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Monday, December 22, 2014
Does Government Really Know Anything About Innovation?


On January 22, ICF will name its Top7 Intelligent Communities of the Year, shrinking the list of the Smart21 down to the finalists for Intelligent Community of the Year.  We will be honoring local and regional governments that have – among other things – boosted the innovation rate of their economies.  That makes this a good time to ask a fundamental question.

What in the world does government know about innovation?  

Quite a lot, as it turns out.  That little thing called the Internet was a government invention.  But the most important thing successful governments know is a bit of wisdom first expressed in ancient Rome.  Nosce te ipsum, the Romans said: “know thyself.” 

There has been a lot of research done lately about incubators, government innovation offices and efforts to turn local economies into innovation ecosystems.  An institute at the University of Michigan studied 100 American incubators.  The most successful were nonprofits that drew in part on public support, which on average contributed 40% of total funding.  “It takes a diverse income stream to become self-sustaining,” noted one of the report’s authors, “and government funding is one component.”

A study by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation looked into the startup ecosystem of St. Louis, Missouri, USA.   What it found was that the most important factors contributing to success were connecting entrepreneurs to each other and connecting them to support organizations capable of constantly adjusting to evolving needs. 

A study from the IBM Center for The Business of Government set out seven principles for making government innovation offices work.  Four of seven were about ensuring clear and effective communication among public and private-sector players.  Three were about putting real leaders in place, giving them adequate resources and making them responsible for outcomes. Only one of the seven was about prescribing an innovation process, with lots of charts and diagrams showing how businesses move from idea to profitability.

Do you see a pattern here?  Intelligent Communities win at the innovation race when they bring together innovators and focus on connecting them to each other and the institutional and government players who can help them.  They make reasonable and consistent commitments of money, and put in place experienced and qualified leaders accountable for results.  Like smart investors, they bet on people and ideas, judge progress against milestones, and decide whether or not to invest more in the future.

What they do not do is try to drive the car from the back seat.  Intelligent Communities win at innovation when they respect just how little they really understand it.  It is just as true today as it was in ancient Rome: knowing yourself is where wisdom begins. 

Monday, December 15, 2014
The Part that is Broken is the Part You Plan For (Part 2)


In a frenzied 96 month period during the 1920’s, a new building began to rise into the New York City sky every 51 minutes.  Many of these buildings were organized around a street grid on the island of Manhattan, which, for the purpose of managing the future flows of the city, is famously considered one of the most important ideas in urban planning history.  This level of planning, like the City’s Subway system, was far-sighted and served as the great city’s unwritten “100 Year Plan.” 

Before spending three hours speaking to a large group from China’s Ministry of Industry & IT today, I was told by ICF’s Senior Fellow, Dr. Norm Jacknis, that 49% of the construction cranes in the world are swooning away inside their country in an attempt to accommodate a migration that will rival any of the great immigration flows that New York City experienced, even at its headiest, most rambunctious moment.  These IT Ministry folks, however, have another challenge of which they are deeply aware.  It is the burden of needing to cater not only to a great social engineering heave that will throw 250 million people into cities old and new, but of also needing to build for them an enabling digital platform to include e-government systems and the type of infrastructure that will allow these inagrants, as I call them, to thrive in the Broadband Economy.  They know that Intelligent Communities, or “wisdom cities,” as they call them, are not made of bricks and mortar alone.

I think that this can be a colossal mess and ultimately a security problem the likes of which no one has predicted or seen.  I raised this point with them.  They rather openly but carefully noted that this was not an “enforced” march, but rather a program of incentives for people seeking a better life.  I suppose some of this is true.  We know from economists that it is also designed to stimulate more internal consumption, which Chinese culture has a bias against.  I suggested that, as telecommunications experts, they know that “the middle of nowhere is no more.”  Wouldn't this be a good incentive to try to manage people in their places of birth or choice and simply drive the economy to them?  They admitted that it was possible.  We left with each others’ ideas in mind.

I have never been a big booster of the Chinese miracle, as most know, mainly because of a concern with the political system.  But ICF is not about national politics, but rather people who live in their cities, towns and villages and seek the greater good.  I was slightly encouraged by what I heard from the group yesterday mainly for a reason that rests, as perceptions often do, on the off-hand remarks by one person.

During my informal and quite frank Q&A session, one of the people who had been among the most intensely curious about the ICF Indicators and program, said, “But all of this must be about people.  The person.”

We agreed.  The infrastructure that is being enabled by the Ministry and others in the “smart” part of our movement is the grid which, it is hoped, will trigger the more complex levels of human activity that we see in projects like Toronto’s Regent Park.  This was a classic example of how the broken parts became “fixed” and a fixture for the types of cities that, at least I thought I heard, are being aimed for China’s new “wisdom engineering.  Time will tell whether more was broken than fixed in an attempt to transform merely the economy.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Intelligent Mobility – From A to B


For some people the romance of the open road in a BMW or Harley Davidson motorcycle is their passion and for them, nothing else will substitute for it. For others getting simply from A to B is what matters most.

