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Thursday, April 30, 2015
From Up and Coming to UP!

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In 2008 Columbus, Ohio (USA) was named the #1 “up and coming city” in the United States by Forbes magazine.  This surprised people.  Most people did not know where Columbus was and those who did associated it with poverty, lack of digital inclusion and the flight of its gentrified and middle-classes from its urban center.  There was the impression that Columbus, the capitol of the state of Ohio, was rusting away.  Bitten by the fangs of a post-industrial collapse, Columbus was a place where, if you were born poor, you had only a 5% chance of getting into the top fifth percentile of wage earners, which nearly guaranteed a long, mainly miserable life.  Your relief was hoping that nearby Ohio State University might win its football games.  You could at least live a success vicariously.   It was ironic.  In a state (Ohio) that headquarters America’s national Inventors Hall of Fame, Columbus scored low on Richard Florida’s “creative index” list.  Even Columbus’s Smart21 nomination form to ICF pointed to the disappointing ranking (#61) as one of its challenges.  In 2008 it promised itself and the world more.

A disease is often healed even though a patient still feels ill.  The city was beginning to implement its long-range plan, Columbus 2020, and was carefully following a path laid out by ICF’s criteria, where broadband is part of an underlying infrastructure over which a new type of Columbus could emerge.  Impressively, it did.  The city did not run away from what it was, because it knew nothing can run that fast.  It moved forward, making adjustments as it reinvented itself and laid the foundation for generations.

Well, guess what?  The up-and-coming city has arrived.  No doubt about it.  Based on my site visit two weeks ago, I am here to testify that Columbus, Ohio has “upped its game.” Big time.  It has gone from “lab to market.”  And, yes, there is a parallel between the Ohio State University’s status as the reigning national college football championship of America and the city’s Intelligent Community push.  Columbus is in the “red zone.”

In the final term of Mayor Michael Coleman, pictured left, the longest-serving mayor of African heritage in the USA, Columbus has moved from an aspirational city to one with gravity.  Its citizens believe.  I know because I asked them if they believed.  The city has an advanced plan and uses its data-driven capacity to make decisions today.  It is layered with industries and people that have popped-up like weeds.  It has balanced its agricultural capacity with the needs of a modern city, and tied the two economies together at every level.  This is how you build an Intelligent Community, I thought, boarding my plane at its remodeled airport.   

I look for intangibles on my visits because the data looks impressive most of the time.  I look for gaps between what I am told and what I see.  I noticed that Columbus, going against its own grain, has developed the will to grow and the self-confidence to acknowledge itself as “world class.”  Unlike those of us in New York, people in Columbus are modest about their achievements.  When a top professor of autonomous vehicles research at Ohio State pulled me aside to tell me that he no longer goes to New York for cuisine and culture because “I have it here now and in abundance,” I sensed that an attitude shift had occurred.  There is a reason he told me this.  Its cosmopolitan sense has emerged physically in the German Village, the emerging arts community of Franklinton and the quality of life in the “Short North” district, where my godchild lives.  I asked him if he actually likes living in Columbus.  He does.  Very much.  He wouldn’t lie to his godfather.

Good food and good restaurants do not make a Top7 city, of course.  If that were the case six of our Top7 each year would be from Italy. Nor does public relations get your name on the ICF trophy.  There was no public relations finesse from Columbus on this visit, thank god.  I was able to observe things which gave me a snapshot of Columbus, ask hard questions and learn whether it is ready for the big stage in Toronto in June.

Columbus has a CIO and a very bright Department of Technology team with private sector creds that do not speak endlessly about gigabits and fiber conduits.  No geek talk in Columbus. The talk is about how to serve citizens.  The discussions I had over “broadband breakfasts” was of how a unified digital architecture is being put in place quickly to enable the economy and government to perform better.  Their citywide connectivity plan is radical in its approach and includes an innovative relationship with a new vendor (CNX) whose task is to facilitate and lease connectivity on the city’s behalf to service providers for maximum efficiency at the lowest cost to businesses.  Columbus is the anti-Google Gigabit City.  Its approach made me think of the “Stockholm Miracle.”  Stockholm’s open access network delivered the lowest telecom costs in Europe and unleashed one of the world’s most competitive economies.  Stockholm became 2009 Intelligent Community of the Year because it understood that broadband access was the key to an economic resurgence.  What really impressed me was when I asked the team in Columbus what they were most proud of.  Citing the My Columbus app, Moez Chaabouni, Deputy Director of the Department of Technology said, “We have made peoples’ lives easier.  I am very proud of that.” That is what they told me in Stockholm years ago too.

