in der Vulkaneifel. Standort: Zeitschrift für Angewandte Geographie, 45(1), 5-10. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00548-020-00679-2
Zerrer, N., Sept, A., & Christmann, G. (2022). Rural Community Development Click-by-Click: Processes and Dynamics of Digitally Supported Social Innovations in Peripheral Rural Areas. Raumforschung und Raumordnung, 80(3), 314-328. https://doi.org/10.14512/rur.145
Sept, A., & Christmann, G. (Eds.) (2022). Chancen und Herausforderungen in ländlichen Räumen durch Digitalisierung. (Raumforschung und Raumordnung; Vol. 80, No. 3). Oekom. https://rur.oekom.de/index.php/rur/issue/view/13
Sept, A., & Christmann, G. (2022). Chancen und Herausforderungen in ländlichen Räumen durch Digitalisierung: Opportunities and Challenges in Rural Areas Through Digitalization. Raumforschung und Raumordnung, 80(3), 247-250. https://doi.org/10.14512/rur.235
Sept, A., & Reichel, C. (2022). Neue Attraktivität ländlicher Räume durch Digitalisierung? Sozial-innovative Nutzungen digitaler Technik im Ländlichen. In S. Langner, & M. Weiland (Eds.), Die Zukunft auf dem Land: Imagination, Projektion, Planung, Gestaltung (pp. 507-522). (Rurale Topografien; Vol. 14). Transcript.
Berg, M., Lampe, S., Scherr, S., Schmitt, A., Sept, A., Tamanini, C., Tamanini, J., & Zerrer, N. (2022). Digitale Daseinsvorsorge in ländlichen Räumen und wie sie gestaltet werden kann. Leibniz-Institut für Raumbezogene Sozialforschung. http://hdl.handle.net/10419/261471
Zerrer, N., & Sept, A. (2021). Smart Villagers im Visier. Land in Form - Magazin für Ländliche Räume, (3), 40-41. https://www.netzwerk-laendlicher-raum.de/fileadmin/Redaktion/Seiten/Service/Publikationen/LandInForm/2021/LandInForm_2021_03_V2.pdf
Christmann, G. (2023). Social Innovations in Rural Areas. In J. Howaldt, & C. Kaletka (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Social Innovation (pp. 261-265). Edward Elgar.