The best acts of defiance are made in pursuit of a greater good. History is complete with tales of passive resistance, armed rebellions and legends of a person or group of dedicated souls who refuse to sell-out, cave-in or toss-down the towel, no matter how overwhelming the forces stacked against them or the depth of corruption from a perverse civil order. You and I honor the private inspirations in our lives who get us out of bed and roll us forward, somehow putting in us a deeper psychic mark and recalibrated moral settings. Those whose actions are given the stamp of the “heroic” or “visionary” after their time of persistence are seen to have been clearly on the right side of the cause, while most could only see through the glass darkly. They are, in the words of my father, not deliberate and intentional provocateurs, but people who simply “stuck by their guns.” At ICF we have 145 of them.
There are seminal moments in the life of these communities. They are the result at times of small acts of unexpected expression. Something like inspiration builds, and because the community is a canvas, remains untouched, until inspiration strikes. These things come as shocks. There are profound acts of empathy, sometimes directed by a policy and sometimes by a spirit, which stagger us and bring us back to our moral GPS. A few days before we announced our new Top7, one occurred in the midst of a harsh winter afternoon in New York, when a perfect stranger on a rolling Subway took off his own shirt and gave it to a perfect stranger who happened to be homeless and shirtless: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xiKgeqUDDY. Some people were humbled; others didn’t believe it.
“Empathy,” says author Jen Percy, “starts as an act of fiction. We must think ourselves into the lives of others.” Certainly this was an act of empathy, but also one of defiance. Defiance of the stereotype that here in my city we are all cold-hearted citizens. Defiance too of the notion that all of us believe there is a gap between citizens on the basis of mental health or economic distance.
Defiance must be part of an Intelligent Community. It must also be bred from their fictions. The myths which define and anchor us to the story of the places we call “home” drive us into the future and propel us to believe that things will be better. It is at the core of the fifth criteria of our awards program and index: Advocacy.
When I think of defiance, I think of Defiance. Defiance, Iowa that is. The tiny American hamlet got its name because its townspeople had at one time actually relocated from another settlement because they were unhappy that the railroad company had not laid tracks in the old place. They were forever known as 'defiers.' They believed it and lived up to the myth. Despite its pipsqueak population, 284 people, it proudly produced a state governor, Mr. C.A. Robins. Governor Robins was the 22nd governor of the state. The state of Idaho, far away. A governor is a governor and while tiny Defiance has not tossed itself into the ring for Intelligent Community status yet (Dubuque beat them to the honor of becoming Iowa’s first Intelligent Community last year, when it made our list of Smart21) it seems to me to have the right stuff for our crowd!
Our crowd of 21 communities got a little thinner last week when we named a new Top7. I am certain that the motive to defy and to tell their tale to the world drives this group just as much as the need for a railroad drove Defiance. The Smart21 and the Top7 also needed the railroad. The new railroad is broadband. Each of the new Top7, at different times, and in different ways, made a decision to pull the trigger or stand down the gravity of economic failure that had pulled thousands of other counties, cities and towns steadily down in the post-Industrial era. They got their broadband rails down and began the hard work of turning into truly defiant places to challenge the status quo and create a better future. This year’s Top7 is a splendidly diverse group, which includes one city that has not yet reached its sixth birthday (New Taipei City, Taiwan) and another (Montreal, Canada) that lit the candles for its 350th year since formation. They will both share a stage in Columbus, Ohio (USA) in June. They are comrades because they both have defiance as part of their legacy. You will learn why when you get to Ohio in June.
Understanding the fictions and the myth which are the canvases of communities has been ICF’s way of getting at the details and the data of these places. Having done this since 1999, when Singapore took the prize as the first Intelligent Community of the Year, we felt it was time this year to take our evidence-based, objective metrics and to develop the first global Index of Intelligent Communities. You can read more about this on our website, but leave me to say that the big change is that for the first time, any community, any time of year can enter our awards program by submitting to us (at no cost) a survey form. When you do, you will also receive a report comparing your performance to our global data set. This will help you measure your progress and take the next step toward defying the odds and becoming an Intelligent Community. It will also help ICF take the next steps and publish reports at intervals, to give policy-makers, the media and planners a snapshot of the defiers. Those leaders at the grassroots who will move if the railroad and the renaissance don’t come to town soon.