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Tuesday, March 18, 2014
"What Are They Saying Downtown?"

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During that Post-Industrial Age hangover, the destiny of thousands of businesses, cities and villages have been impacted by the rise of the megastore, the multinational franchise and the massive shopping mall, many of which, like the once-proclaimed savior of Syracuse, NY, with poetic names like “Destiny.”   The effect of these places has been so great, or so damaging, depending on whom you believe, that theologians might well ask: will Walmart be consigned to spend eternal life in Hell – or in Heaven?  Their drawing away of consumers from the center of towns gutted both urban and rural commercial districts.  Or did it follow a steady path away which was occurring anyway as the global economy took shape?  The presence of the biggies has led to employment in places where jobs were scarce.  What kind of jobs?  Jobs that pay money.  No one’s getting rich – the average hourly wage at Walmart is US$12.50.  It is a tough move to the middle class on under US$25,000 per year.  You stay put and you often stay put in a place where downtown is nowhere to be found.  Intellectuals like me say that is no good, but people with families to feed say they will take it until something better pops up. 

The intellectuals also say that the migration of commercial energy away from the traditional downtown will be judged severely by social historians and urban planners, most of whom find themselves as defenders of density for its richness and complexity. Few dispute this.  It is density that triggers the levels of creativity and innovation which are key to unlocking the economic potential of the “Broadband Economy.”  Only by reconfiguring the urban proposition and restoring balance to the rural, so that each is capable of generating not merely jobs, but new industries and a confident social purpose can we go forward.  One goal that I would like to see is a savage disruption of the despondent-sounding “new normal.”  We ask not how do you manage with less, but how do we create a new place for human centering?  What role do “smart technologies” play in the new Downtown?

clientuploads/Images/Eindhoven-1-140.gifAt the Intelligent Community Forum we are capable of revealing why places like Stockholm, Eindhoven or Stratford succeed.  We can offer data for, or profile the implementation of smart traffic systems in Taipei, smart lighting in Riverside and smart graffiti remediation in Riverside.  And it is all good and a necessary first step.  But we say “smart” is not “intelligent.”  The challenge, of course, is to fully grasp what I mean when I use the word “intelligent.”  Intelligence is many things to many people (so is “smart,” by the way, but the phrase is in vogue).  Intelligence is big, wide, expanding and it is a complex territory for policy-setting and planning.  But those who do it are finding gifts beyond reckoning.  It is why at most conferences where I speak the default title for the speech is typically “Smart Something Or Other.”  But smart only gets you so far, and my complaint is that it is too obedient to the linear and engineered, and does not take the notion of the “community as a canvas” seriously.  (I note that most of the smart kids I knew from school reached a plateau shortly after their early bursts of apple-polishing and academic achievement in late adolescence.  They are, mechanically speaking, doing well and doing the right things in life, but they have not dared to be transformative.  They never “painted.”)  There was – and remains – another level for people and their places which combines broadband, knowledge and the dare to give a new voice to the old truths.  This is called the “Intelligent Community.”  My colleagues have written about it far better than me, but it is why ICF revolves around “Intelligent,” rather than Smart.  Someone said recently that the difference between smart and intelligent can be best understood using the game of Jeopardy as an example.  “Smart people are good at playing the game; intelligent people invented it.” 

To restore “Downtown,” we need to be intelligent.  We need to activate culture and build a type of political and economic security that rests on a common set of norms.  It is easier said than done, but in places that have come back to life in our new renaissance, it is happening.  After all, culture is always there and most always fertile.

“In a true community, one trades some freedom of action for increased security in the moment,” said American playwright David Mamet in his controversial address to the Manhattan Institute last year.  It is true.  

I was born in a small village, where space was too plentiful and as a result, I craved density.  For me, density was Downtown.  This was where there was the coffee shop, the Veterans of Foreign War post and the local hardware store.  It turns out that these were far more than places to get scrambled eggs with bacon, or a Genesee Cream Ale beer.  They were also the place where opinions, mentoring and those unwritten laws that ultimately are the only ones that work, because they are agreed on culturally, gave us a sense of security.  My parents, like others, were far less concerned with what the state, national government or big corporation had to say about their actions. What they wanted to know was, “What are they saying Downtown?”  It moderated life and built consensus.  Interestingly, today, the local McDonald’s is the gathering point for morning coffee and their children, at least those who remain (and more claim they now want to do so) have their Facebook pages.

 
Monday, March 3, 2014
Small Towns Face a New Digital Challenge at the Movie Theater

 The digital era offers many challenges: from trying to remember all your passwords to realizing how few of your fellow citizens can hope to earn a living wage without knowing how to work a computer.  The challenges feel personal and they are –but they also challenge the life of the community, sometimes in unexpected ways.

