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Monday, January 13, 2014
"You Will Never Stop Building Towers"

Stockholm has done it. So has Dublin, Ohio and the entire nation of Australia.  Next on the list: Lac Ste. Ann County?  

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In December, I was in western Canada providing the services of our Community Accelerator program to the government of Parkland County, Alberta, which is on the 2014 list of the Smart21 Communities of the Year.  Parkland County is a municipal district, which is a fairly common form of government in the sparsely populated province of Alberta.  With a population of 30,000, it has an average density of 32 people per square mile or 13 people per km². We’re talking rural.

clientuploads/Images/parkland-county-alberta-canada-a-tree-steve-nagy.jpgI was there to address gatherings of citizens and small business owners in village halls, the traditional centers of village life that are being transformed into digital hubs thanks to Parkland County’s infrastructure of wireless towers.  The county has not gone into the telecoms business: rather, it has built a network of towers, capitalized by grant funding, for wireless ISPs, mobile carriers and first-responder networks to equip with radios.  By building the utility-grade towers and interconnecting them with fiber, the county is drastically reducing companies’ cost of entry for serving new markets – in particular, low-density areas where a for-profit carrier would otherwise find it impossible to turn a profit.  The towers are already generating rental income and within a couple of years, will provide enough cash flow to fund continued operation and upgrade, while enabling the private sector to serve customers who would normally be on the wrong side of the digital divide.

It’s called open access, and it has worked in many cities and suburbs.  Parkland County is bringing the strategy to a rural place, and doing it with a mix of caution and daring – always with an eye on the bottom line – that are the hallmarks of successful community network deployment.

Part of that strategy involves helping surrounding counties and municipalities do the same thing.  The bigger the total network, the greater efficiencies Parkland County and its partners should enjoy, and the more leverage they will have with hardware, software and service providers.  So, one of my stops was in the City Council chambers of clientuploads/Images/tower-300x224.jpgLac Ste. Anne County, to the north of Parkland.  

We’re talking way rural here: 3.6 people per km2.  The Council was deliberating an investment in a few towers that would bring them into the Parkland County network, and members were concerned about the kinds of things Councils should worry about.  Would the investment lose money?  Would changes in technology make towers obsolete?  Would voters get upset to see towers rising on the horizon?  Al McCully of Parkland County and the network designer, Allan Bly, answered their questions.  Bly stressed the work that Parkland County had put into standardizing its tower designs, which eliminates the need for specialized antenna contractors and reduces long-term costs. 

Then he said something that every Intelligent Community should keep in mind when considering its broadband destiny. 

He cautioned that their decision was not a one-time thing but a first step.  Once people get a taste of real broadband, he said, “you will never stop building towers.”  

He was right.  When Intelligent Communities contemplate creating networks, all attention goes to that first, white-knuckle decision: do we or don’t we?  How will the private sector respond?  Will voters really be behind this or will there be a backlash after the inevitable problems arise?  Are we really able to pull this off?  

But once you enter the business of broadband infrastructure, you will always be in that business, just as you will always be in the business of maintaining roads and sidewalks, picking up garbage and fixing streetlights.  These are good businesses to be in, because they make your city or county a better place to live, work, start a business and raise the next generation.   And that’s why local government exists, isn’t it?  

Photo credit: Steve Nagy

 
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Success the Crooked Way

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In eight hours 2014 arrives.  People have begun to elevate to the point of hysteria their claims for it to be a “new start.”  Rather than act in the moment, while it is still 31 December, most figure it best to begin tomorrow morning, or perhaps afternoon.  I wish them well.  While the future is being eagerly fantasized over, the year 2013 is being obsessively analyzed, and first drafts of its place in history are being posted digitally, tweeted endlessly and chatted about on TV as if one stroke after Midnight makes them a tidy conclusion.  Linear thinking.  Who needs it?

In New York City, where I am celebrating this evening, a new mayor prepares to take office and “make the city better,” while a departing Mayor, Michael Bloomberg (whose kind words helped the Intelligent Community Forum establish credibility in New York ten years ago), claims that during his tenure the city was made better.  Americans are a restless bunch.    

clientuploads/Images/Success.pngAs you know, success in a city or a community is never assured.  In the end success ultimately depends on factors that evolve from collaboration, daring leadership and the ability to make programs works and ideas believable.  This is the age of the civic experiment and the community is a canvas and a lab.  As we head toward the selection of our next group of the world’s seven most representative communities for the future, Intelligent Communities are right smack in the center of the innovations that are taking place at the local level.  What will be the outcome?  I believe it will be more successes shaped around our five criteria and the realization that most problems begin and end in the place we call “home.”  No need to travel to find trouble.  Just look inside, as the Buddhists say.  Of course in the final analysis a confluence of events that we call dumb Luck are factors we must also weigh into the mix.  There may be more wisdom in China than thought, as it is a place where people pray for luck and let hard work and the pursuit of economic success help guide It along.

