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Thursday, April 23, 2015
Why Disruption is Harder Than It Looks

Do you know anyone who is never-ending fountain of new ideas?  I have known, enjoyed and been worn out by a few of them.  The same is true of US President Franklin Roosevelt.  He delivered one of the greatest backhand compliments in history when we said of British Prime Minster Churchill, his friend and fellow wartime leader, “Winston has fifty ideas a day, and one or two of them are rather good.” 


We need these people to stretch the boundaries of what is possible.  We also need to respect the many ways in which those boundaries can come snapping back on us.  In our book, Brain Gain: How Innovative Cities Create Jobs in an Age of Disruption, my colleagues and I wrote about the disruptive educational innovation known as the massively open online course or MOOC.    The vision is truly revolutionary: instead of attending a high-priced university, you take courses online from all of the great universities at a fraction of the cost.  Three privately-funded MOOC companies were launched in the US in 2012, and universities around the world quickly followed with their own course offerings.    

So, have MOOCs succeeded in blowing up the stately traditions of higher education?  Not so much, according to David Leonhardt, writing in The New York Times.  The problem, it turns out, is that learning is just one of the things people are buying when they pursue higher education. The other thing – one with much greater economic value – is a credential.  A university degree is a highly valued third-party endorsement of your mastery of knowledge and  skills.  For employers, it is a fantastically useful shortcut to identifying qualified employees, even if they miss out on a lot of uncredentialed talent as a result. Colleges and universities are not about to surrender their monopoly on that value, which supports the fees they charge.  And so, the score so far: status quo 1, disruption 0.    

But we are still early in the game.   MOOC providers, from EdX to Coursera, are introducing their own certificate programs based on structured curricula and qualifying exams.  The Mozilla Foundation, creator of the Firefox Web browser, has developed an Open Badges credential program, which any organization can award and which is backed by links to electronic evidence of exactly how and why the badge was earned.  Put those two trends together, and you have the beginnings of a system that could rival the economic value of the university degree – and do it anywhere that people have a hunger for learning and ambition for a better life.

Open courses were an instant online hit, but it is going to take years for “open degrees” to find meaningful acceptance.  But as we wrote in Brain Gain, if MOOCs can actually increase the productivity of education – teaching more students at less cost – they will be among the most profound forces for good in human history.  Communities that are not lucky enough to have a good university or community college at their core will gain a new chance to participate in the knowledge-based, technology-driven economy of the 21st Century. 

So let us praise the unreasonable men and women who dare to dream of something as remarkable as the MOOC.  And let us also praise the quiet, methodical practitioners who find ways around the hundred obstacles that arise in the face of every truly revolutionary idea.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Where Bison & Broadband Roam


The best part of this Intelligent Community “thing” for me is to see the patterns of the new energized community emerging.  To do it, you have to learn to connect dots.  After all, “Creativity,” as Steve Jobs said, “is just connecting the dots.”

The dots were linked again for me this past weekend in the Oceania galleries of New York’s Metropolitan Museum and in Mitchell, South Dakota.  One of the happiest days of my life was nearly 35 years ago when I first became a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It made me feel as if I had totally joined the City of New York.  All of it.  I now had the privilege of walking into that majestic building on Fifth Avenue and roaming the world as I pleased, as my heart and mind dictated.  I could be curious and learn endlessly (my idea of heaven).  It was a thrill and, looking back, it was the deliverance of “quality of life” that Manhattan had always promised.  This feeling has continued to make all the difference about whether I live here or somewhere else.

As I strolled those galleries for the millionth time I flashed back to a moment last Tuesday, shortly after being given the keys to the City of Mitchell, South Dakota by Mayor Ken Tracy.  The honor was given to me in a modest room where the city council gathers to plot the continued rise of Mitchell, one of this year’s Top7 cities.  They not only plot the strategic direction of Mitchell, a place with a 2.8% unemployment rate (you read that right), they also listen inside that chamber to serious local issues that relate to their sidewalks, policing and tourist industry.  With a major conflict pending over a measure that asks property owners to pay for sidewalk installations, I suspect that I was a breath of fresh air that evening – at least for the Council.  I was there to officially recognize the city’s selection and to invite them to Toronto, Canada in June to be the “stars” of our Summit.