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In small towns across the United States, today’s challenge is to “go digital or go dark.”  No, it is not about smart streetlights.  It is about movie theaters, or cinemas most of the world calls them.  In many small to midsize cities, the movie theater is a heritage building constructed as a palace of entertainment palace ago.  It is more than a place to watch films.  In places far from the hotbeds of culture, it is a cultural touchstone and a symbol of civilization.  A lot of people care about it and want to see it survive.    

The future of those theaters, however, is in doubt, according to a New York Times article by Paul Post. The major movie studios have started announcing that they will no longer distribute movies to theaters on 35-millimeter film.  Paramount was the first, with The Wolf of Wall Street, but others have announced the same goal.  Producing and shipping a 35-millimeter print to a single theater costs US$2,000.  A digital drive containing the film can get there for one-tenth the cost, and satellite or online distribution is cheaper still.

clientuploads/Images/THEATERS1-articleLarge.jpgTo show digital films, however, theaters need digital projectors – and it costs $60,000 to $70,000 to install just one.  Hence the problem for a place like the Palace Theater of Lake Placid in New York State, which opened in 1926.  As a small theater with four screens, it had no hope of being able to find the $260,000 needed to make the conversion.  The owners, Reginald and Barbara Clark, who bought the business in 1961, were facing its end.  

Facing its end, that is, until people in Lake Placid heard the news.  Friends and neighbors began organizing and succeeded in raising enough money to buy one projector.  The Clarkes’ extended family pitched in to buy and install a second one.  

A regional nonprofit, the Adirondack North Country Association, launched a “Go Digital or Go Dark” campaign that has raised another $100,000 to continue the conversion.  It has raised funds and won grants to help other theaters in other places you have never heard of – Tupper Lake, Indian Lake and Old Forge – make the change.  

Like all the great industrial transitions – from water power to steam power, hand-crafting to the assembly line – the digital age giveth and the digital age taketh away.  Most of the time, it feels as though we have no choice in the matter.  But places like Lake Placid show us otherwise.  When they care enough, the people of a community can have a voice about what comes and what goes, and the Intelligent Communities of the world are harnessing that energy today to build a better tomorrow.

Photo copyright Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times.

 
Monday, February 24, 2014
Why The World Needs A Rural Imperative

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As readers of this blog know, I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years helping cities figure out the impact of new technologies and broadband in people’s lives and also helping mayors figure out ways of using those technologies to create new kinds of urban experiences and reasons for people to live in their cities.  

Cities were the winners out of the industrial age and attracted vast numbers of people from the countryside.  You can see that pattern repeating itself today in the newly successful industrial countries, like China, or those areas that are just starting to industrialize, like Africa.

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In the already developed countries, even though the change from the industrial to the knowledge economy has been wrenching for many cities, urban areas are still ahead of the game by comparison with rural areas and cities are better positioned to take advantage of these changes.

In theory, though, the global Internet and the increased availability of inexpensive technology should have had an even greater impact on rural areas.  For if it were really true that people can work anywhere and quality of life becomes the key factor in where they choose to live, then many people would choose to live in the countryside and not in the more metropolitan regions.

It hasn’t happened that way.  As you can read from my post last week which, among other trends, noted that telecommuting has increased dramatically among urban residents, but not for those in exurbia.

There are many reasons why the countryside hasn’t realized its potential.  Partly, this is a residue of the industrial age – it is not yet true for everyone that they can take their work with them.  For many without college educations, making a living requires a commute to a manufacturing plant or a service location.

As has been true for declining urban areas, we see in some rural communities a social pathology sets in that reinforces decline and is evidenced in the increased use of drugs and other forms societal breakdown.  Even though it wouldn’t be called a pathology, the out-migration of many of their young adults has also been a concern of the remaining residents of rural areas.

Another part of the story is that many rural communities have not yet become fully connected to the global economy.  In his recent rural strategy announcements, President Obama pointed out that there is a 15% gap in broadband between urban and rural households.  Many technology providers have ignored rural communities.  That should change. Rural communities are all too often ignored by urban dwellers and far too many people are not fully aware of the far reaching potential that 21st century technology offers rural communities. 

clientuploads/Images/Farm-Sunset-2.gifWhile cities will still be attractive, they are not for everyone all the time.  Many people would indeed prefer to live in the countryside if they had economic opportunity, decent health care, a means to learn and in other ways overcome the sense of isolation that has historically been the downside of rural living. 

Many countries have come to realize that they cannot just move all of their rural residents into cities.  As India has learned, there is not enough economic opportunity in their cities and the urban infrastructure cannot support the migrants who have already moved there.   The New York Times recently reported that, even the Chinese, with a relentless urban focus, have started to worry that their nation’s traditional culture and identity is getting lost in the process.  Indeed, there has been a reverse migration from the cities to the Chinese countryside.

