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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.  


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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015
The Disrupted Find a Voice


There is an intellectual eruption taking place in a tiny corner of the New York publishing world that is a microcosm of the big battle underway for the hearts and minds of people in cities worldwide.  As behemoths slide into being with trending names like “Broadband Economy,” “Singularity” and “Gigabit City” to take hold of the economy, our imagination, and then push with increasingly uncomfortable force against the personal destinies of larger and larger numbers of people, places and leaders, the impact of two decades of digital life are being felt.  Some call it “disruption” and, having named it think they’ve tamed it and take a seat at the next clichéd seminar.  But the words “disoriented and dispossessed” seem more accurate ways to describe what a generation of “smart” risks leaving us with if we are not mindful.

The time is close at hand when the “Smart Cities” fetish will be revolted against, and when the Intelligent Community appears as the only rational balance of opposing forces.  While we have more reliable bus schedules and access to the weather – all good if you travel by bus and want to know which jacket to wear, as I do - there remains the perception that something “inhuman” is lurking, which puts at risk everything for which we have committed ourselves in order to energize cities and towns for this century.  In my speech in Montreal on Wednesday, I will probe this further.

“Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace,” sang Bob Dylan.  What he meant was clear.  Do not be fooled by the appearance of the good, but be mindful of whether what you see and experience really is good, rather than a strong force happening around you.

This is the sentiment suggested in January by Leon Wieseltier, the former literary editor of the New Republic magazine, one of America’s most influential and controversial journals.  In an essay called Among the Disrupted he lays out the field of battle and describes the forces in our Internet of Everything or Internet of Nothing societies.  His essay has got buzz, and the buzz is eating away at preconceived notions - and is pissing-off some of our tech elite.

It is filled with counter-trend flourishes.  But it was not written as an exercise in literary flourish.  It is a meditation against the leadership that Facebook co-founder, Chris Hughes (pictured right), has brought to bear on the magazine since he purchased it in 2012, at the age of 28.  As you would expect, Hughes promised to bring it fast forward into the digital age, so that more than 40,000 readers would have access to its bright fireworks of political ideas and global sophistication.  Was it weird that a Silicon Valley billionaire would make a move on an insular, old New York cultural institution?  Maybe. But increasingly, I find, geeks want “head cred” and realize that language still has power. But the marriage between traditional and digital may have soured when the Literary Editor said after his first meeting with Hughes, “He has no interest in blogging, which sounds like Mozart to me!”

The Facebook co-founder never said he wouldn't use digital tools to find a balance between the literary and the business worlds.  After all, this guy invented the fourth largest community of interest on earth.  You would expect him to try to find a way to bring scale and profitability to a property for which he had paid handsomely, and which was losing money. And to use social media to do it. 

To Wieseltier this was the rub.  It is here that the analogy between an obscure Manhattan versus Silicon Valley skirmish articulated my concern.  ICF has led a successful fight to conclude the battle of whether broadband is necessary.  Since we unpacked this dialogue in Toronto in 1995, hundreds of organizations, conferences and policies have been formed.  Good for us.  Good for them. Good for our communities.  However I think we are all stuck and spinning our wheels on the ice of “Smart.”  Are we trying to simply push forward a technology mandate that serves as humanity’s final solution?  It is as if we are saying, God is dead and technology is the new deity against which no apostasy must be committed. Or as singer Jimmy Scott wrote, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” 

But something is happening here on earth!  As Senator Stephen Conroy of Australia’s controversial NBN learned, people only want technology – or want to pay for it – when they can figure out how it will improve THEIR lives. Giving up a real life for one lived on a small screen damn sure better have sweeter rewards.  Does it?

The essay asks this. Wieseltier says that we need to examine the rush to employ language in the digital age and to not ignore the impact or the consequences of thinking fast and living online.  He innocently asks the big question: “What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life?” 

People scoffed.  We accept the relative value and influence of open data and information, but are not sure if it is actually is making us better human beings or improving our lives.  We ignore a Stanford University report that said that multi-tasking makes us less productive.  We are not ignoring the imposition of robotics on labor, which has made labor less valuable.  Families are being split apart not because of race or class, but because the bread-winner cannot win enough bread.  The idolization of the great tools of tech have not hammered into being or planned successfully a solution that leads to the most important economic element: human satisfaction.  If we look at knowledge as something utilitarian and technology as something to be worshipped, rather than the other way around, we may be missing the key to improving our cities.

So in Montreal I will ask: do we really want to move up the difficult mountain toward “Intelligent?”