Broadband networks in and around Columbus are robust and include a monstrously impressive ramp-up of its super-computing capacity, which has advanced since the last time I visited.  Back then, the Ohio Academic Resources Network (OARnet) aspired to learn more from ICF.  It can teach us things now.  It has built a “brainport” which taps the knowledge base of 91 colleges and universities.  While visiting the Super Computer I heard sparks of competitive confidence that I had not heard before.   Professor Pankaj Shah, the Executive Director of OARnet (pictured with me, right) said simply, “We are the best.  We just never told our story well.”  With 2,200 miles of 100 gigabit fiber behind the network, and dozens of examples of research funding projects that are flowing into Columbus as a result, he presides over a unique express lane for the local economy.     

The relationship among the city’s incubators, its major university, two magnificent research hospitals and its economic development department have reached a point where each operate efficiently and have defined their role.  This is key to the city’s steady commercialization of technology.  The city finally cracked the nut and has begun to allow a flow between it and its university.  Ohio, the home of American invention, has dusted itself off and reclaimed a trait that made it the envy of the world in another era.  Its Nationwide Children’s Hospital has a system to incubate start-ups and I heard presentations from five of them which are doing ground-breaking work in gene therapy and in areas such as the identification of bacterial characteristics.  Not much of this is visible to the public eye or to the media because it is the molasses of daily life.  It is quiet work and not flashy.  But it demonstrates how intellectual capacity, research and applied practice work together harmoniously and feed innovation.  It is what I was seeking to find. There is a quality of researcher and person in Columbus that feeds its cosmopolitan emergence.

The second admirable characteristic is the degree to which the mayor and his team understand that recovering a city is done house to house.  “A great community is its neighborhoods,” I was told.  I was told this even in the places that have yet to experience the full recovery that much of the city is experiencing.  Columbus solved its BIG DEVELOPMENT issues since Robert Bell’s 2013 site visit.  Now it is solving its once-intractable urban problems.  The higher-hanging fruit.  The city has a Neighborhood Pride program that is low-tech but high concept.  When you have limited funds, you have to think. The program leverages peer pressure and the beauty of democracy (representation and location of services near citizens) to succeed  Signs will go up in homes and small neighborhood businesses when they meet certain criteria and achieve Pride status.  Sustaining neighborhoods is a team sport.  The program, run by two people, has made the street the city.   

Columbus also has a strategy which I don’t think any community has thought through as carefully to manage its inevitable gentrification so that it does not become the core of its neighborhood recovery efforts.  The recovery must come from within or else the problem has simply been transferred to another block. I was told. I saw nearly 400 new homes being built that were affordable and for the community.

One of the rising indicators of a city that is heading in the right direction is the degree to which people return home.  Columbus is bringing its children home.  This was not happening in ’08.  It has successfully experienced population growth and is doing it with a mixture of downtown density and a constant push for an overall quality of life.  Culture is its driver.   

What culture?  A culture is centered around athletics.  Standing on the 50-yard line of The Shoe (the big football stadium) allowed me to take one thing off my “bucket list.”  But it also offered me a sense of what I would call a “sense of fair play” among the city’s residents.  Columbus is intensely competitive.  Its culture of competitive athletics impacts the way it looks at its Top7 status.  It wants to be Intelligent Community of the Year.  People (lots of them) told me that many, many times.  The city’s preparation for my site visit was meticulous and as comprehensive as any I have undertaken. 