Guiding luck toward success is tricky business.  President Toomas H. Ilves of Estonia pointed out recently that if his nation, whose phone system in 1993 was literally one from 1938, had taken Finland’s offer of a free analog system from the late 1970’s, things would be far different in places such as its capital and five-time Top7 Intelligent Community, Tallinn.  

But Ilves said no.  “We do not want to get stuck with 1979 technology” (especially not in 1993), he told his citizens.  It is better to take a leap and go straight to the most modern technology.”  The decision was taken and it was followed by success of a type others now envy and study.  Before Skype was purchased for US$8.5 billion, it was dreamed of in Estonia.  Tallinn, because of its Intelligent Community status, is today mentioned in the same breath as entrepreneurial communities such as London, Silicon Valley and Eindhoven.  On a per capita basis, Estonia generates as many start-ups as the USA.  How long does it take to start a business in Tallinn or any part of Estonia thanks to its digital infrastructure?  18 seconds.  (Try that with a Communist-inspired network.)

But the discussion we will have after Midnight is increasingly NOT about technology.  The fact remains that you can define success in three words: we want it.  We want it very bad.  We want it so we can find ways to build better places, rationalize our investments and our decisions to live in that place; to improve the cities in which we live and to go forward confidently in the knowledge that where we stop is reachable by following a path built from our hopes and not our fears.  “Help us,” a common prayer says in petition, “to walk a walk of faith and not of fear.”

We have found a way to get there, and the Intelligent Community Forum will keep the path open.  In a few days, I will speak about this new horizon for cities in a place that has taught me much about the subject, Eindhoven, The Netherlands.  Its motto, “creating the industries of the future,” is where the train to community thinking can begin.  

The future of Place, that is of local economies and OUR HOMES, depends on the degree to which we manage two things: our ability to create not merely jobs, which churn fast and vanish, but industries that thrive and define us.  The future will be shaped around another type of success that we often ignore: the success of our ideas.  We understand that true growth – the real seeds of life – come from each individual pursuing personal growth.  This means liberty.  This means a free gymnasium for the exercise of conscience.  This means creativity at the center of life.  The fact that in 2010 the first synthetic organism was produced is not a metric that economists or governments will look at as the evolution of an industry – or industries.  But it is all of that.  Everyone spoke endlessly about “jobs” in 2013.  In 2014, as you will discover, the new Top7 and ICF will be talking about new industries.  My keynote in Eindhoven will start the year on this path and it will be followed by a gathering in the reigning Intelligent Community of the Year, Taichung.  In Taichung, as the Top7 will be named in the city that has married industries to universities to government.  If you attend the city will show you on 22 January how it is done.  Contact us for more details.

Will it all roll-up neatly into a package, or arc upward in a straight line?  Hell no.  When did it ever, except after several drinks on the last day of a year when our nostalgia got the best of us.  Now, it nearly Midnight.  Friends and community are waiting.  It is time to have those drinks, enjoy the possibilities, and tomorrow get on the path forward.

 
Monday, December 23, 2013
Smart Cities are Early Adopters

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clientuploads/Images/Economist-SmartCities.gifI would like to amplify on my colleague’s last blog, as I too participated in The Economist Web debate on Smart Cities. I too voted “no” – Smart Cities are not empty hype, but I wasn’t surprized by the split vote.  As Robert Bell stated in the last blog, “Smart Cities are about using a new generation of cheap, powerful sensors, data storage and software to automate cities …. using information and communications technology (ICT) to do more with less.”  Cities that have become involved in these tech enhanced programs like are quite happy with their asset management initiatives.  But having worked with some of these cities, I cannot say that they would qualify as Intelligent Communities. They could if they go the next steps and build on the platform that has been built for them by the Smart City technology firm. So my position was a little different. I felt that these tech companies are doing these cities a big favor by helping them to get a terrific grounding on the first level of intelligent communities – namely by focusing on what we call getting the infrastructure right.  Here is what I said:

“I think it’s essential to have smart cities. They are not just empty hype. Whether they evolve as a result of public policy first or come originally in a box from vendors promoting it to the city technocrats perhaps without a clear picture of where the community is going with it, the end result is the same - like early adopters, these communities will have the benefit of the experience of greater efficiencies in transportation, utilities, etc; improved budgets; and overall longer term sustainability than without them. Citizens, technocrats and decision makers alike will greatly benefit from this experience and want to constantly improve upon their smart community with increased connectivity, perhaps even seek to develop ultra-high-speed broadband throughout their community like Toronto's Waterfront or Chattanooga; perhaps more wireless monitoring capabilities will be installed to capture even more data, but which might also double up as free Wi-Fi for their citizens; and maybe even some visioning among thought leaders in the community might result to help to develop a plan to improve their community further or take advantage of underutilized land or buildings which might benefit from these smart services. Their city asset managers will greatly benefit from these and likely promote further improvements and maybe even seek more ways for their community to benefit from these smart technologies and methodologies.