I also reinforced something that nearly every city champion explained to me as essential to Mitchell’s future: that quality of life is capital.  It will be the formula which allows the city to keep its amazing balance between the gifts nature has provided and its economic destiny.   In Mitchell the local meets the global.  I know this because they issue pens which read, “bison and broadband.”  The city of 15,285 has three broadband providers.  Think of that.  In places far larger they still spat about whether broadband is necessary, and who is going to pay for it.  In Mitchell, however, broadband is in, but it is merely a building block for a structure called “quality of life.”  This is the BIG BUILD.  On these Great Plains of America, known as “God’s Country,” and sacred to the Lakota and Sioux Indian tribes of North America, the scramble to use broadband and Intelligent Community ideas to construct a great place to live and thrive is on. 

Like Taichung, with its Calligraphy Greenway and the province of New Brunswick, Canada, which enabled a small population of 750,000 to produce three Top7 communities a few years ago,  Mitchell has settled upon quality of life as the biggest challenge to restore a population that declined by 30% in the post-industrial era.  The notion has taken root.  Like the corn in the fields of Davison County (planted by high-tech tractors), ideas around quality of life have many variations.  But the most compelling is driven by the evidence that many people who left the area want to return to Mitchell to enjoy nature and to be plugged into a global economy.  People are coming home.  I met several and they were all proud to be back.  Nearly all of them asked me if I hunted pheasant or fished.  (I do not.)  But it is obviously essential to the city’s quality of life and what connects people just as the Museum membership card connects me to the home I love. 

Mitchell is a dynamic community and is capable of going all the way in our awards program not because it is a monolithic economic powerhouse as were Taichung or Singapore in 2013 and 1999.  Nor is it the most innovative place on earth, as Eindhoven and Waterloo could lay claim to having been in 2011 and 2007.  Unlike New York (Intelligent Community of the Year, 2001) it is filled with modest people who get a little uncomfortable promoting themselves as “world class,” and hardly believe they are all of that.  But they are.  They reinforce the claim that the “middle of nowhere” is no more; that a renaissance is underway in the rural parts of the world.  They were smart enough to push broadband through and to make people like it!  Like a tractor which has smart technology embedded into it, and is boosting crop yields by numbers once thought unimaginable, the city has quietly, surely and in the steadfast way of its Norwegian heritage, become a “high tech city” without technology or frenzied Twitter freaks claiming their inflated presence.  It meanders on, proud of the remarkable natural art on the outside of its famous Corn Place and the productivity and successful job placement of its technical schools.  What they are most proud of, I believe, is the fact that its kids are starting to turn their sights back home, where the bison roam and the broadband is fast.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Evaluating Top7 Intelligent Communities


One of the elements of the year-long process of bringing forward an annual list of Intelligent Communities is the physical evaluation of each of the Top7 Intelligent Communities. This is an important part of the selection of the Intelligent Community of the Year and is taken very seriously by the evaluators, the Jury and the communities being evaluated. It is important to physically validate each community’s application, make eye to eye contact with the authors of the submission and better understand what they believe makes their city and community work in terms of an Intelligent Community.  Since each site visit is in a different part of the world, they may be culturally very different and in a language that could be very different from their counterparts. Some site visits dig deep into each element of their smart physical systems while others focus on meetings and roundtables, ensuring that all of the aspects of their community activities are understood by the evaluator visiting their community. Others include celebrations of their Top7 recognition and bring the community together to better understand what the value of their recognition really is all about. Gaining local support and ensuring extensive public participation is a key factor in continuing the Intelligent Community movement into future years. Just as the recognition of the Intelligent Community is not an overnight activity centered around a simple application and instead takes a year long process to complete, so should the importance of constant improvement and continual commitment be pursued, resulting in a community that lives and breathes what we describe as the Intelligent Community movement. These are key elements that the evaluator is looking for. How disparate and separated are the activities described in a community application versus how collaborative, well thought-out and budgeted for continuity are they? Is it a “project” or is it part of the true fabric of the community? Does it have legs and lives and breathes as part of what makes the whole community intelligent, or is it an activity or someone’s special project that could end tomorrow with the person’s changing situation or the end of special funding?