Yet despite its drive to become the Intelligent Community of the Year and to put on its best face  the city went out of its way to show me places that by its own admission were not performing well.  It had me on public forums and TV to probe any criticism I had, or had heard.  Columbus is winning its future in part because it hides nothing and is open to criticism.  This is in fact the mark of a winner.  This city is confident that what it has is right now is good enough to land it into the endzone as Intelligent Community of the Year in June.  Whether the ICF Jury and the quantitative data assessment will agree is out of my hands.  It has a one in seven chance to succeed Toronto as Intelligent Community of the Year.  But I can report that this city has gone from “lab to market” and that nothing should surprise its humble population come the morning of June 10.  Columbus has put together a great gameplan.

 
Thursday, April 23, 2015
Why Disruption is Harder Than It Looks

Do you know anyone who is never-ending fountain of new ideas?  I have known, enjoyed and been worn out by a few of them.  The same is true of US President Franklin Roosevelt.  He delivered one of the greatest backhand compliments in history when we said of British Prime Minster Churchill, his friend and fellow wartime leader, “Winston has fifty ideas a day, and one or two of them are rather good.” 

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We need these people to stretch the boundaries of what is possible.  We also need to respect the many ways in which those boundaries can come snapping back on us.  In our book, Brain Gain: How Innovative Cities Create Jobs in an Age of Disruption, my colleagues and I wrote about the disruptive educational innovation known as the massively open online course or MOOC.    The vision is truly revolutionary: instead of attending a high-priced university, you take courses online from all of the great universities at a fraction of the cost.  Three privately-funded MOOC companies were launched in the US in 2012, and universities around the world quickly followed with their own course offerings.    

So, have MOOCs succeeded in blowing up the stately traditions of higher education?  Not so much, according to David Leonhardt, writing in The New York Times.  The problem, it turns out, is that learning is just one of the things people are buying when they pursue higher education. The other thing – one with much greater economic value – is a credential.  A university degree is a highly valued third-party endorsement of your mastery of knowledge and  skills.  For employers, it is a fantastically useful shortcut to identifying qualified employees, even if they miss out on a lot of uncredentialed talent as a result. Colleges and universities are not about to surrender their monopoly on that value, which supports the fees they charge.  And so, the score so far: status quo 1, disruption 0.    

But we are still early in the game.   MOOC providers, from EdX to Coursera, are introducing their own certificate programs based on structured curricula and qualifying exams.  The Mozilla Foundation, creator of the Firefox Web browser, has developed an Open Badges credential program, which any organization can award and which is backed by links to electronic evidence of exactly how and why the badge was earned.  Put those two trends together, and you have the beginnings of a system that could rival the economic value of the university degree – and do it anywhere that people have a hunger for learning and ambition for a better life.

Open courses were an instant online hit, but it is going to take years for “open degrees” to find meaningful acceptance.  But as we wrote in Brain Gain, if MOOCs can actually increase the productivity of education – teaching more students at less cost – they will be among the most profound forces for good in human history.  Communities that are not lucky enough to have a good university or community college at their core will gain a new chance to participate in the knowledge-based, technology-driven economy of the 21st Century. 

So let us praise the unreasonable men and women who dare to dream of something as remarkable as the MOOC.  And let us also praise the quiet, methodical practitioners who find ways around the hundred obstacles that arise in the face of every truly revolutionary idea.

 
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Where Bison & Broadband Roam

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The best part of this Intelligent Community “thing” for me is to see the patterns of the new energized community emerging.  To do it, you have to learn to connect dots.  After all, “Creativity,” as Steve Jobs said, “is just connecting the dots.”

The dots were linked again for me this past weekend in the Oceania galleries of New York’s Metropolitan Museum and in Mitchell, South Dakota.  One of the happiest days of my life was nearly 35 years ago when I first became a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It made me feel as if I had totally joined the City of New York.  All of it.  I now had the privilege of walking into that majestic building on Fifth Avenue and roaming the world as I pleased, as my heart and mind dictated.  I could be curious and learn endlessly (my idea of heaven).  It was a thrill and, looking back, it was the deliverance of “quality of life” that Manhattan had always promised.  This feeling has continued to make all the difference about whether I live here or somewhere else.