Going from “smart” to “Intelligent” is not a small step.  It is the Beatles going from Twist and Shout to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  It is the transformative step that synthesizes creativity, education, morality and the pursuit of bigger truths into the only reliable engine of human production: culture.  How the heck does one plan this?  How does one overlay digital on top of it?  How do you “friend” Intelligent Community?  It ain’t easy, but that is where ICF’s head is at 20 years after we launched the movement.  As John Jung notes in his blog below, we can will introduce you to a lot of communities that try new approaches to this and are succeeding. 

Wieseltier’s cautions are prophetic.  “The abusers of humanism,” he writes, referring to those ready to take and store our privacy, “come as emancipators.”  He says, “I think we should emancipate ourselves from their emancipations.”  Chris Hughes sees it differently.  Yet, in his mind, he too comes to do a good thing.  He is applying his tools toward the cause, as do you for your communities.  But let us not be deaf, to the prophet’s voice.  As Dylan said, “Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.”    

Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Net Neutrality: Bad in Theory, Good in Practice?

 “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice,” an aerospace engineer once said to me.  “But in practice, I find that there often is.”


Those two short sentences sum up a lot of wisdom about the net neutrality debate. 

In theory, there should be nothing wrong with allowing content providers like Netflix, YouTube and Yahoo to pay extra to broadband ISPs so that their content ends up in a “fast lane.”  Online video is swallowing up an ever-rising percentage of the Internet’s total bandwidth.  A fast lane should benefit users, and also the ISPs, which will invest that extra revenue in expanding services and increasing capacity.  In theory, everybody wins. 

In practice, however, there is high risk that a fast lane for some applications will put everybody else into the slow lane.  Dominant ISPs are very happy with their service models: indeed, the US cable TV industry owes its existence today to a farsighted decision in 1988 to found an organization that invented the cable broadband standard called DOCSIS. With so much TV and movie entertainment moving to the Web, can you imagine what their businesses would be like today without broadband?  One clear lesson from history is that if companies like their business model, they are not going to change it out of the goodness of their hearts.  That’s not how market economies work.

So the proposal of the President and FCC Chairman makes sense.  Broadband will be classified under Title II of the Telecom Act as a telecommunications service subject to potentially strict regulations – but will actually be regulated lightly to allow continued innovation.  Content providers and ISPs will still make money and users will still get their content, because market demand is such a powerful force. 

How do I know I’m right? I don’t.  But I think it’s a good bet for two reasons.  First, the new net neutrality policy basically continues the policies that have been in place since the Web was commercialized in 1994.  Every paying customer has equal access, every service provider pays for its own network and passes along traffic from other networks. 

In the past twenty years, the Web has had a revolutionary impact on how we work, shop, build businesses, learn, communicate, raise our children and worship our deities.  McKinsey & Co. estimates that it has produced 21% of all economic growth and created 1.2 million jobs in developed economies over the past 15 years.  Not bad for a 20-year old invention. Those who want to change to a different model must somehow explain why their model will produce a better outcome for the world than the one we have.

Secondly, broadband really has become a utility essential to modern life.   Britain’s Daily Mail surveyed 2000 adults in 2014 and asked them to name the products that have changed their lives the most.  Guess what came in first?  Broadband.  Second?  The Internet.  Fourth, after the also-useful washing machine?  Email.   In all, the Internet or Web-based services took 8 of the 30 top spots, along with such 20th Century breakthroughs as the refrigerator, dishwasher and microwave. 

At the Intelligent Community Forum, we see the impact of this utility everywhere.  We track the progress of cities and regions that are putting it to best use in building their economies, meeting social challenges and enriching their cultures.  No theory would have predicted that development back in 1994, when there were only 2,700 Web sites worldwide.  But it turns out that, if you give billions of people and organizations a chance to practice with the Internet, they create something of enormous value, whose impact is just beginning to be seen. 

Image courtesy Huffington Post.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Not everything can be Skyped: Reasons WHY you should attend the ICF Summit in Toronto


Summit15Why do people go to conferences, summits, seminars and roundtables? Why don’t we just sit in the comfort of our homes, sit back and turn on our Skype, WebEX or GoToMeeting online meeting services and do it all from there? Well, it’s clear that we no longer need to be at every meeting or every event. Skype, WebEX and any other media that provides an Online Webinar and meeting service will do just fine in most cases. And when they work, we praise technology from saving us from yet another trip.

But there is still that human factor – the sensory elements; the sounds, smells and images all around us; the happenstance of bumping into someone with a great idea or partnership in mind and the excitement of the crowds, especially those in a like-minded environment where conversation is easy, fun and invigorating. However not all conferences, seminars and similar gatherings are like that. Those are the ones you want to make sure you get on your Skype Horse and ride off into the sunset with it!

