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Monday, May 27, 2013
Toronto: A City So Smart, It Just May Be Intelligent

Let’s say somebody asked you to spend $9 billion to make a once-in-a-century improvement in your nation’s biggest city.  What would you do with it?

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For the past 10 years, answering that question has been the job of a gentleman named John Campbell, CEO of Waterfront Toronto (WT).  John and his Director of Intelligent Communities, Kristina Verner, were my hosts for a mid-April Top7 site visit to Canada’s financial and media capital and its largest metro area by population. 

clientuploads/Images/John Campbell.jpgNobody handed John (pictured right) a $9 billion check and told him to get to work.  The Federal, Provincial and city government joined force to provide $1.5 bn in funding. Private developers have invested another $2.5 bn to date.  The team he leads today will still be doing deals, raising money and plowing it back into the waterfront thirty years from now.

Like most older waterfront cities, Toronto located its heavy industries at lakeside.  The fading of manufacturing from the local economy left a vast brownfield site separating the heart of the city from the lake.  WT is an independent agency tasked with redeveloping 800 hectares of brownfield land to provide 40,000 residential units and one million square meters of commercial space.  A total of $3.7 bn has already gone into the ground, which is why there are more construction cranes on the WT site than any other location in North America.  

I have to say that projects like this do not ordinarily impress me.  They are big, they are imaginative, they are glittery.  But all too often, they turn out to be enormous investments of resource that benefit a small number of people.  You know the people I mean: the elite by income, occupation and personal wealth.

clientuploads/Images/Toronto Waterfront 2.jpgWhat impresses about WT is not its size, not its price tag – not even the ultrabroadband 1-10 Gbps fiber network that will connect every residential and commercial space.  What impresses is its vision.  Instead of having property builders in the driver’s seat, the project seems to be led by community builders.  Rather than creating a gated community for the uber-rich, Waterfront Toronto aims to transform the entire city in its image.  
The development team believes that public trust is the project’s greatest asset and has spent years gathering ideas, explaining decisions and reporting progress to citizens and local business.   Twenty percent of all housing is reserved for low-income residents – and they won’t be tucked into one low-rent corner of the waterfront but spread across its length.  The master plan devotes three-eighths of the total land to public parks.  It forbids the construction of a “wall of condos” blocking the water view, and takes such a sustainable approach to building that it has actually sparked an increase in the number of fish species in the lake.  
Its broadband network is funded by fees paid by every developer leasing property for construction.  Residential developers will bundle broadband service into condominium fees to encourage ubiquitous use, while low-income residents will receive it free.  The network is operated by a private partner, Beanfield, which is now being besieged by building owners outside the waterfront zone to be hooked up.  In this way, WT expects its network to drive demand for massive bandwidth across the city.  
My hosts showed me a dozen more ways in which they are driving a larger destiny for the city, from helping to reduce traffic congestion to bringing a community college campus onto the site.  
Smart this new urban center will definitely be.  But – unlike so many efforts to create instant Smart Cities or make already-successful urban centers a little smarter – the Waterfront has the potential to make Toronto truly intelligent. 
 
Monday, May 20, 2013
Rio de Janeiro’s Knowledge Squares take on Digital Inclusion

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Rio de Janeiro’s story is the struggle between the rich and poor, the have’s and have-not’s and those digitally rich versus those technically deprived.

Rio has struggled with this for decades. However, in my estimation, Rio’s civic administration has emerged triumphant through the development of several Knowledge Squares (Praça do Conhecimento), an initiative with the goal of focusing on culture and education for the people living in the surrounding hillside slums, or favelas.

These favelas have been notorious in the past for the infamous Rio drug lords and their dangerous conflicts with the police force. In recent years, gun battles have given way to pacification, a program in which the citizens of the favelas support the government’s movement to create a better society for their citizens.

clientuploads/Images/rio1.pngOn my most recent visit to Rio, my friend Franklin Dias Coelho, the City of Rio’s CIO, took me to visit Bairro Carioca, a new urban area in Rio de Janeiro that contains one of 6 Knowledge Squares that the city government created in 2012. In these Knowledge Squares, local workers and students are offered access to technology and if qualified, to IT training through Cisco’s Networking Academy. Cisco's global education network serves 25,000 Brazilians and forms part of an initiative that involves over 1 million students in 165 countries. About 120 youngsters in Bairro Carioca participated in the training last year in program modules training for help desk support, internet specialists or to develop network technicians. Cisco also provides support for teacher training and various educational materials at the six Knowledge Squares throughout the region. Bairro Carioca also includes a housing project with over 2000 subsidized housing units, a school, kindergarten and other facilities. My friend also took me to another Knowledge Square in the Nova Brasília community, at Morro do Alemão, in Rio.

clientuploads/Images/rio2.pngThese Knowledge Squares are an example of one of the most dramatic and extensive opportunities to provide digital inclusion for its citizens anywhere I have ever seen. Knowledge Squares consist of a large central area with smaller pods serving as training facilities. In the center of one of the Knowledge Squares that I visited is a large electronic multimedia display in the shape of a tree in which people are able to play with icons and words to arouse curiosity and begin their quest for knowledge. Other displays provide information including the history of the area, information on its culture (in this case, it was the local center for Samba music and dancing) and other content. Surrounding the central space are classrooms, a library, language labs and recreation areas. Outside is an open area for films to be shown on weekend nights.