As I strolled those galleries for the millionth time I flashed back to a moment last Tuesday, shortly after being given the keys to the City of Mitchell, South Dakota by Mayor Ken Tracy.  The honor was given to me in a modest room where the city council gathers to plot the continued rise of Mitchell, one of this year’s Top7 cities.  They not only plot the strategic direction of Mitchell, a place with a 2.8% unemployment rate (you read that right), they also listen inside that chamber to serious local issues that relate to their sidewalks, policing and tourist industry.  With a major conflict pending over a measure that asks property owners to pay for sidewalk installations, I suspect that I was a breath of fresh air that evening – at least for the Council.  I was there to officially recognize the city’s selection and to invite them to Toronto, Canada in June to be the “stars” of our Summit.

I also reinforced something that nearly every city champion explained to me as essential to Mitchell’s future: that quality of life is capital.  It will be the formula which allows the city to keep its amazing balance between the gifts nature has provided and its economic destiny.   In Mitchell the local meets the global.  I know this because they issue pens which read, “bison and broadband.”  The city of 15,285 has three broadband providers.  Think of that.  In places far larger they still spat about whether broadband is necessary, and who is going to pay for it.  In Mitchell, however, broadband is in, but it is merely a building block for a structure called “quality of life.”  This is the BIG BUILD.  On these Great Plains of America, known as “God’s Country,” and sacred to the Lakota and Sioux Indian tribes of North America, the scramble to use broadband and Intelligent Community ideas to construct a great place to live and thrive is on. 

Like Taichung, with its Calligraphy Greenway and the province of New Brunswick, Canada, which enabled a small population of 750,000 to produce three Top7 communities a few years ago,  Mitchell has settled upon quality of life as the biggest challenge to restore a population that declined by 30% in the post-industrial era.  The notion has taken root.  Like the corn in the fields of Davison County (planted by high-tech tractors), ideas around quality of life have many variations.  But the most compelling is driven by the evidence that many people who left the area want to return to Mitchell to enjoy nature and to be plugged into a global economy.  People are coming home.  I met several and they were all proud to be back.  Nearly all of them asked me if I hunted pheasant or fished.  (I do not.)  But it is obviously essential to the city’s quality of life and what connects people just as the Museum membership card connects me to the home I love. 

Mitchell is a dynamic community and is capable of going all the way in our awards program not because it is a monolithic economic powerhouse as were Taichung or Singapore in 2013 and 1999.  Nor is it the most innovative place on earth, as Eindhoven and Waterloo could lay claim to having been in 2011 and 2007.  Unlike New York (Intelligent Community of the Year, 2001) it is filled with modest people who get a little uncomfortable promoting themselves as “world class,” and hardly believe they are all of that.  But they are.  They reinforce the claim that the “middle of nowhere” is no more; that a renaissance is underway in the rural parts of the world.  They were smart enough to push broadband through and to make people like it!  Like a tractor which has smart technology embedded into it, and is boosting crop yields by numbers once thought unimaginable, the city has quietly, surely and in the steadfast way of its Norwegian heritage, become a “high tech city” without technology or frenzied Twitter freaks claiming their inflated presence.  It meanders on, proud of the remarkable natural art on the outside of its famous Corn Place and the productivity and successful job placement of its technical schools.  What they are most proud of, I believe, is the fact that its kids are starting to turn their sights back home, where the bison roam and the broadband is fast.

 
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Evaluating Top7 Intelligent Communities