Of course, the site visits will help to validate each of the applicant’s capital investments, community elements and collaborative initiatives in context with the criteria that the Intelligent Community Forum has established over the years. We will be looking for smart infrastructure and how it is being deployed and how it benefits the community at large; how they have planned their community and implemented smart and innovative technologies to be part of the ever-changing landscape and make-up of their Intelligent Community; we will be looking at the way in which the knowledge workforce is created, attracted and most importantly utilized and retained in a community; we will be looking at the innovation and creativity that takes place and leveraged in these communities, taking advantage of the smart infrastructure and smart people in the community; and we will be looking at the ways in which a community deals with public advocacy from citizen involvement to public policies that reinforce the criteria and help to create the collaborative innovation ecosystem that makes intelligent communities unique. In addition, we will be looking at how they market their community to attract talent and investment, especially foreign direct investment and locally-generated funds to support home-grown businesses. We will also be looking for examples of digital inclusion providing for all members of society including the young and the old, the disenfranchised and those with special needs. We will be looking for leadership patterns; evidence of collaboration and citizen participation; special ways in which the environmental footprint is being dealt with and managed; opportunities for the community to attract risk capital; how they plan for cyber-security; and how they deal with issues today that result from changing circumstances, such as the creative destruction of jobs to global impacts of politics, environments and the economy. This is a site visit to a Top7 Intelligent Community that in a short 48 hours the evaluator will have to validate nearly every aspect of what makes this Top7 selected community a rated Intelligent Community. However, it is not a perfect science. First impressions count. The community, the people and the responses are all important in the evaluation. Evaluators will follow the itinerary of the hosts but they will also seek the comments and opinions of others along the way, even off the tailored pathways, looking for a true cross section of the communities’ hopes, desires and opinions. As these are special and unique communities with competitive advantages that excel among the best in the world, it will be very difficult for our evaluators to be neutral in their descriptive reports, notwithstanding that is their goal. Sometimes it is hard to curtail their excitement and enthusiasm in their reports. Naturally, it is exciting to be in these special and unique Intelligent Communities looking at their initiatives, the newly created jobs that evolved from the forces that shaped the community having gone through a community crisis such as the creative destruction of previous jobs to new ones as a result of changing local circumstances; opportunities created for education and retraining; or reviewing the exciting investments made by public, private and institutional sources in each community. That excitement is often reflected in the evaluation, ranging from glee - being in such an environment-  to a “eureka moment”- suggesting that every community should be doing what this community is doing. But as evaluators we do have standards that are set out by the Intelligent Community Jury, members from around the world that have established what the evaluators are to look for and how they are to report so that each of the seven Intelligent Communities are given fair treatment in these evaluations. And, as evaluators,  we do work hard to meet these standards and are evaluated ourselves annually by the Jury with metrics to ensure constant improvement in the reporting process. These site visit reports are added to the actual applications that the jury evaluates and rank as well as other inputs such as qualified analyst’s reports.

Being recognized as a Smart21 community is the first step. Every city, town or region is eligible to make an application. ICF provides samples of previous winning applications and makes it as easy as possible to make a submission, including not charging for a submission. The completed applications are due in September of every year and the Smart 21 communities are announced in October every year following analyst’s review of the submissions to create the short list of the first level of smart communities. ICF continues to work with each of these 21 smart communities to pick the best seven from among them to be qualified as a Top7 Intelligent Communities, announced in January of every year. These are the communities that will come to the annual Summit of the Intelligent Community Forum, this year to be held in Toronto from June 8-12, www.icfsummit2015.com. They will be the stars of the Summit. They will be celebrated but they also come to openly share best practices among the other Top7 communities and with the audience attending the Summit. Members of the Smart 21, Top7 and previously ranked communities will be in attendance and openly share with the audience stories and information about their communities. A Business-to-Business and Business-to –Government Matchmaking Exchange on June 9 will help to not only break the ice and provides speed-dating opportunities to share business cards, but also introduces one another to the business and investment opportunities in each of these Smart21 and Top7 Intelligent Communities. An in-depth interview with each of the communities’ top leaders will be the highlight of the June 11 Plenary Session on the Top7 Intelligent Communities. They will also be celebrated at a reception focused on the Top7 where they will also receive their own awards on June 10 and finally at a dinner on June 11, the world’s most Intelligent Community of the Year will be announced. This year the current Intelligent Community of the Year is Toronto. Site visits are planned for delegates to the Summit for Toronto on June 8 as well as a unique bus tour to the Intelligent Community of the Year (2007) in Waterloo, Ontario, an hour west of Toronto. See the Intelligent Communities and meet the people who made it happen and ask them directly what it took for them to be recognized and what the benefits have been.

The evaluators undertaking the site visits are the Co-Founders of the Intelligent Community movement and will be visiting Columbus, Mitchell  and Arlington in the USA; Surrey, BC in Canada; Rio in Brazil; New Taipei City in Taiwan and  Ipswich in Queensland, Australia. I will be heading to New Taipei City and Ipswich while the other Co-Founders will be heading to the other five Top7 Intelligent Communities over the next month. We will interview the Top7 Intelligent Communities again on June 11. Join us there to find out what happens next.



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.”    

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