These gatherings should be important for the opportunities to connect, to be introduced, learn new things, become inspired and leave ready to take on the world. I recall a mayor at one of the previous ICF Summits in New York saying to his staff after viewing the presentations by another city of similar size, “heck, we can do that!” Then they went off and actually did do what they said they thought they could do and came back a couple of years later to be rewarded with Smart21 and Top 7 recognition. They might have never proceeded had they not been inspired by another community that they got to know well enough to be able to decide that they too would be able to do as well. And not all of it needs to be just inspirational… maybe a bit of competition can sneak in there too!

I also know of several communities that met each other at an ICF Summit many years ago and forged close ties with one another as a result. Through several years of developing friendships at the Summits, the mayors, staff, educational institutions and even companies began to visit each other, find out how close they were in similar attitudes, goals and opportunities , despite being separated by the great oceans and maybe even by languages and cultures. Another set of ICF Intelligent Communities formed formal Sister City ties as a result of getting to know each other through the Summit. And private sector firms are known to make an investment in communities that they have become familiar with through the ICF Summit. Those relationships are much harder to form simply through online meetings. 

When the Crystal Palace opened on May 1, 1851 in London’s Hyde Park, it started a movement to exhibit, experiment and demonstrate what was possible today and in the near future – from the first fax machine, first publicly available photographic process and even the first publicly available privy. It made it possible for people around the world to become inspired and opened up dialogue around new things and ideas that were possible. In 1995, SMART95, the world’s first Smart City Conference, held in Toronto, emulated these concepts – to show, dialogue and inspire. It was an opportunity to be in the first public experiment of bridging music over satellite and fiber-optic cables from great distances. This was an inspiration to those who attended, especially many Japanese delegates, who later demonstrated it as part of the opening of the 1998 Nagoya Olympics. It was also the first time that thought leaders came together to discuss the idea of mega-regions that could link the economies of the Rochester and Buffalo regions with Toronto via the Golden Horseshoe. Ideas such as smart buildings, smart people and even smart cities were discussed and the latest ideas of video-conferencing and digital education were introduced at this 1995 event.

Many critics of these sorts of events and gatherings focus on the waste of money and time in traveling great lengths to participate in them. But it’s really all about people, in 3D and in flesh and blood - something that you just cannot get from communicating over Skype, at least not yet. But perhaps it could be argued that it’s also a waste of our time and money every day that we travel to city centers to be able to be part of the mad morning and end of day rush hours so that we can gather in shiny towers close to one another. People gather in city centers to be able to take advantage of proximity to other people; the greater the critical mass the better in some cases. Look at New York City, Tokyo and Paris. You could go on a travelogue and explore them over your laptop or you can actually go there and be part of it, bump into people, be introduced, become inspired by listening to someone you just met through happenstance and so on…

OK, so I think I made my point. Everything has its time and place. Skype, WebEX and other online meeting services are great; we use them daily. But they will not be able to replace the excitement, inspiration and opportunity to bump into someone you need to bump into. I don’t think that Waterloo and Eindhoven would have advanced in their relationship without getting to know each other through the ICF Summits;  Allied Fiber recently opened up a carrier-neutral core network interconnection facility  called a Fibre Centre in Moncton, a connection that was made through relationships built through ICF’s annual Summits; and so on. Relationships – that is at the core of economic development and all that is related to it.

If you are pressed for time, here is a snapshot of the critical days you will want to attend:

June 8: Tours of Waterloo Region and Toronto (Pre-conference site visits)

June 9:  (ICF Summit Day 1): Toronto Tour (Morning only); Match-making Session and Borderless Community

June 10:  (ICF Summit Day 2): ICF Urban and Rural Master Classes and Top 7 Reception

June 11: (ICF Summit Day 3): Top 7 Plenary Session and ICF Awards Dinner

June 12: IDEAS Day – (Post ICF Summit) - a new annual feature in Toronto presented by ICF Canada, Waterfront Toronto and partner private sector innovators!

So here are the key reasons why people should attend the 2015 edition of the ICF Summit in Toronto:

  1. Education – learn about Intelligent Communities in a few short days through intensive site visits, master classes, seminar sessions and networking;
  2. Business and Investment opportunities – meet companies, institutions and important contacts and intermediaries at the match-making session on June 9 and through networking every day at the Summit;
  3. Learn how to apply to become recognized as an Intelligent Community – speak directly to those who have been through the process and network with communities and discuss the benefits of the ICF Intelligent Community recognition; and
  4. Networking – did I mention networking? Yes, lots of networking and great lasting contacts. Very much a like-minded community of people and organizations that is keen to share and help each other in the spirit of collaboration. 