While the Knowledge Squares are intended primarily to capture the interest of young people in the favelas, their parents and siblings are often attracted to them for the opportunity to explore the technology provided by various technology providers. The Knowledge Squares I visited were packed with young people, some showing evidence of their poverty in their faces and the clothes on their back. The local teams of security guards were more like coaches and mentors. The staff who trained the local students in the computer labs seemed highly supportive and friendly. I recall years ago that these kids might form marauding youth gangs from the favelas. Today they are keen instead to be part of the excitement of the new age of enlightenment. 

clientuploads/Images/rio3.pngStanding among the students actively working on their computers in one of the labs I asked about the graduates of the training programs. I was told that about 30% of the graduates have found jobs; jobs that they did not and could not have had before related to technology and applications that could earn them a living. The trainer explained that the courses he was teaching included web design, IT management, graphic design and production and video production.  “We try to facilitate the entry of young people into the local labor market. This will be especially important when we need skilled workers and technology support for the World Cup, Olympic Games and Formula 1.” The Knowledge Squares were created by the city to stimulate the acquisition of knowledge, but my intuition says the trainer was spot on - they also saw a need to deal with an eventual requirement to develop knowledge workers for the massive events over the next several years in Rio, which will forever transform the city and region. And thanks to service providers and technology firms, like Cisco, the lives of individuals are also being transformed. Digital inclusion and not the physical sports facilities will be the greatest legacy of these games.
 
Monday, May 13, 2013
Everybody's Business

clientuploads/Images/Zach-NameCaption-2013-140.gifIn Lyons, New York, where I was raised, there was typically one complaint that ran straight through the center of town and among those who were leaving for the larger world, as well as those staying behind.  It was that everybody knew everybody else’s “business!”   In those days, people seemed to like their privacy and relative anonymity.  To say that someone “minded their own business” was considered a compliment – kind of.  Privacy was observed, and yet the local culture had a way of knowing who might be a threat in their private cocoons and who was simply nurturing a rich inner life (or was an eccentric who drank too much hard apple cider at night).  We watched one another.  The reinforcing mechanism that evolved to run the alliances among the people, schools and businesses was - are you ready - gossip.  People, who are verbal and tribal beings, have allowed gossip to become a cultural pastime as well as a monitoring tool.  We all knew, or thought we knew, everyone else’s affairs.  No IPTV network running hundreds of video cameras or Facebook pages were necessary.

Who knew that not only was this a cultural asset, but that in the not too distant future technology would enable it, enshrine it as a great economic virtue and yet, at the same time, threaten to make it one dimensional and increasingly suspect.  I suspect we are now rethinking this.

As we head into the ICF’s 2013 Summit, where we will have a closer look at seven communities that are working nicely, thank you very much, the notion of collaboration and its potency has emerged as the “secret sauce.”  For the past few years it has been expressed as the “triple helix.” It appears as a part of a persistent dialogue, whose concepts are increasingly harnessed like a raw material by a range of management and logistical processes which then produce economic success.    It uses the tools of the Internet and the cloud in new ways and enhances their capabilities.  It allows creativity, which French tightrope walker Philippe Petit jokingly calls, “the perfect crime,” to flourish.  It is also done through a lot of talking, committee meetings and – yes – gossip on email.

clientuploads/Images/Lou Blog2 Power of Collaboration (2013).JPGIn Taoyuan and Taichung, Taiwan, two of the year’s Top7 Intelligent Communities from Asia, the sense of community is everyone’s business.  In Taichung’s case so are the resources of its 16 universities and technology corridor, precision machinery technology park and science and software parks.  Each is now getting to know one another’s “business” through a new Taichung Software Park Industry-University Council.   This is a collaboration the size of a dragon, or two.  Understanding that there is a compelling need to innovate and to drive deeper toward a connected, global economy, what emerged in Taichung, after much discussion, is an extension of the powerful business alliances that have already made Taichung the world’s third largest exporter of high-tech precision machinery.  The newly formed Council will include a massive databank for managing collective resource inventory, as well as a “talent breeding model” to produce Executive Masters degrees.  It will be run by a dedicated office to pilot the city’s software industries toward global markets, which await.  The alliance includes 26 incubation centers and the intellectual brainpower of 156 departments related to some aspect of the local and national economy.  It is a classic, Confucian example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.  (Remember the Beatles?  Or the Allies in World War II?   Then you know what I mean.)  Or, as author E.O Wilson notes in his best-selling new book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, this is an example of why human beings, like wasp ants and but a few other species, tend to overrun the planet.   It’s not the brain, it’s the culture.  As Google CEO Eric Schmidt says in HIS new book, “the brain is the greatest invention ever, but we did not invent it.”