Sooner or later the benefits will also attract investors (perhaps even FDI) and businesses who want to be associated with these efficient and well planned communities. Talent will be attracted to join these new job opportunities; more talent will be needed and perhaps local educational institutions will be brought into this activity - not only for training to meet the needs of analyzing the big data generated by the smart city but also to investigate and undertake research on what these and future smart cities need; how to create them better and other related research in support of smart region planning and execution. With these institutions involved, more talent is created and attracted to be involved in the local smart community activities. Some of these will be highly innovative and creative people benefitting from the smart technologies available in the smart community. They might even incubate homegrown businesses as start-ups, creating innovative products and services that can be commercialized and exported abroad, bringing further wealth and prosperity to the area. These benefits and increased prosperity can now be shared among the disadvantaged, disenfranchised, the elderly and single mothers and young children. Those disadvantaged in a smart city should be able to benefit from available digital training and become digitally included, offering some new opportunities for them and their children. I have seen this in the Knowledge Squares in Rio and even in smaller locations such as Riverside, California.

With a smart city as a platform you can begin to get onto the pathway to a higher level of community-wide engagement; bringing education, thought leadership and public policy into the game. Ultimately we will want to see these ideas entrenched into public policies so that plans, budgets and community wide acceptance and continuous improvement become part of this exercise. With all of these elements in place, I dare say the marketers of the community better step up and promote the city to attract even further investment, talent and jobs to this smart community.

But at this point, I would suggest it goes beyond the concept of "smart". It has been said by the Mayor of Stratford, Canada that you have to be a Smart City to become an Intelligent Community. Where the city transforms from smart to Intelligent is another topic for debate, but it clearly goes beyond the infrastructure, analysis of big data and begins to get into the attitude, culture and philosophy of true city-building along with its citizens that makes it become intelligent. But it has to start somewhere - and I would say that it all starts with the smart city. Empty Hype? Not at all: a great platform upon which to build upon.”

 
Monday, December 16, 2013
Are Smart Cities Empty Hype?

This bracing question is posed on the Web site of The Economist, and visitors are invited to vote “yes” or “no” as well as to post their own comments.  The voting closed with a hair-thin 54/46 victory for "no," which must be demoralizing for the brilliant technology companies promoting Smart City solutions.  

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I was one of the "no" votes. Smart Cities are not empty hype.  But I suspect the current split decision reflects an uncomfortable truth: that the hype-to-reality ratio is pretty high.  

Smart Cities are about using a new generation of cheap, powerful sensors, data storage and software to automate cities, in the same way we have automated factories over the past decades. They are about using information and communications technology (ICT) to do more with less.  Processes that once operated in the shadows become visible and measurable, which lets cities make better choices.  Everything happens faster and more reliably, which makes constituents happy.  Costs fall permanently because more efficient processes need fewer people to run them. 

It’s all valuable.  It’s just not the revolution that some claim it to be.

clientuploads/Images/Economist-SmartCities.gifThe revolution lies in taking the next step – in setting out on the path to become an Intelligent Community.  Here, the goal is to do more with more.  Intelligent Communities use ICT to generate more economic energy in the form of new employment from new employers and new industries.  They work to break down social and cultural barriers that hold back part of their populations, allowing the benefits of a knowledge-based economy to spread far and wide.  They even use ICT to strength, preserve and extend the culture of communities – that invisible glue that binds together individuals into a whole and makes a place into a home.  

I would go so far as to say that Smart Cities are about adapting to limits – to shrunken municipal budgets, lower ambitions, and a vision of the future less prosperous than today.  Intelligent Communities are about envisioning a future limited only by our imaginations and our ambitions for the place we live, work and raise the next generation.  Municipal leaders need to respect the limits of the present.  But those limits should never be permitted to define the future. 

 
Monday, December 9, 2013
2013 Goes Home

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“Going home.”  The phrase resonates at so many levels every time I hear it.  Most recently the American president, Obama, used it, referring to the final place to which Nelson Mandela had been called upon his passing in Johannesburg, South Africa.  After a remarkable nine and one-half decades, nearly three of them in jail, a lonely struggle and, in the end, a miraculous transformation from an old tribalism to enlightened national community, Mandela set us on a course which remains one part aspirational and one part achieved.  With his work on Earth now finished, said the young American president, he had been called home.  “As we all shall be,” he added. In 2013, no doubt as it was in 1320, Home is the word we all embrace for its emotional composition.  It is both refuge and, yet for many, still an elusive aspiration.

