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Tuesday, October 15, 2013
How Committed Citizens Change the World

At an ICF workshop in Lafayette, Louisiana this week, I was asked a poignant question: “Are other countries far ahead of the US when it comes to broadband?”  The question came up as I was telling the story of an Intelligent Community in Europe to this group of mayors, members of council and city and parish staff from rural communities in the southern half of the state.


There are two answers to the question.  The first is that, according to objective experts like the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, the US is not behind at all.  ITIF’s most recent report states that “The US is near the top of the rankings in terms of the deployment and adoption of high-speed, wired networks and leads the OECD in adoption of advanced wireless LTE broadband networks.  US broadband speeds… also rank in the top 10 in the world.”

For the other answer, I can quote instead from science-fiction author William Gibson, who said that “the future is here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”   The US tolerates a much higher level of inequality in broadband distribution – as it does in most social matters – than most industrialized nations.  Market forces rule, and markets where providers can make lots of money win out over thinly-populated regions where the cost of deployment per user is high.  

And if that is all there was to it, we would have had a very short conversation.  Instead, half the workshop was spent talking about the ways in which market power translates into political power.  The City of Lafayette built a fiber-to-the-premise network beginning in 2004 and wound up fighting a $4.5 million legal battle with incumbents to win the right to compete with them.   Following their inability to shut down the city, the incumbents went to the legislature, where they succeeded in guiding the Local Government Fair Competition Act into law.  More properly termed the Cartel Protection Act, the law blocks every other Louisiana municipality from owning and operating a network offering service to the public – which effectively frees the incumbents not to compete where they don’t want to.  

I use the term “cartel” advisedly.  By rights, I think telecom providers should be the Intelligent Community’s best allies, and I salute those with the vision and courage to be exactly that.  But so many of them seem to prefer instead the economics of the cartel, which are at the root of most of the world’s under-development problems in both rich nations and poor ones.  When the guys with the money can also control politics to protect their interests, progress stops.  Or it would if the cartels had things all their own way.  

clientuploads/Images/MasterClass-Bell-250.gifWhat the Lafayette workshop revealed was the great, shared frustration of rural parishes and cities with their inability to get the “high-speed wired network…and advanced wireless LTE broadband networks” that their urban peers enjoy.  There was talk of forming an action committee to educate rural mayors and councils and to develop policy recommendations that could spark a genuine debate – not the one behind closed doors that cartels prefer – on the state’s broadband policies.  

Who knows how far it can go?  The anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote words that still send chills up my spine, despite they’re being so widely quoted.  “Never doubt,” she said, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”  

Why?  This is the part that gets those chills rippling upward: because, she wrote “it's the only thing that ever has.”  

Monday, October 7, 2013
Wanted: Champions of Change

Last week, I led a workshop for about twenty people in a graceful Civil War-era building in the beautiful city of Natchitoches, Louisiana, USA.  In my opening remarks, I thanked the anonymous resident who posted a video to YouTube explaining how to say what it called the hardest place name to pronounce in the USA.  Say “NAK-eh-tish” and you have it about right.


Twenty people: mayors and members of Council from small rural cities and towns, economic development directors, librarians, social workers and telecom executives.  They had agreed to attend one of ICF’s Master Classes on the promise that it would address “Making Broadband Pay Off for Rural Louisiana.”  It is part of a year-long project funded by a federal grant and the state’s Office of Information Technology and administered by a tri-state economic development organization called the Coordinating and Development Corporation.  

The rural places of Louisiana are behind the curve when it comes to adopting broadband.  According to a state study, the adoption rate is 58% compared with 68% nationwide.  Of the 42% that do not have broadband at home, nearly two-thirds said that it was available – they have just not subscribed to it.  Which means they are missing out on the $262 billion in US consumer e-commerce spending, and the $559 billion in online purchasing by business and government.  They are missing out on business attraction and retention, on educational opportunities, and on the chance to use social media to bridge the distances separating people in rural locations.  

The people in that room want to change this situation for the communities they call home.  We discussed the challenges of explaining why broadband matters to people who don’t have it.  We talked about education gaps and the need for small businesses to get technical help to put their businesses online.  And I did what we always do: tell stories of places not too different from theirs, where ingenuity, commitment and smart decisions are building communities able to prosper in our new century.  