Culture, however, is a different matter.  We did invent that, sort of, and as it expresses itself we are painfully aware that technology cannot in any sense replicate it.  That is left to us and to social evolution.  What we can do is to mind our business, tend to our community’s interests and note that inside each culture is a way to form councils and alliances that not only give us full economic lift, but also the privacy and emotional security we need to align ourselves to reach higher.  As I learned in Lyons, if you do not feel secure in your place, you cannot tolerate or appreciate anyone knowing your business.

 
Monday, May 6, 2013
The Creative Class is Flunking Out. What’s Next?

“Sometimes, I think it’s a sin when I feel like I’m winning when I’m losing again.”

That memorable morning-after line was written by Canada’s great singer-songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot, in a 1974 hit, Sundown.  It came to mind last week when I was conducting Top7 site visits in Canada and reading an article by Joel Kotkin in The Daily Beast.  The title was a real grabber: “Richard Florida Concedes the Limits of the Creative Class.”

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According to Kotkin, Dr. Florida recently admitted in the pages of The Atlantic, “what his critics, including myself, have said for a decade: that the benefits of appealing to the creative class accrue largely to its members – and do little to make anyone else any better off.”  

The flaw in the Creative Class idea turns out to be simple: attracting a horde of high-skilled hipsters tends to push up the cost of living, so that any benefit to lower-skilled workers is lost.   In an impressive show of academic honesty, Dr. Florida admitted, “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”

According to Kotkin, “For Rust Belt cities…following the ‘creative class’ meme has not only meant wasted money, but wasted effort and misdirection.  Burning money trying to become ‘cooler’ ends up looking something like the metropolitan equivalent of a midlife crisis.”  

Far beyond the rust-belt in places like New York City, Kotkin finds inequity incongruous with the lifts-all-boats Creative Class meme: “In nouveau hipster and increasingly expensive Brooklyn, nearly a quarter of people live below the poverty line. While artisanal cheese shops and bars that double as flower shops serve the hipsters, one in four Brooklynites receives food stamps.”

A public battle of ideas is always interesting.  But my purpose here is to suggest a more serious risk of wasted effort and misdirection.  In recent years, Dr. Florida has evolved from his Creative Class focus to become a major proponent of urbanization.  In The Atlantic, where he is an editor, he wrote: 

Cities are our greatest invention … because they enable human beings to combine and recombine their talents and ideas in new ways. As highly skilled people concentrate in these places, the rate of innovation accelerates, new businesses are created, and productivity – and, ultimately, pay – grows…The critical mass for knowledge work is higher than for manufacturing: the knowledge economy thrives at a larger scale.

clientuploads/Images/Rural-Imperative-120.gifIt’s a powerful argument for a more urbanized world.  But here’s the thing: cities have been fulfilling this role for – and I’m not making this up – 3,000 years.  Cities work, except when they become nightmares of dysfunction.  To avoid that dire fate, a new movement called Smart Cities has sprung up to install sensors, networks and automation systems through urban areas to make them run faster, cheaper and better.  In a very short time, it is becoming its own government-industrial complex, with everybody from the European Union to the biggest names in technology putting their shoulders to the wheel.

The trouble is, I think they are looking at the wrong problem.  Cities work.  Using information and communications technology (ICT), we can make them work better.  But the place where ICT can make a revolutionarydifference is in rural areas.

Rural areas around the world have been losing their relative share of population for decades.  In the less lucky places, economic viability is all but lost.  And that is a problem for everyone.  Everyone alive today depends on rural areas for such useful things as food, oxygen and clean water. 

The revolutionary change we need is not a 10% increase in the efficiency of cities.  It is a major boost in the economic vitality, social welfare and cultural richness of rural areas.  Because of ICT, rural areas have for the first time an opportunity to plug into the world at low cost regardless of location.  They can affordably import the world’s learning and culture to enrich the lives of young and old, and to give local cultural traditions new life in a global community.  They may even be able to make themselves as vital and exciting a place to grow a business or build a career as the busiest city center.  All of this is possible in an economy and culture that are conducted increasingly online.    