None of this is a surprise to those who live in rural communities.  What may be better news is that there is now an imperative to bring technology and global connectivity to the countryside – and to help them build those communities into attractive and sustainable places for people to stay and to return to.

We’ve seen this in President Obama’s rural broadband program and in the recently announced Canadian rural broadband investment of $305 million. 

With this background, the Intelligent Community Forum started its Rural Imperative program last year.  It will apply to the world’s rural areas the Intelligent Community Forum’s unique, global perspective on how broadband and technology can be mutually reinforcing with community development and growth.  This is an important step in helping the new connected countryside go from potential possibility to a reality.

 
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Happy 20th Birthday Smart Cities!

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Well, not quite yet, but as my colleague Robert Bell reminded me last September, that in 2015, we will see the 20th anniversary of a major event that took place in 1995 in Toronto, called SMART95, the very first gathering in the world of telecommunications engineers, architects, planners, sociologists, mayors and CIOs to learn about “Smart People, Smart Building and Smart Cities”. 

According to Networked Communities, written by Sylvie Albert, Don M. Flournoy and Rolland LeBrasseur, “the first true ‘intelligent communities event’, which linked the emerging telecommunications revolution and the fledgling Internet to economic development, was held in Toronto, Canada, in 1995. This event, called “SMART95”, for the first time, saw the telecommunications industry and the world of urban planners, political policy makers and economic development officials gathered under one roof to examine the impact of telecommunications on communities and economies.”

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A record breaking twelve hundred international government, private sector and institutional delegates attended the event over a 5 day period including nearly 300 Asian visitors, many in Japanese delegations, from Teleports in Japan and throughout Asia. This event was more than just a conference – it was also a gathering of experiments and global firsts. The plans for the event were so new and provocative that active participants and organizers from Toronto’s media elite were connected to this event, ranging from former Marshall McLuhan advocates to Toronto Film Festival founders, Dusty Cohl and Henk Van der Kolk. However the most memorable “first” was a broadband test that was initiated and coordinated by Lighthouse’s Paul Hoffert, leader of the famous Canadian band known for its songs “One Fine Morning” and “Sunny Days”. Founded in 1969 and at its height during the 1970’s, fast forward to the early 1990’s and Paul was now a professor of York University and Director of the CulTech Research Centre. We found common ground during the planning of SMART95.We discussed how we could demonstrate music over long distances with both satellite and fiber-optics. My role was in ensuring the network connections and permissions among telecom competitors and in financing the last mile to make the event take place in the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel on Toronto’s Waterfront, which was devoid of the proper links at that time to make this happen. Paul Hoffert’s role was to build the world’s first ever experimental music and cultural collaboration over distance. A major issue was the slight delay over satellite between the twang in one city and the ping in another. But it eventually was sorted out and the band held one heck of an incredible experiment and concert back in 1995. That experiment was the highlight of the public events at SMART95, demonstrating the power of technologies and connectivity at the time and the role that culture plays in bring these together. (By the way, it was again undertaken with Lighthouse 5 years later in Toronto to demonstrate the advances in the technologies and linkages. And yes, we just loved the songs!)
 
In the audience that day back in 1995 at SMART95 were hundreds of delegation members from teleports around the world. After all, the underlying conference that hosted SMART95 was the Eleventh Annual General Assembly of the World Teleport Association. The connection?  Nothing short of the 1998 Nagoya Winter Olympics and the great Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa joining musicians around the globe including the SKO and six choruses located on five different continents – Japan, Australia, China, Germany, South Africa, and the United States – all linked by satellite to open the ceremonies in Nagano, Japan, by conducting the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The link was the successful experiment by SMART95 and Lighthouse which provided confidence to the organizers of the Opening Ceremonies, some of whom were connected to part of the Japanese Teleport delegates in the audience. The power of culture proved that the technology was now possible to embrace new ideas as never before. It was a proud moment for me, for Toronto, for Canada and for what was to become ICF.
 