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One of the elements of the year-long process of bringing forward an annual list of Intelligent Communities is the physical evaluation of each of the Top7 Intelligent Communities. This is an important part of the selection of the Intelligent Community of the Year and is taken very seriously by the evaluators, the Jury and the communities being evaluated. It is important to physically validate each community’s application, make eye to eye contact with the authors of the submission and better understand what they believe makes their city and community work in terms of an Intelligent Community.  Since each site visit is in a different part of the world, they may be culturally very different and in a language that could be very different from their counterparts. Some site visits dig deep into each element of their smart physical systems while others focus on meetings and roundtables, ensuring that all of the aspects of their community activities are understood by the evaluator visiting their community. Others include celebrations of their Top7 recognition and bring the community together to better understand what the value of their recognition really is all about. Gaining local support and ensuring extensive public participation is a key factor in continuing the Intelligent Community movement into future years. Just as the recognition of the Intelligent Community is not an overnight activity centered around a simple application and instead takes a year long process to complete, so should the importance of constant improvement and continual commitment be pursued, resulting in a community that lives and breathes what we describe as the Intelligent Community movement. These are key elements that the evaluator is looking for. How disparate and separated are the activities described in a community application versus how collaborative, well thought-out and budgeted for continuity are they? Is it a “project” or is it part of the true fabric of the community? Does it have legs and lives and breathes as part of what makes the whole community intelligent, or is it an activity or someone’s special project that could end tomorrow with the person’s changing situation or the end of special funding?

Of course, the site visits will help to validate each of the applicant’s capital investments, community elements and collaborative initiatives in context with the criteria that the Intelligent Community Forum has established over the years. We will be looking for smart infrastructure and how it is being deployed and how it benefits the community at large; how they have planned their community and implemented smart and innovative technologies to be part of the ever-changing landscape and make-up of their Intelligent Community; we will be looking at the way in which the knowledge workforce is created, attracted and most importantly utilized and retained in a community; we will be looking at the innovation and creativity that takes place and leveraged in these communities, taking advantage of the smart infrastructure and smart people in the community; and we will be looking at the ways in which a community deals with public advocacy from citizen involvement to public policies that reinforce the criteria and help to create the collaborative innovation ecosystem that makes intelligent communities unique. In addition, we will be looking at how they market their community to attract talent and investment, especially foreign direct investment and locally-generated funds to support home-grown businesses. We will also be looking for examples of digital inclusion providing for all members of society including the young and the old, the disenfranchised and those with special needs. We will be looking for leadership patterns; evidence of collaboration and citizen participation; special ways in which the environmental footprint is being dealt with and managed; opportunities for the community to attract risk capital; how they plan for cyber-security; and how they deal with issues today that result from changing circumstances, such as the creative destruction of jobs to global impacts of politics, environments and the economy. This is a site visit to a Top7 Intelligent Community that in a short 48 hours the evaluator will have to validate nearly every aspect of what makes this Top7 selected community a rated Intelligent Community. However, it is not a perfect science. First impressions count. The community, the people and the responses are all important in the evaluation. Evaluators will follow the itinerary of the hosts but they will also seek the comments and opinions of others along the way, even off the tailored pathways, looking for a true cross section of the communities’ hopes, desires and opinions. As these are special and unique communities with competitive advantages that excel among the best in the world, it will be very difficult for our evaluators to be neutral in their descriptive reports, notwithstanding that is their goal. Sometimes it is hard to curtail their excitement and enthusiasm in their reports. Naturally, it is exciting to be in these special and unique Intelligent Communities looking at their initiatives, the newly created jobs that evolved from the forces that shaped the community having gone through a community crisis such as the creative destruction of previous jobs to new ones as a result of changing local circumstances; opportunities created for education and retraining; or reviewing the exciting investments made by public, private and institutional sources in each community. That excitement is often reflected in the evaluation, ranging from glee - being in such an environment-  to a “eureka moment”- suggesting that every community should be doing what this community is doing. But as evaluators we do have standards that are set out by the Intelligent Community Jury, members from around the world that have established what the evaluators are to look for and how they are to report so that each of the seven Intelligent Communities are given fair treatment in these evaluations. And, as evaluators,  we do work hard to meet these standards and are evaluated ourselves annually by the Jury with metrics to ensure constant improvement in the reporting process. These site visit reports are added to the actual applications that the jury evaluates and rank as well as other inputs such as qualified analyst’s reports.