clientuploads/Images/Cultivate Young Knowledge Workers- Elementary School English Typing Competition.jpgAt the moment Mandela exited, you can be sure that a long, long way away, the polite, ebullient students of Taoyuan County’s Chung Ping elementary school, a celebrated rural school full of great teachers and digital tools, were also headed home as the day’s final bell rang.  As I witnessed when visiting in the Spring, a final bow to the teacher ends the day and children file out in an orderly (well, kind of orderly) fashion.  These children too go home – in this case to their parents - knowing that they will rise again the next morning in one of the world’s Top7 Intelligent Communities and in a country, Taiwan, that in 2013 claimed for the second time in seven years the world’s best example of our collective future.  In June Taichung was named Intelligent Community of the Year.  It was the type of place Mandela had in mind for his own nation’s communities, including Nelson Mandela Bay, a 2009 ICF selection.

As 2013 posts its final grade, I can report that in terms of its cities and towns; communities and cultures, it was a year of progress.  The Mandela vision of one world moved one inch closer to reality.  It was a year when the notion of “enlightened tribalism” was further embraced.  Thanks to the work of Intelligent Community leaders like Mayors van Gijzel, Halloran and Hau Lung-bin, Taipei is to Eindoven what Waterloo is to Suwon.  Irrespective of culture or language, the identification of a like-minded city, with similar aspirations and policies shaped by five basic indicators, has produced a new form of global governance and cooperation.  One of the Intelligent Community Forum Foundation’s major achievements of the year, its “Connections” program, allows communities with much in common to build upon their intelligence and capacities.   

If you set aside the policy papers, city council debates, legal battles over municipal fiber ownership and the circular confusion over how to best teach people in an era when “knowledge” has burst through the retaining walls, and what we need to know is challenged, these communities, working together, offer cohesion and promise.  Cohesion and promise formed around a new set of guidelines and realities.   In each you will hear “quality of life” spoken of as if a right; “access” debated not as something that might be useful, but rather in terms of how fast it can be installed, and “culture” being examined not merely as tourism or a Sunday visit to the local museum, but as a natural resource with economic development and gross domestic local product output as its goal.  While these ideas have been in the air since 1995, the Intelligent Community movement has brought them squarely into the discussion - and into the imagination of a new corps of leaders and thinkers.  2013 was a watershed year.

clientuploads/Images/Top7-Logo2.gifOur year began in January, when seven communities were designated as exemplars for all to look toward for guidance.  The Top7 of 2013 continue to construct admirable home towns.  One of them, Toronto, even demonstrated in ’13 that a futuristic community can go forward with a backward-looking leader.  In Canada’s other Intelligent Community, Stratford, the future was in sight and the mayor led the way.  In the two Taiwanese cities among the year’s elite seven (Taoyuan and Taichung) the persuasive strength of their mayors showed the rest of the population the way home.   Columbus (USA), Oulu (Finland) and Tallinn (Estonia) were examples of places where, without a public fuss or dust-ups, foundations were laid for the future, even as headwinds challenged the journey.  An Intelligent Community is one that is “future proof.”  Columbus created nearly 30,000 jobs even as America struggled to regain its economic footing; Oulu continued to build an entrepreneurial engine, despite having a limited history of doing so; and Tallinn (as it had done in 1991) pushed its chips to the center of the table again, this time betting that education would be the dog that would hunt, and hunt well for its citizens, in the long-term.

Not all of our alumni communities thrive, but all continue to imagine they will and keep at it.  In 2009, Nelson Mandela Bay became the last Intelligent Community named from South Africa.   In its annual report, the city reported 100% compliance with both fresh water standards and the provisioning of electricity.  It also  created nearly 1,600 new jobs.  But it has not been easy.  It reported too that its persistent challenges include a need to “develop a shared, long-term vision and a mission to provide a strategic focus for long-term planning.”  It has a 28% unemployment rate.  But it is free at last, and that is not a small thing.  It is also an Intelligent Community, because in 2009 it set itself a task of getting home, no matter what the price, and showed us the plan and its tenacity.  We can say it holds its own because it knows that now is not the time to let go of its future.  After all, this is a place named after a giant.

The most inspired words of the year came spontaneously from the Keynote speaker at our Institute’s annual Symposium at Walsh University.  As he patiently explained to a rapt audience why his Aakash II computer is creating the next one billion mobile users, Datawind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli told his story of how the device was created, and how it has begun turning India and the developed world inside/out and upside/down.  His vision is Apple’s with a social conscience.  Aakash may do for the three billion underserved what the iPad has done for those of us grateful to be among the over-privileged.  It will make a profit - and much more.  “I am not by nature an optimist,” he began, “but listening to the people in this room and in this movement, I can say that there is no longer any room for pessimism.”

For these words alone, 2013 was a year to cherish. Pessimists need not apply in 2014. 

 
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