Getting From Smart to Intelligent

On January 22, ICF narrows its 2015 list of 21 really smart communities to a short-list of 7 intelligent ones. Those two words – smart and intelligent – are often confused or often used to mean the same thing. But I think they describe very different realities.

Every Intelligent Community we have seen is a Smart City. That is, it invests in information and communications technology (ICT) to deliver services, monitor operations and rejigger failing systems. That is good news for taxpayers, businesses and institutions.

Not every Smart City, however, is an Intelligent Community. While Smart City technologies make cities work better, Intelligent Community strategies create better cities, where people and organizations thrive and prosper in the global broadband economy.

wordle_med.pngIntelligent Communities make sure they have the broadband and IT infrastructure they need to be competitive. But they know it is only a means to an end. More of their energy goes into developing a workforce able to do knowledge work. More effort goes into crafting an innovation ecosystem where business, government and institutional partners create high-quality employment and meet social needs. More emphasis is placed on expanding access to digital skills and technology for those otherwise left out. More work goes into engaging citizens as advocates for progress.

I would offer examples from the rich trove of this year’s Smart21 communities, but will have to wait until after our much-anticipated announcement. In the meantime, I can point you to a worthwhile article from a Swedish Web site on innovation management. Lidia Gryskiewicz and Nicolas Friederici looked at the “innovation hubs” that are popping up in cities across the world and tried to understand what makes them work.

In their view, innovation hubs are a different breed from incubators and accelerators. The latter tend to have tightly structured programs and development milestones. They are focused on preparing start-ups for the scrutiny of investors, and providing their network of investors with a “deal flow” of interesting opportunities. It is essential and valuable work.

Innovation hubs focus instead on something called “impact.” It could be financial but is just as likely to be social or cultural. They embrace fluidity, encourage serendipity and work to create a sense of community. Instead of R&D labs, they host innovation jams and hackathons. They are all about energy, momentum and encouraging collaboration toward a shared mission.

If your job is to generate a steady stream of start-ups, that sounds pretty wooly. But if you want to create an environment where innovation can flourish, it makes sense. Out of it may come a great idea for a profitable business, or a new way for an existing business to frame its challenges. Or maybe just a makerspace where hobbyists can fool around with the latest technologies. In either case, it is building a social foundation, a platform of trust and commitment among innovators, on which great progress can be made. And that sounds pretty intelligent to me.

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research, analysis and content development activities.
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