I suggest you keep your eye on the rural areas of your nation.  The scale is small, the distances large, the progress incremental.   But there is innovation rising in rural places as people choose not to let global economics overwhelm cherished ways of life.  They are choosing instead to embrace change – but change that they create, change that creates economic growth while serving the community’s needs and values.  We launched the Rural Imperative project to track their progress, and I asked the twenty champions of change in that room to help us show the world what is possible in rural Louisiana.

Next week I am in the coastal Louisiana city of Lafayette – known for its community broadband network – conducting another Master Class.  We’ll see what a more urban area has to say about the challenges of making broadband pay off. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Happening this week in Eindhoven- a unique experiment in global collaboration between Intelligent Communities of the Year


In 2007 the small but uniquely positioned Waterloo Region in Ontario, Canada had aggressively pursued their application for Intelligent Community of the Year and won. In 2011, a similarly small but uniquely positioned Eindhoven Region in the Netherlands had aggressively pursued their application and won. They each had specific strengths that the adjudicators felt were the best of class for that year among ICF submissions and related to an Intelligent Community theme. They have been inspirations for other cities around the world and the awareness developed from their award has attracted increased business activity and even foreign direct investment. Independently these Intelligent Communities have done extremely well and as a result these Intelligent Communities have continued to be involved with the Intelligent Community movement. 

clientuploads/Images/qnc-cover.jpgOver the years, the two Mayors of each of these Intelligent Communities began to get to know each other by attending events such as ICF’s Annual Summit in New York City every June, as did other members of each other’s community.  There was some research undertaken between the two regions and last June, after the ICF’s Summit, Eindhoven Mayor Rob van Gijzel traveled with a small delegation from New York to Waterloo Region to see for himself. They visited the University of Waterloo’s Center for Automotive Research (WATCAR), the newly opened Quantum and Nanotechnology Centre (QNC), Communitech Hub and many other aspects of the Waterloo Intelligent Community. A community-wide sharing exercise culminated their two day visit with an MOU signed between Waterloo’s Mayor Brenda Halloran with Eindhoven. Mayor van Gijzel and his delegation were surprized at the similarities, yet there was so much more to learn and to explore between the two regions. Accordingly, Mayor van Gijzel invited the mayors from the Waterloo Region to visit his region in the Netherlands. Plans for follow-up between the two regions have come together and this week from October 2 to 4, 2013, the two regions are meeting in Eindhoven to further their exploratory mission. 

The power of reaching out to create a new global partnership as two like-minded Intelligent Communities, seemed simple enough, but the follow-up to implement a visit to each other’s cities became an even bigger opportunity. The three mayors that make up the region of Waterloo, namely the Mayors of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo will be meeting the Mayors of Eindhoven as well as its regional communities of Veldhoven, Helmond and Best. In addition to government, the University of Waterloo (UW) and Canada’s Technology for Food (CTFF) will be meeting with their respective organizations in the academic and business sectors. And the respective economic development officials from the Waterloo Region’s cities and Canada’s Technology Triangle (CTT), a regional economic development organization focused on FDI, will be meeting staff from Brainport, an impressive regional economic development agency representing the Eindhoven Region to discuss mutually-beneficial opportunities for pursuing some unique economic development initiatives between the two regions. One of these discussions will be to develop a program to share information, promotion and exchanges between the two region’s talent pools; another is to share experiences and contacts between organizations of similar sectors; and the idea of potentially linking to yet another like-minded Intelligent Community. It is proposed that the two regions- one from North America and the other from Europe will join a third region, in Asia, that the other two believe will benefit from the global triangle of Intelligent Communities.  This is a simple idea but has some powerful opportunities. 

These Intelligent Communities from each major time zone will be able to share, exchange and benchmark their progress; they will be able to raise awareness of each other’s key sectors; develop initiatives that the three Intelligent Communities have common interests in; and pursue special projects that can become models for other Intelligent Communities around the world. In fact, the concept has already inspired other cities to begin to explore this approach among the Intelligent Community Forum Foundation members. 