Being recognized as a Smart21 community is the first step. Every city, town or region is eligible to make an application. ICF provides samples of previous winning applications and makes it as easy as possible to make a submission, including not charging for a submission. The completed applications are due in September of every year and the Smart 21 communities are announced in October every year following analyst’s review of the submissions to create the short list of the first level of smart communities. ICF continues to work with each of these 21 smart communities to pick the best seven from among them to be qualified as a Top7 Intelligent Communities, announced in January of every year. These are the communities that will come to the annual Summit of the Intelligent Community Forum, this year to be held in Toronto from June 8-12, www.icfsummit2015.com. They will be the stars of the Summit. They will be celebrated but they also come to openly share best practices among the other Top7 communities and with the audience attending the Summit. Members of the Smart 21, Top7 and previously ranked communities will be in attendance and openly share with the audience stories and information about their communities. A Business-to-Business and Business-to –Government Matchmaking Exchange on June 9 will help to not only break the ice and provides speed-dating opportunities to share business cards, but also introduces one another to the business and investment opportunities in each of these Smart21 and Top7 Intelligent Communities. An in-depth interview with each of the communities’ top leaders will be the highlight of the June 11 Plenary Session on the Top7 Intelligent Communities. They will also be celebrated at a reception focused on the Top7 where they will also receive their own awards on June 10 and finally at a dinner on June 11, the world’s most Intelligent Community of the Year will be announced. This year the current Intelligent Community of the Year is Toronto. Site visits are planned for delegates to the Summit for Toronto on June 8 as well as a unique bus tour to the Intelligent Community of the Year (2007) in Waterloo, Ontario, an hour west of Toronto. See the Intelligent Communities and meet the people who made it happen and ask them directly what it took for them to be recognized and what the benefits have been.

The evaluators undertaking the site visits are the Co-Founders of the Intelligent Community movement and will be visiting Columbus, Mitchell  and Arlington in the USA; Surrey, BC in Canada; Rio in Brazil; New Taipei City in Taiwan and  Ipswich in Queensland, Australia. I will be heading to New Taipei City and Ipswich while the other Co-Founders will be heading to the other five Top7 Intelligent Communities over the next month. We will interview the Top7 Intelligent Communities again on June 11. Join us there to find out what happens next.

    

 

 
Friday, March 27, 2015
When An Intelligent Community Helps Defend a Nation

 The year 2008 was a good one for the Intelligent Community of Tallinn, Estonia.  In recognition of the amazing efforts that vaulted the city from post-Soviet depression to “Baltic Tiger,” according to The New York Times, ICF added Tallinn to its list of the Top7 Intelligent Communities for the second year in a row.  

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We also honored the X-Road software platform, developed by Tallinn-based companies, with one of our Founders’ Awards.  X-Road allows different systems to talk to each other securely and includes development tools that made it possible to develop online services quickly and cheaply.  It became the backbone for more than 100 e-government services, from electronic medical records to banking and drivers licensing. 

The 2008 awards were special because of something that happened the previous year. In 2007, Estonia became the first nation to experience sustained and systematic cyber-attack.  “Its main websites were overwhelmed with traffic from multiple sources in a distributed denial of service attack during a row with Russia over a war memorial,” according to a recent article in The Economist.  “The episode crippled the country’s online banking system and came within a whisker of disabling emergency services.” 

Software engineers inside and outside government worked to harden its defenses.  But they worked on something else as well, and in September 2014, we all got to see what it was.  In a test conducted with the help of Microsoft, Estonia moved software, data sets, even the X-Road platform to servers and data centers outside the nation’s borders while keeping it all running.  The same ecosystem of software talent that built X-Road came up with a way to literally back up the country to the cloud.

There were glitches in plenty.  The test uncovered thorny issues ranging from law and national sovereignty to the fact that too little of the software had proper documentation.  But as an exercise in imaginative self-defense in the digital age, it had few equals.

Intelligent Communities use information and communications technology to build local prosperity, solve social problems and enrich their cultures.  They install “smart city” technologies to save money and improve public services, and build innovation ecosystems that generate new employment, new companies and new wealth. 

Tallinn has done all of these things.  Since 2007, however, it has come to understand something else as well: when you live by the byte, you can also die by it.  Intelligent Communities, take note.    

Photo courtesy Taxify, Tallinn, Estonia

 
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