Congested cities are the bane of our urban existence. Toronto’s Board of Trade recently undertook a study and found that over 550 hours of time is wasted behind the wheel of its average citizens per year. Compare this with the average California driver back in 1990 that were in congested traffic for 84 hours annually. Additionally, 30% of the congestion in San Francisco is deemed to come from drivers looking for parking spaces. Recently it took me an hour to drive to a downtown meeting from the outskirts of a city but then it took another hour circling around looking for parking. These are not out of the ordinary driving and parking stories. I am sure that you have yours to share as well.

So, imagine a new way to move around a vibrant but highly congested city environment? What could that be? By personal helicopter or a version of a rocket belt? By a series of one person drones or driverless autopods? A personal version of high speed rail? Teleportation perhaps? OK, we are dreaming, but what if we had an UBER-like application that took all the data that will be able to be generated in our cities from the sensors that will be connected to one another through increasingly aligned protocols among the Internet of Things and somehow we got plugged into all that data, searched for analyzed responses, and wound up with information we could use to make informed decisions about getting from A to B?

Well that idea isn’t all that fetched if we are prepared to think about it differently. Do we need to get from A to B with our personal cars? If that didn’t matter, could we get there by transit - subway, tram or bus instead? Transit such as in Japan, demonstrates the art of the possible. Everything from the high speed rail known as the Shinkansen, to highly integrated subways and buses make mobility in this very densely urban city and region a dream to move around in. But not all cities have the density to support an equivalent highly-integrated and seamless system. In other cities, the congestion on the road might be so severe that it might limit the effectiveness of a streetcar or bus if dedicated lanes weren’t possible.  How could they be any more convenient if the roads are plugged? Underground transit might be a better way, but subway stations may be too far away or not available in some areas of your city.

What if surface and underground transit vehicle options are not possible? Can bicycles, motorcycles and scooters be serious contenders for a suitable choice for mobility in your city? Weather may be a factor, but they do scoot around and aren’t usually held up too much because of congestion. But they may be scary for some riders as they compete for space amongst cars and trucks. In some cities bikes and motorcycle traffic is separated from cars and truck traffic and this may be a desirable option. In the Netherlands, mobility by bicycle is a national and cultural trait. The infrastructure for bicycles is so sophisticated that Dutch bike riders not only have their own lanes on every street, but their own exclusive parking, traffic lights, directional signs and even coded trails. I recall my first A to B experience at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands. Once inside the campus, movement by walking and bicycle was effortless. You simply walked up to one of the 1700 available shared white bikes, got on, cycled to your destination, then dropped the bike where you landed and when you were ready to go to the next stop, you grabbed the next available bike and headed there. You did not think of the bike as yours, but as a means to move to the next stop. It was effortless and highly satisfying.

What about walking? Combined with some mode of mass transportation or a two wheeled option, walking may be the best alternative in some cases. Certainly in places like New York City, London and Hong Kong, pedestrian walkways, including raised pedestrian or underground walkways may in fact be the best way to get from A to B, especially short distances. Another means to get from A to B can be by an escalator system, such as in Hong Kong. For instance, I wanted to go up to Hong Kong’s Robinson Road from Queens Road in Central nearly 800 metres away, but with a vertical climb of 135 metres. If you drove there you would have to drive several miles by zig-zagging back and forth up the hill. Instead, we joined residents who in Hong Kong effortlessly “climb” the hill via an automated escalator, considered the world’s longest moving sidewalk.  Moving sidewalks were the rage in Paris when they were first built for the 1889 World's Fair. Only the Eiffel Tower is left but the idea of moving sidewalks has fascinated planners ever since. We are familiar with moving sidewalks in airports, but imagine a city that might embrace it like Hong Kong. That would certainly help to move large number of people from A to B.

But do you really need to be there physically, every time? Another way to move people from A to B might be possible by video-conference. Face to face contact is important in business and other important meetings. But to have quality face to face connections requires robust, ultra-high speed broadband connectivity. Video-conferencing, especially by telepresence as promoted by companies such as Cisco, can save time and money when you consider the travel related costs of the people involved. Increased use of video-conferencing by corporations is becoming the norm. Schools are connecting teachers and students from around the world; gamers and researchers are connecting people, data and video in ways that others will soon emulate. A new attitude and new way of doing things is already here. This applies to intelligent mobility as well.

Millennials are at the cutting edge of a new attitude of mobility. Exposed to opportunities to travel using cars, many don’t even have driver’s licenses and indicate in surveys that they prefer to have a bicycle and smartphone with an excellent data plan than to drive a car and pay for gas.