We do not yet know how to do it.  But at ICF, we believe it can be done and must be done.  We have launched a project called The Rural Imperative to begin figuring out how.  Check it out at www.ruralimperative.com.  For rural areas, for all of us, this is vital work.  It is the only way we will avoid that morning after, waking up with a bad hangover and the sour knowledge that we thought we were winning while we were losing again.

 
Monday, April 29, 2013
When Good Enough is Just Right

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Recently, as I watched the image of Life of Pi director Ang Lee walk up to the podium to accept his Oscar, I had no idea that this absolutely fascinating eye candy of a movie was produced in Taiwan. When he mentioned in his acceptance speech that he thanked his homeland of Taiwan and specifically the people of Taichung, I recalled that Mayor Jason Hu had told me about his association with the famous director when we met in Taichung last April, but I never connected the dots when I saw the movie. Why would I? Isn’t everything produced in Hollywood? Ok, maybe London, Toronto or maybe one of the other megacity locations such as Sydney or Mumbai. But Taichung

clientuploads/Images/Photo-By-Francis-Lee.pngAccording to a report in the Taiwan Review, the Director General of the Taichung City Government’s Information Bureau, Jean Shih, provided an insight into why Ang Lee chose to make the movie in Taichung, in central Taiwan, over other global locations. Taichung’s Mayor is an old friend of Ang Lee, personally inviting him to shoot the film in his city, making the decommissioned Shuinan Airport near the city’s center available for the film, a location that needed work but was good enough to become the center for the filming of the movie. Shih admits that some of the filming did take place in India, but the majority of the movie was eventually shot in Taichung, Taipei and Pingtung.

But it required much leadership, as Mayor Hu personally coordinated efforts to attract Lee’s American film crew to come for fact-finding tours to assess Taichung’s moviemaking environment. According to the Taiwan Review, these efforts resulted in Taichung city government joining forces with the central government to offer the director subsidies of more than $9.5 US million to film the movie in Taichung. This was good enough to result in 250 technicians and artists to work on an award-winning movie, but more importantly leaving a legacy for Taichung and Taiwan in the ever-growing race for content, creative industries, talent and financial deals that today could potentially be located anywhere. 

Yes, megacities attract talent, financial opportunities and grow clusters, but megacities are also big, difficult to maneuver, penetrate and take advantage of; some would even call them impersonal and anonymous, so that it’s often much easier to build relationships and take advantage of connections and opportunities in smaller regions or in regions where initiatives become individually more important in order to be able to get things done. Places like Taichung may not have the dazzle of filming megacities like LA and London, but are good alternatives since they are highly agile, high-velocity locations. Add the elements of Intelligent Community into the mix and it gets very interesting indeed. 

clientuploads/Images/Suneet-Singh-Tuli-and-his-Ashtak-Tablet.pngRecently I hosted Mr. Suneet Singh Tuli, who is nearly single-handedly impacting mass education in India by having developed a tablet that will provide 250 Million students in India with the tools to learn from teachers from around the world, connect by phone and email as well as use applications to be creative and share these with other students throughout their region and around the world. He is not running with the big “800 pound gorillas” as he calls them. He is a small firm, originally from Brampton Ontario, that punches above their weight. His tablet can be made for $35 and he sells it for $40 to the Indian government. It is affordable and is a pretty good smart application, similar to the original iPad and iPhones, which originally sold for hundreds of dollars. These iPads and iPods at their astronomical prices would not have been able to be sold to the masses in India when they first came out. 

But Tuli’s Aashtak Tablet sells for a very affordable $40 and is being gobbled up by the politicians in India and in many other countries around the world. Mr Tuli’s goal is to bring a suitable, “frugal” tool that can be accepted and easily made available to the next 3 Billion end users. It may not be the excellence displayed in the latest Apple iPhone 5, nor the next Samsung Android, but for the masses, as he says, “it is simply good enough”. In fact, it is more than “good enough”, but not when you compare it with the flash and brilliance of the newest Blackberry Z10. But that is not his goal. Instead his goal is to get these tools into the hands of millions who can use the Aashtak Tablet: this will be their salvation; their gateway to education and to a promise of a better life.

Mr Tuli’s lesson here for me was to understand that not everyone needs, wants or must have the latest, dazzling and super-dooper smartphone in order to meet their goals and to be able to do something hugely impactful. This has and will in the fullness of time demonstrate that “good enough” is absolutely just right and has been able to execute the necessary tipping point to achieve good works; in fact, it even may be able to create excellence.
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Similarly, Mr. Ang Lee was able to excel in his work, the Life of Pi by going to a non-Hollywood location and in an environment that would be considered by all measures, “good enough”. He was able to not only create a brilliant masterpiece from this exercise, but made a huge impact and created a legacy for the lives of his homeland and the citizens of Taichung. 
From this point onwards, a location and facility considered initially good enough, has an excellent chance now to transform into a center of excellence. 
 
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