From an Intelligent Community Forum perspective, this experiment has tremendous potential and could help inspire other communities, but is not a replacement for the Sister Cities concept. However, it could evolve into an exciting way to develop targeted economic development initiatives that would resonate between and among the partners of the global triangle. For instance, the universities among these three international city regions could develop a focused exchange of students and professors; the incubators in the global triangle could target each other’s companies for potential joint venture partnerships; the venture capital from each other’s regions could become more familiar with the international opportunities of investing in these regions; and there could be specific collaborative initiatives which would never have happened without the familiarity and personal relationships that will naturally develop over time with regular information sharing, targeted projects and aiming together to reach new and higher levels of international trade and development competence and prosperity.

This week’s visit has very high hopes but is also an opportunity to explore new directions for each of the regions and could potentially be of great benefit for the third region in mind, as well. Perhaps in time we will be able to follow-up on Eindhoven-Waterloo Collaboration 2.0 and see where this little visit this week will lead them.

Monday, September 23, 2013
Dusting off the Rust Belt


Could you identify the Renaissance if you were living in it?  Or if it arrived in your home town?  We love to tag our era, no matter how inaccurate.  Here we are in “The Digital Age.”  (Not long ago, it was “The Space Age.)  Since the dawn of “The Nuclear Age,” we have lived in an “Age of Anxiety,” a phrase made familiar by a great Leonard Bernstein composition.  At its inception the Intelligent Community Forum coined its own phrase, “The Broadband Economy,” to give a blanket description to a global technological phenomenon.   

We name eras to give order to the unpredictable quarks of time.  I joked with my history professors, as I do now with audiences that the Renaissance began predictably.  People went to bed on the third Sunday of October 1502 and woke-up to learn that the Late Middle Ages were over.  What happened next?  Politicians promised that there would be no new taxes and an enterprising artist in Florence began making t-shirts that read, “Kiss Me, I Started the Renaissance.”

It did not happen that way.  The overlap and linkage between one period and the next ensures that causes will always be blurred. However, we DO know that there was a flourishing and a rebirth of culture.  Communities became canvases of a new type.  The printing press and other technologies and discoveries accelerated the introduction and distribution of ideas.  Learning – especially a rediscovery of old truths (the Greek Classics) was now central to forces pushing societies forward.  Observation, the essence of the scientific method, was similarly introduced.  The period that followed enlightened wider segments of the population.  The seeds of democracy emerged in Europe and in North America and finally reached all shores.  Science infused itself in daily life mandating collaboration.  We saw a period of progress led by learning, technology and the emergence of “open source government.”  

Sound familiar?

The cliché states that “history does not repeat/but that it rhymes from time to time.”  I would argue against that.  I believe it does repeat because there are universal truths. The challenge for every era is to give a new voice to these old truths.  To refresh community narratives so that they help us recover our best attributes and sustain us for at least three generations.

This lands me in one of the unlikely symbols of the new renaissance, the American state of Ohio.  Why Ohio?  I have been asked this question since we chose to locate our first North American Institute for the Study of the Intelligent Community on the campus of Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio.

There are three reasons: OneCommunity, Dublin and Columbus.  

During the end of a miserable dark age in Cleveland, when nearly one in every three adults fell into the still sadness of poverty, a nonprofit called OneCommunity deployed a community-based broadband network to facilitate what is now the foundation of a new knowledge economy.  At our Institute’s symposium in October, you will hear Lev Gonick, the group’s founder speak about how the network became the new railroad.  So much so, that by 2005, Intel had named the region one of its there “Worldwide Digital Communities.”  In 2008, we named Lev’s partner, Scot Rourke, our Visionary of the Year.  The re-energizing of the troubled region is unstoppable.  Today, OneCommunity’s network extends 2,000 miles and it has introduced innovative ecosystems like its Fiberhood project to encourage entrepreneurship.  

Further to the south, Dublin, Ohio, known for its Memorial Golf tournament, played on a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, demonstrates that size truly does not matter.  With a mere 42,000 souls, the community, which rests on the edge of 15th largest metropolitan area in the nation, the state capital Columbus, creates more jobs than it has people to fill them.  “Rest” is the last thing Dublin does.  It too started with a broadband network which led to the region’s first new hospital in decades and sustains and girds more Fortune 500 companies per capita than any other place in the USA.  Dublin’s Deputy City Manager led the economic development and that is why Dana McDaniel was given the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award by the Intelligent Community Forum. Dublin has the luxury of saying to companies that do not have the potential necessary to fulfill its vision of an Intelligent Community, “thanks for your interest, but we have no room.” 