Moving from A to B, especially in highly congested cities also depends on the culture of a community. Just as the Dutch are famous for their adoption of bicycles in the art of moving, Tuk Tuks in Delhi and scooters in Taipei seem to be the preferred way to go from A to B. But I believe that a new approach to movement is upon us. With congestion in cities at an all-time high, I believe that people will eventually choose a hybrid solution to go between A and B. Imagine if you had an application that you could access that analyzed for you every possible movement capability and its related cost to get you from A to B. Something like that already exists. I happened to recently meet a team from Daimler in Stuttgart that seem to have such an idea on the way.

Along came “moovel”, a remarkably simple concept wrapped in a mobile application that streamlines every possible mobility option and seamlessly integrates movement connection possibilities: long distance bus, rail or waterborne options; local public transit options; taxis; bikes; car-sharing pools and efficient directions for pedestrian experiences. People will even be able to filter their search based on the least expensive route, fastest or even most scenic routes. The routes chosen will reflect real time updates and could even reflect ever- changing weather conditions. For instance if your route between A and B recommended a combination of walking and a nearby car-sharing option, such as car2go, a person would be able to walk to the car, receive instant instructions on their smartphone to open and start the car, drive one–way to a destination and simply drop off the car in any parking spot at the destination, all aided by GPS. Another time the same route may be best by using a combination of nearby bike rental and inter-city rail, and so on. Payment of all combined mobility options over a period of time, such as a monthly invoice, will be like a basic utility bill. Like Uber, which seamlessly connects riders to drivers through their Uber application, moovel and other similar applications will be connected through the Internet of Things to highly analyzed data, making cities more accessible and making it possible for people to move with the best possible experience from A to B. Now that is intelligent mobility!

Monday, December 1, 2014
What’s the Second Act for the World’s First Intelligent Community?

While in Singapore earlier this year, I had the chance to meet with executives of the Infocomm Development Authority, the government agency responsible for that city-state’s information and communications technology.  Singapore was named ICF’s very first Intelligent Community of the Year in 1999.  So, fifteen years later, what kind of second act has it come up with?


Singapore, if you’re not familiar with it, is an urban nation located on an island at the southern tip of the Malay Penninsula.  Since gaining its independence from Malaysia in 1965, it has risen into the top ranks of industrialized nations, with the third-highest per-capita income in the world.  That feat is made all the more remarkable by the fact that Singapore’s only natural resources are the ones between its people’s ears.  It is one of the top five busiest ports in the world, the fourth biggest financial center, and a production hub that generates 26% of GDP from manufacturing.

Singapore became our first Intelligent Community because of its early success in building a ubiquitous broadband network called Singapore One.  They have not been letting the grass grow under their feet since then.  Starting in 2010, they set out to become a “Smart Nation” by creating a new national broadband network (NBN) operating at much higher speed and serving as an engine for education, innovation and economic growth. 

Their NBN has much in common with Australia’s national project.  Both aim for “open access,” meaning a network that stimulates competition rather than entrenches monopoly.  The government is the “NetCo,” responsible for building and operating the underlying fiber infrastructure.  It licenses “OpCos” or operating companies to run the active transmission systems on the NetCo asset.  The nine current OpCos include incumbents like SingTel as well as newer entrants like BlueTel, Tata and StarHub.  They sell bandwidth to retail service providers (RSPs), of which there are currently 27, and it is the RSPs that actually deliver services to customers.

By separating the various levels of the network, Singapore’s NBN encourages aggressive competition, which boosts performance, lowers costs and generates new kinds of services.  Since January 2012, the NBN has grown subscribers by 45% to 550,000.  Singapore’s average download speed leaped 690% to 67 Mbps from the start of NBN services to mid-2013, and average upload speed is right behind it at 53 Mbps.  Prices, meanwhile, tend to fall, particularly for packages with speeds of over 200 Mbps.  

Best of all, the RSPs are beginning to figure out ways to make money with all that bandwidth.  You can sign up for a “Fibre Plan for Gamers” if you need flaming-fast response times to battle intergalactic evil.  A student package includes access to a vast database of resources, while a monitoring and surveillance service lets you keep track of your property 24x7.   There is even a “Time-Critical Financial Data Services Delivery” that lets individuals and small businesses play on the same field as the flash traders. 

At first glance, this may seem just another top-down, government-knows-best kind of project, which so often fails to deliver what it promises.  But look closer, and you see Singapore doing what it has done well for five decades: building great infrastructure and creating clear policy rules, so that investors and innovators can get to work.  Call it urban and regional planning at its best, and a prime example of the Revolutionary Community at work. 

Nobody in the world knows yet what to do with speeds of 100, 200 or 1,000 Mbps at the residential and small business level.  To find out, you have to do what Singapore is doing – and a lot of us will be learning from the world’s first Intelligent Community for years to come.