Hope to see you there! Check out the evolving program,  speakers and opportunities at www.icfsummit2015.com

Monday, February 9, 2015
The Top7 Intelligent Communities of 2015: The year of “The No Name Cities”

clientuploads/Images/Zach-NameCaption-2013-140.gifThe best thermometer of how the world views the 2015 finalists for the world’s most Intelligent Community of the Year designation is best found in the press coverage.  This year the lesson is that dark horses have reached for the top. Forbes noted that the Top7 “are not the cities you think of immediately” as tech powerhouses.  The UK’s Independent said as much and concluded by saying that we can learn from them. Noting the population differences the Independent referred to Mitchell, SD (pop 15,000) as the “minnow” of the group. The South Dakota community, in the mind of the press, is swimming upstream in its quest for further glory in Toronto in June when we will announce the 2015 Intelligent Community of the Year.

The Top7 Intelligent Communities of 2015 are, in alphabetical order: Arlington County, Virginia, USA; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ipswich, Australia; Mitchell, South Dakota, USA; New Taipei City, Taiwan; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

My own surprise is balanced by what I have learned about places like these seven, and the group of 21 from which they separated. They want to future-proof themselves more than win a trophy. They are seeking how to provide political and social cover for themselves as they invest in the proper digital and human infrastructure and respond to the shocks of a global economy. In the current world economy there are surprises and unintended consequences that not even an economist can fully grasp.  Lawrence Summers. President Emeritus of Harvard and an economist notes that we do not yet fully know how tech impacts our economies. He compared it to the automobile industry, noting that the car did not reach the Consumer Price Index for measurement until 1935, a full twenty years after the formation of the Ford Motor Company.

So the seven are in just as much uncertain territory as a Singapore or London.  Like it or not.  They know, however, that sparks are flying and they want to host the bonfire. Most communities have been working on their programs for years, knowing that the dry kindling which catches fire is not a reliable source of heat, but if you bring proper combustible elements near it, something will happen. To be honest, I dismiss most of what the social engineers tell me and, like St. Paul and Martin Luther, two modern men in their time, subscribe to the power of faith and hope as a first-mover.  Why?  Because this is still what ignites healthy human passion. 

In the landscape of the revolutionary community that I chronicle, planning is serving much the same role. It provides a pathway.  It is radical stuff to read that places that have long done manufacturing or resource extraction are now using IT to not only give those industries a jump, but to move in other directions, such as healthcare.

Each of the Top7 has begun to find hope. As they are all growing cities or towns, they have put together impressive plans to channel their expansion. Planning was the new criteria that we established this year because it is so vital to transformation. There is never a specific guarantee that planning will spark and sweep through a community, but when it does, and when a framework like the Awards criteria is in the mix, it spreads light.  Good things start to happen. Statistics and doubt are insidious tools for combatting hope. They seem impregnable and infallible. But think again. Used without the poetry of a plan, they are the reflexes of the dead and dying.  

American author Leon Wieseltier writes in his new essay, Among the Disrupted, that we are “busy creating ‘metrics’ for phenomena that cannot be measured.”  As I look over the diverse and eclectic new group of Top7 Intelligent Communities – seven cities burning bright in five nations – and seek a subtext, you should ask what we measured and captured through our quantitative assessment.  Yes, they all have WiFi and broadband.  Ho- hum. That’s old news.

Where this group gets interesting to me is upon a deeper dive. The level beyond quantification.  Wieseltier complains that “where wisdom once was, quantification will now be.” So first, let us prefer wisdom.  Or if you are uncomfortable with that word call it “common sense.”  In a place like Surrey, Canada, it was common sense that a sprawling suburb, which grows by 1,000 souls per month and has a reputation for crime and dislocation, would do something about it. They have. They implemented an early childhood intervention program, among many other things, by working through their university.  This is the long-term plan while the city continues its rollout other plans to transform its economy and to build on the experiences of some early success.

The seven are each familiar with insecurity and doubt.  (Perhaps well earned!)  Upon first glance the names of at least three of these cities: Ipswich, Mitchell and Surrey read like a list of Who’s NOT Who. If taken on reputation alone, the elevation of Rio de Janeiro the only South America city in the Top7 might seem to be, as one twitter post indelicately put it, “A choice that could be made only by crazy gringos.” (Forget that the two groups that selected Rio were academics on four continents and a research house located in India). Civic pride, when damaged for a decade or more, is like the patient in psychotherapy.  It is only over time and much hard work and commitment to the process that a true change takes root. In Rio it has. For sure. Columbus, Arlington County and New Taipei City are more polished and have been through the flames, but not until they too had gone down a rough road. Hope was justified. They remain the front-runners, in my view.

At the end of a televised Skype interview with a network news anchor, I explained why Surrey, British Columbia, the fastest-growing city in Canada, and the one that journalists seem most curious about, had been selected as a Top7.  The anchorman, reflecting the skepticism of his viewers, concluded by asking me, “Does Surrey really have a chance of being named Intelligent Community of the Year?”

I said it had a legitimate shot.  If you apply the metrics, it has a one in seven chance.  Not bad for a no-name city!

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