There is room in nearby Columbus.  In fact, the two communities share room in places like the TechColumbus incubator.  They share the resources of the largest private research institute in the world, Battelle, and certainly benefit from being near and connected to the Ohio Supercomputer and America’s top-ranked metropolitan library.  While there is no art of a Michelangelo type, culture and the pursuit of excellence are robustly expressed in the competitive and rigorous expression of American football.  Non-sports fans persistently underestimate the positive role of athletics on cultures and behavior.  It was important to the ancient Greeks and is no different today, although shoulder pads, masks and helmets seem to be better!

The bottom line is that these two communities lead the state’s recovery and, with Northeast Ohio, have layered a knowledge economy atop an industrial powerhouse that many gave up for dead.  Brookings demographer William Frey reported that Columbus is one of a handful of cities that has reversed the brain drain so prevalent in the post-Industrial Age.  It produced 29,000 jobs in a two-year span.

What you find today in Ohio are Intelligent Communities and an Institute for the study of them.  There is a lot going on there.  The rust and the dusk of a dark period for this part of the world appear to me to be vanishing.  A rebirth is underway.  It does not happen overnight, nor does it come without pain.  The first Renaissance lasted 300 hundred years.  We cannot wait so long now.   If you can find rust in Ohio’s clichéd “rust belt,” please send me an email.

Monday, September 16, 2013
Smart China is Evolving in a GIG-Way (Sorry for the Pun)


Someone let the cat out of the bag. I have been in China for many years promoting the smart and intelligent community movement throughout the country including at Langfang’s APEC Conference as well as in Tianjin, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Beijing and Hong Kong, among other cities. I brought mayors from recognized intelligent cities with me and promoted the concept at the Shanghai Expo. Chongqing, Tianjin, Tianjin Binhai, Jiading, Hong Kong and Shanghai were even recognized by ICF as Smart21 and Top 7 Intelligent Communities over the years. But for years there had been little indication of China’s broader interest in smart-city development in the same way as other countries around the world. However, that is changing!  Although China’s  smart city thinking is still in its infancy, it is nevertheless big and going to get bigger – in a GIG- way (sorry for the pun).

China plans Gigabit Internet speeds by 2020

Let’s get serious here - although China can boast the world's largest Internet population of Internet users (600 million or 44% Internet penetration), average Internet speeds currently tend to be at a meagre 1.7 Mbps compared to speeds nearing 10 times faster in neighbouring countries like Japan and Korea. In its new broadband strategy, launched to help stimulate China’s IT industry, 400 million households in China are expected to get high-speed broadband at 20Mbps by 2015; rural households will reach 4Mbps by 2015; and some key urban areas will even get access to gigabit (1000 Mbps) speeds by 2020. In addition it is expected that 85 percent of the population will have access to 3G and 4G mobile networks. China is the world's largest market for smartphones – accounting for 240 million units, twice the U.S. market. While there are significant plans ahead to create efficient, fast and affordable infrastructure in China, according to the China Internet Network Information Center, large numbers of Chinese (54%) still do not have access to computers and the Internet, nor feel they have a need to. In fact, in rural areas, Internet penetration is only at 28 percent.

China is tying its ICT sector enhancements to increased efficiencies as part of its urbanization strategies. Smart city strategies are no longer deemed just concepts by authorities, but rather are being accepted and implemented on a large scale. China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development is responsible for the promotion and implementation of urbanization in China and has indicated that it is “committed to carrying out city planning, construction, administration and operation by means of smart city strategies so as to achieve a low-carbon lifestyle, convenient services, and intelligence -intensive features.” Additionally, a Digital City Engineering Research Center has been established to ensure excellence in design, smart city indicators, standards and policies as well as providing guidance for the construction of smart cities across the country.

China selected 90 cities for its first phase of smart city development along with an additional 103 cities as pilot cities to implement smart city construction initiatives, representing 1.1 trillion RMB ($180 Million US). Chinese authorities predict as many as 600 to 800 cities in China will ultimately be engaged in Smart City initiatives valued at 2 trillion RMB ($325 Million US).

I predict that we will see countries and regions like China, S.E. Asia and India emerging as great proponents of Smart City and Intelligent Community development over the next decade as they look to be globally competitive and bring their communities in line with other cities and regions that will have developed as Smart and Intelligent Communities.

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