Open School for Village Hosts, interview to John Thackara and Andrea Paoletti

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Open School for Village Hosts, interview to John Thackara and Andrea Paoletti

Many innovative new projects are springing up in rural areas throughout Europe.
We call the people who start and lead these projects Village Hosts.

Casa Netural together with a partnership involving 6 different countries has launched the first Open School for Village Hosts that will soon open its “doors.”

In the coming weeks 40 practitioners – active subjects in rural areas – will be selected and take part in the first training course that will take place online (on a dedicated platform) for 6 months and in presence in the village of Grottole, Basilicata in May 2023.

On the occasion of this important milestone, we decided to interview John Thackara and Andrea Paoletti, who in 2019 had the intuition to create this school and value the figure of community activators, who live the most peripheral territories and enliven them with their initiatives.

John who are you and how did you get in contact with Casa Netural

I am a writer, an editor and also a professor. I write books as well as blog at, which I have been following since 1993. My curatorial work is for conferences (especially the Doors of Perception conference), exhibitions and biennials. I curated the Dott07 social innovation biennial in England; the French design biennial on the City Eco Lab; and in 2019 I did a major exhibition in Shanghai called Urban-Rural

open school for village hosts

I am also a visiting professor at Tongji University in China and the Politecnico di Milano in Italy, and a senior fellow at the Royal College of Art in London. I conduct much of this work from my home base in Ganges, a small market town in Occitania, southern France.

I first encountered Casa Netural in 2017 at a festival about immaterial design in Matera (a couple of years before Matera City of Culture). I was introduced to Andrea and his colleagues by my friend Stefano Mirti. Until that visit, most of my work in Italy had been in Milano and Torino – so it was a revelation to meet people from across Basilicata whose projects were part of a new rural economy. I was also impressed that Casa Netural had a permanent presence in the region – including a house and a network of people. It makes a huge difference when a team is based in a region permanently; you get a quality of trust that never happens when a project team comes from outside for a few weeks, and then leaves.

Can you explain what is your relationship with Wonder Grottole?

I’ve been involved in a number of workshops and meetings in Grottole over recent years – both leading up to #Matera2019, and afterwards. These interactions were all so positive that I was happy to accept Andrea’s invitation to join the Wonder Grottole enterprise.

In 2019 with Andrea you started sharing ideas about the figure of the “village host” – why? What was the reflection?

The Social Food Forum, which we launched in Grottole in 2019, was a turning point. That was when we realised that, although the many innovation projects involving food were welcome, they did not organise themselves. They happened thanks to the work of people we called social food producers. Another key factor, we realised, is that such people are most effective when they are based in their territory full time, more-or-less. And finally, we realised that such persons are needed for all kinds of rural and urban-rural projects – not just food ones. The role of a Village Host emerged from those discussions.

So who is the village host and what does he or she do?

A village host identifies neglected assets in a community – such as projects, places, or individuals – and design ways to connect them in events, services and enterprises. Through time, village hosts also create social infrastructures such as courses, festivals, or rural hubs. These infrastructures enable a wide variety of stakeholders to work together in he longer term. Village hosts are collaboration experts – people who connect people – so their most valuable skills are hosting, convening, facilitating, animating, and co-ordinating.

What is the importance of this professional figure for rural areas?

We are confident that Village Hosts will bring new social, economic and ecological life to small villages and their local economy. They will create new livelihoods, and good work, in emerging urban-rural markets: positive-impact tourism, nature reconnection, adventure sports, farm-shares, learning journeys, wellness retreats, work-vacations, heritage trails, and more tat we have not heard about yet.

Why do you think the “Open school for Village hosts” training course is important?

It takes an unusual combination of knowledge, skills and qualities to be an effective Village Host. She or he needs  hard’ capabilities such as digital skills, or business planning. But as collaboration experts – people who connect people – her most valuable skills are often so-called ‘soft’ ones: hosting, convening, facilitating, animating, and co-ordinating. The OSVH team has worked hard during identify the most important competencies needed. These will be the bedrock of the OSVH programme as a whole. But an important consideration is that every village is unique. The school will therefore not be based on a standard curriculum. Instead, we will Identify the range of competencies that a Village Host could need, and enable students to choose the micro-courses they need.

What opportunities can a European project generate for this topic?

The unique promise of OSVH is to join together dots – people, places, practices- that, right now, are scattered around Europe. The stakeholders in our project are diverse: regional planners, farmers, researchers, farm advisors and government representatives, engineers, developers, elected officials. Such individuals are often active in European research networks – of which there are dozens, hundreds even! OSVH stakeholders also include citizens who have unique and valuable knowledge rooted in local history and ecology. These actors already contribute a lot to Europe’s rural economies – but we believe Village Hosts will enable them to realise opportunities that, until now, have been beyond reach.

And for you Andrea, how did the reflection on the figure of Village Hosts take place?

It was born from the principle of the creation of Wonder Grottole, because we imagined it as a platform of relationships and practices to be experimented with, in order to create a method that ccould “design” new stories for small villages undergoing depopulation. We began by mapping the area’s resources, human, material and immaterial, and from these we started to facilitate new processes.

open school for village hosts

From our experimentation we realized how much the success of the “Wonder Grottole” model was due to the presence of one or more figures who, on a constant basis, on the area had the role of connector, facilitator, “visionary” and creator of alternative and innovative models of sustainability. From our experiment, we decided to generate a model that would be useful to all small territories undergoing depopulation and in search of new prosperity. 

What is the importance of this professional figure for rural areas? 

This professional figure is important because, having specific skills in itself, it could be able to bring together the vision of a community intent on creating a different story for its country. Being recognized as a professional figure (and investing in it) means getting a strategic role that works in the long term – a necessary condition to see change in the interior areas because the actions are predominantly cultural, perspective changing and need slow sedimentation, assimilation and generation times.

Why do you think the “Open school for Village hosts” training course is important?

The course has the fundamental role of recognizing this new professional figure and the skills needed to define oneself as a “Village Host.” It is a course for “practitioners” ,  i.e. people who are already working in the territories but often lack certain skills. We are creating a module-based course, so after an initial self-assessment phase, participants will be able to choose which modules to participate in, which skills to develop and thus how to generate more impact in their communities, small territories and create conditions to improve their well-being.

What are the opportunities that a European project can generate for this theme?

To have won this project means, first of all, to be recognized for the validity of our vision, which started from Italy – from our small town of Grottole in Basilicata, but shared in needs with many other countries in Europe. Working on the development of this project with 6 other partners from different countries allows us to relativize belonging to our territory but build a much bigger vision that can become policy direction to influence rural development policies in the coming years at the European Community level. Building project processes means making a problem manifest, and recognizing it is the first step to find new solutions. A training school for the professional figure of the “Village Host” is our part of the solution to listen to citizens’ needs, connect existing resources and tools, open new relationships, build sustainable economic models and generate well-being. 

If you are interested in finding out more about the figure of the Village Host and the school going forward, visit and follow Casa Netural on Facebook and Instagram, new updates will follow.

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