Monday, November 24, 2014
The Part that is Broken is the Part You Plan For (Part 1)


A man who knows a little something about planning and nurturing a community, Dominican preacher Walter Wagner, the pastor of St. Vincent Ferrer parish in New York, is the unlikely source for the best thought to guide our new theme and the sixth criteria for this year’s Smart21 communities.  Writing about the deep, emotional disruptions that change activates within us, Father Walter writes, “Life moves.  Awareness of creation reveals flux in each situation and departure in every relationship.  While life’s currents carry gifts of surprise and relief in their wake, their flow also surfaces one of life’s great, intractable pains: homesickness.  This ache knows no boundaries.  It steals its way into our heart, all the way into our living room.  Homesickness brews loneliness, fatigue, frustration, and hurt.  This combination serves up a longing for a place where we might be safe, warm, carefree, known, understood, provided for and cherished.  The heart pleads, ‘Is this too much to ask?’

As we look around the world, it seems that too often the answer is, “Yes.”  But to those of us interested in building the intelligent community, and sensing that a healthy place to call “home” must be the foundation for any attempt at a good life, our new Smart21 offer diverse examples of how planning and execution remove some of the ache for home that Wagner writes about.  In our new group of candidates for Intelligent Community of the Year, a combination of technology and leadership, along with an embrace of the rough truths about change, seem to have been identified.  The planning efforts among the new Smart21 take change into consideration.  They recognize changes in their communities and follow by taking action.  You cannot do better than this.  (Well, maybe a little better.  Read on.) 

Adopting to change is front and center this year.  It is the reason why our sixth criteria is so important.  It is also why the new Smart21 have an obligation to show us – and to show you – their best ideas for planning communities.  It is the reason why I ask everyone who comes up to me after a speech the same question, “Do you like living here?”  If they answer yes, I know something good has happened and that it can be extracted and perhaps multiplied through planning and collaboration.

One of our newest Intelligent Communities, Sherbrooke, Canada (population 169,200), symbolizes this harsh acceptance of change over a long-term.  In the community’s nomination form, it admitted candidly that it experienced “a particularly difficult transition for a city with a culture derived from heavy manufacturing, lifetime employment and a mistrust of successful entrepreneurs.”  That last phrase caught my eye.  This was a place where unexpected occurrences, like the globalization which pounded it in the early part of this new century, was not a welcomed newcomer.  Sherbrooke admits that its basic problem was that there was no home planned for the unexpected or for change of any kind.  Not until 2007. In that year the mayor brought together 300 stakeholders to identify a new direction and set free a new spirit.  Five years later, the city formed an Intelligent Community Roundtable with several goals, one of which was to improve the lives of its citizens using digital technology and to “break the silos formed by local institutions…to increase collaboration.”

Embedded in this story of an aspiring Top7 community is the basis for an idea whose time has come for urban planners, forward-thinking mayors and especially those of you tasked with plans for the rollout of Intelligent Communities.   It is to plan for ways to enable stakeholders and citizens to profit from the transitions that are coming, rather than to be shaken to the core by them.  We talk a lot about turning the unexpected, or the “broken,” into the welcomed.  It is sprinkled throughout our ethos of entrepreneurship, which has added the worship of “failure” on everyone’s list of buzz ideas.  But no one knows what that really means from a planning perspective, since most plans still suggest a linear trajectory for a place and its economy.  We remain risk adverse at the deepest levels.

Should a new planning exercise, one that launches a “revolutionary community,” include an anticipation of where fissures will occur?  Not only to not only plan for them, but to embrace them?  Should we be looking at the parts of a community that seem “busted” much differently?  As tangible assets?  Perhaps. There are profitable analogies to the success of Regent Park in Toronto, whose Artscape organization looked at one of the nastiest public housing communities in the city and decided that there was a buried treasure in the art and culture that had sprung forth as a defense against the ache of poverty.  (Check out the surrounding real estate prices NOW in that once-busted place, where business people, poets and painters thrive.)  See also Austin, Texas, a former Top7 city, which doubles in size every 20 years because it has been able to become a true home to thousands of the students who go there to be part of “the blueberry in the sea of red tomatoes.”

Perhaps last year’s theme, “Community as Canvas” has as much to teach us about the riches among the busted as this year’s theme.  Italian chef, Massimo Bouttara, an artist who is passionate about community, tells a story that is perfect for this approach.  While taking a lemon tart from his kitchen to serve to customers, it broke into pieces and fell onto the counter.  While his assistant wanted to commit hara-kiri, Bouttara looked at his broken parts and made a dish from it.  The Broken Lemon Tart has become iconic and viral.  It made him rich, his restaurants impossible to get into and has reinforced the creative potency that relies less on planning and more on innovation during a storm.

We can chew on that as we watch our Smart21 serve us more insights between now and January.

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