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Since that event, ICF was formed and for many years we promoted what today the world refers to as “Smart Cities” – the development of high-speed broadband in cities around the world and ways to create the most efficient, productive and prosperous communities possible based on evidence-based data and metrics. For two decades we advocated the development of infrastructure as an essential utility to ensure that communities could properly be part of the emerging broadband-based economic, social and cultural changes happening worldwide and at times we seemed to be the main champions (and voices) for it.  Today, we see many new organizations advocating the creation of “smart cities” – from vendor-led voices to country-wide associations and new commercial conferences. We are proud to have been the leaders for two decades in what today is being promoted as “Smart Cities” and we are happy to share the new podium with everyone who seeks to create a better community and a better world for our citizens everywhere. However, ICF moved on from the initial vision of a broadband world two decades ago to improve transportation, utility efficiencies and data based public decision making. It soon realized that infrastructure, the smart city focus of many today, would limit the opportunities to create a truly intelligent city and community. As a result, before the Millennium, ICF was formed with a new name to advocate a much broader and extensive set of criteria than focus on efficient infrastructure using broadband, meters and routers. It therefore emerged to include discussions around knowledge centric issues, including working closely with post-secondary institutions; the importance of innovation and creativity in the global economy and in city and community-building; the importance of making the digital world available to everyone and to all ages and abilities; the importance of good governance and advocacy in creating an innovation ecosystem that is built on trust and confidence; as well as other indicators such as sustainability, leadership, collaboration, venture capital attraction, among others.
 
Back then in 1995 we were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and wondered about what the opportunities of an ultra-high-speed world could be like. Well, twenty years later we have seen tremendous changes. The Toronto waterfront, where the first smart cities conference took place in 1995 is no longer a former port-related wasteland. It is now blessed with one of the most robust and dynamic high speed broadband networks in the world; the city is host of the Pan Am Games in 2015 and the city and region boasts new institutions from MARs (Medical Arts and Related Sciences) to Ryerson University’s startup community at the Digital Media Zone to a future Innovations Center to be built next to the new Corus Entertainment complex on the Toronto waterfront. Waterfront Toronto embraced the Intelligent Community movement and today, the condominiums, office towers and media centers in the city core and waterfront areas have transformed the way the city looks, acts and feels. It is an entertainment, tourist and cultural center and along with waterfront views and related open spaces and uses, the area will further evolve following the Pan Am Games. The anniversary opportunity of SMART95 can once again perhaps provide new directions and experiment with the next generation of Intelligent Communities. 
  
Accordingly, it is only fitting that ICF should hold its 2015 Summit in Toronto in 2015. Plans to launch such a major opportunity are just getting underway. So watch for news over the next few months and come to the 2014 ICF Summit to learn more it and meet some of the people who will be behind this event. Perhaps we may be able to once again try our hand at some unique experiments and collaborative events that will help to demonstrate the art of the possible once again!
 
Monday, February 3, 2014
How Did 17 Million Kenyans Exchange $20 Billion Last Year?

clientuploads/Images/Wattanga.pngIn 2013, the people of Kenya sent each other US$19.6 billion in payments and money transfers.  According to Herbert Wattanga, author of Nairobi County’s Smart21 nomination (pictured right), the total of their transactions exceeded Kenya’s national budget by more than $1 billion.  And guess what?  Not one of those transactions went through a bank.  Instead, all of them went through mobile phones.    

At ICF, we write a lot about the impact of the broadband revolution on every aspect of our lives, and about the urgent need it creates for cities and regions to adapt to its demands.  You would be hard-pressed to find a better example than mobile banking in Kenya – even though it uses a technology many years older than smartphones.

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In 2007, a mobile carrier called Safaricom introduced a new money transfer service called M-Pesa.  Up to that point, banking in Kenya was largely controlled by foreign banks, which tended to serve only the most affluent Kenyans.  Then the central bank rewrote its regulations in an attempt to expand access to financial services.  One new regulation allowed mobile operators like Safaricom to provide mobile payments.  

Safaricom’s move was meant to be business-as-usual: a new service that would help reduce customer churn. It allowed users to load money onto their phones through the same process they used to prepay for airtime.  Money was moved with a simple text message, with each transfer incurring a fee of between $0.25 and $0.70.   The money deposited was held, not by banks, but in an independent trust that Safaricom does not control.

clientuploads/Images/M-Pesa Screen.jpgBusiness-as-usual it was not.  By 2012, there were 17 million M-Pesa accounts generating nearly US$300 million in fee income for Safaricom.  And Safaricom’s success pales in comparison to that of Kenya.  With 70 percent of adult Kenyans – and 50% of the poor – using it, The Economist estimates that M-Pesa has boosted national GDP by as much as 25 percent.  So popular has the service been that it drove an overall increase in mobile penetration from 49% in 2008 to 77% in 2012 – and greater phone penetration alone has generated $2.4 trillion in economic growth, according to a report by Deloitte (Mobile Telephone and Taxation in Kenya 2011).

So if you ever wonder what all the fuss about broadband is really about, M-Pesa offers a clue.  Sure, it’s not broadband – but it is a revolution in online applications.  It makes clear that the same technology bringing you you cute cat videos and spam in your inbox can profoundly change lives – but only in places that are prepared to seize the benefits technology offers.

 
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