Rural areas are facing many challenges: population decline, lack of infrastructure, and a persistent rural-urban gap are amongst the most prominent. On 28 June, the second webinar in the DCZ TALKS series focused on the topic of digital villages to discuss how digitalization of rural areas can help address these trends. Taking place in hybrid format at the DCZ office in Beijing and online, the webinar brought together Chinese and German experts to compare different approaches to digital villages in both countries and discuss their potentials and shortcomings.
Following two welcome speeches by DCZ managing directors Jürgen RITTER and Geng WANG, moderator Ahmatjan ROUZI from the DCZ provided a short introduction to the digital villages concept and the work the DCZ has done on the topic in the past years.
This was followed by a presentation on digital village initiatives (DVIs) in China by professor Pei GUO from the College of Economics and Management at China Agricultural University (CAU). In his talk, Prof. Guo made clear that DVIs are closely linked to China’s efforts at modernizing its agriculture sector and develop the digital economy. As a comprehensive strategy, DVIs address a wide range of aspects, including rural infrastructure, smart agriculture, digital rural economy, e-governance and digital public services in rural areas, as well as digital literacy. Prof. Guo also highlighted the special role that Chinese agribusiness companies and Internet giants play in promoting DVIs and discussed different approaches to funding the digitalization of rural areas.
DCZ expert Michaela Boehme introduced the “Digitale Doerfer” (Digital Villages) project implemented by Fraunhofer Institute in rural regions across Germany. Starting in the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate in 2015, “Digitale Doerfer” has evolved into a nationwide lighthouse project. It explores how digitalization can be leveraged to open up new opportunities for rural areas. Using a living labs approach that brings together local stakeholders, the project has developed a modular digital villages platform, providing communications, governance, and e-shopping functions to rural residents. In her presentation, Dr. Boehme also highlighted some of the acceptance challenges facing the rollout of digital tools in German ruralities and presented learnings from the project on how to build broad-based community support.
Looking at digital villages from a development perspective, Dr. Rui GU from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) presented data from a rural poverty household survey to assess the impact of DVIs on creating economic opportunities for rural communities. Digital technologies such as e-commerce have emerged as key drivers of rural development, Dr. Gu noted, but the survey data also shows that many gains come from increased migration and off-farm income rather than improved agricultural production. In her talk, Dr. Gu also discussed the relationship between digitalization and the empowerment of women in rural China. While digital tools can provide women with new income-generating opportunities, they do not necessarily challenge cultural stereotypes and intra-household decision-making structures that disadvantage women, Dr. Gu cautioned in her presentation.
Dr. Lena Kuhn from the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transformation Economies (IAMO) presented findings from the DITAC project, which aims to analyze and assess digitalization processes in China’s agrifood sector with regard to their effects on production, use of resources, and trade. Based on a survey conducted by IAMO and a number of Chinese partner universities in five provinces of China, Dr. Kuhn presented new data on digitalization levels of Chinese farms. Despite achievements in promoting DVIs, there remain many barriers to digitalization at the farm level, Dr. Kuhn pointed out in her presentation. As labor shortages and agrarian structural change will make agricultural digitalization ever more urgent, enhancing digital literacy through practical trainings, education, and extension services should be a priority in rural areas.
(For more information on the farm-level survey conducted by the DITAC project, read the cover story authored by Lena Kuhn in our second issue of DCZ magazine Harvest · 丰收).
The webinar concluded with a panel discussion moderated by DCZ expert Ahmatjan Rouzi. The discussion highlighted some of the persistent challenges facing DVIs in both countries, from the need for more digital literacy and investment to data sharing and privacy issues. While both China and Germany share the common goal of leveraging digital technologies to bridge the digital divide and enhance rural development, the discussion also revealed some notable differences, including:
- Scale: China’s DVIs often emphasize large-scale projects that seek to connect remote and underdeveloped rural areas with advanced urban centers and digital infrastructure, German DVIs use a more localized approach.
- Governance: DVIs in China are often driven by top-down government policies and lighthouse projects by big agribusiness firms and Internet companies. In contrast, German DVIs tend to be driven by a combination of government initiatives, private sector involvement, and community-led efforts.
- Focus: DVIs in China ultimately seek to strengthen agricultural production whereas German digital villages focus more on overall quality of life, social inclusion, and engagement in rural communities.
- Digital literacy: More education is needed in both countries, but the small-scale structure of Chinese agriculture means that even more must be done to bring smallholders on board and ensure that digitalization of rural areas is a socially inclusive process.
- Acceptance: In Germany, the expansion of digital technologies into rural areas is faced with more skepticism, including concerns over data privacy and management, while acceptance levels in China are higher.
The webinar showed how understanding these differences and the socio-economic conditions, cultural contexts, and policy preferences that shape them can facilitate knowledge-sharing and the exchange of best practices to drive inclusive and sustainable digital transformation in rural areas.