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Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Now Never Ends

As 2015 ends I find myself wanting to write about everything which took place over the past 12 months at ICF.  It is not possible. So I will hit the high notes.  Do not expect a tedious elaboration about the family ski trip to Austria, poor Aunt Sissy’s fractured hip, or the barely disguised boast about how thrilled we “all are” about the youngest being accepted at that elite private school populated by fellow one-percenters.  This is not one of those loopy familial annual reports that have become so common around the holidays!   Although ICF is a wonderful family, and the urge is there.

2015 highlights were of different textures.  There were firsts which ensure that our movement continues to exert influence and shares knowledge and contacts well beyond our 143 ICF Foundation communities.   The ICF “Connections” program brought together like-minded Intelligent Communities to share business opportunities and build new capacities.  

2015 was also the year we left New York.  Or, at least, our Summit left to take our show on the road.  We chose to license the rights to the 2015 ICF Summit to Toronto.  As expected Canada did not fail us.  Quite the opposite.  Summit 2015 set a higher bar in all categories.  It doubled our attendance, drew a record number of Canadian and Taiwanese submissions to the Awards program for 2016 and included innovations such as the new Ideas Day.  Canada’s Governor General appeared, and spoke eloquently about the potency of ideas that drive cities forward. 

Dr. Jason Hu’s Visionary of the Year address, which was one-part roast (of me) and one part vivid, humorous and passionate chronicle of what his once unremarkable “no-name” city (the former “Mechanical Kingdom” of Taichung, Taiwan) had accomplished, will be embedded as one of the most rewarding 20 minutes of my career.  Dr. Hu, who is now running a presidential campaign for another Intelligent Community mayor-turned-national candidate, Dr. Eric Chu, stirred the souls of those in attendance and proved that inspired leadership and the application of ICF’s principles can work everywhere.  His take-away was clear:  Mitchell, South Dakota, Jonkoping, Sweden and Whanganui, New Zealand need not aspire to become the “next Silicon Valley” or Singapore.  Rather, they need to become themselves to ensure that brain drain turns to brain gain.

In a year packed with highlights, ICF announced the opening of another Institute for the Study of the Intelligent Community.  This one in Dublin, Ohio – a perennial Top7 city of 42,000 with a city manager, Mr. Dana McDaniel, who mobilized a team from the area’s rich triple helix of talent to plan his renaissance “out loud.”

The revolution has been started.  Yet as I told an audience in Lima, Peru, most revolutions fail. It is time to enter the renaissance.  Hence our 2016 theme: “From Revolution to Renaissance.” To me, it simply means that the tech revolution is a done deal and, for the most part, we get it.  What it has left us with is some confusion about where to go.  We know where the path leads: a true flourishing of the human experience.  To brain GAIN.  To a new Renaissance.  In 2015 we began a series of podcasts with planners and interesting people who can help guide us.  It is now online.

Professor Benjamin Barber estimated that today there are nearly 400 organizations dedicated to the improvement of cities through the use of technology.  That is a gain of approximately 399 since the day ICF began its mission in 1995.  We could not be happier because the results are evident.  We are getting better through the local engine.  Local governments are the new innovators of governance in the 21st Century. 

According to Google, search engines recorded that human beings searched more for the word ‘Future’ than they did the word ‘Past.’  That’s the good news.  However, they also searched for the word ‘Past’ more than ‘Present.’ There is a cliché which goes, “there is no time like Now.” Physicist Erin Schroeder said  that “Now never ends.”  He was not the first to observe this.  Buddha said it long ago.  The convergence of science and intuition leads us into 2016.  For cities, regions and towns the notion that “now never ends,” means quite literally that taking action and beginning to realize the full potential of broadband and planning for a future dedicated to creativity are not actions to be taken after the ski trip to Austria or when the streets and businesses are empty and shuttered.  The best time is, well, Now.

Happy holidays.

 
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
The Public Realm in Smart Cities and Intelligent Communities

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The public realm in any city abounds with streets, lanes, parks and public squares, but also public facilities such as the public lobbies and spaces that anyone from the public are able to legally access. It can also include areas below ground where the public may access public areas under streets and buildings, spaces below bridges and even the airspace above these public spaces. The public realm arguably also includes public vistas, namely what the public can see from a distance. As we expand our thinking about what should be considered the public realm in our villages, towns and cities, we should also expand it to include what we can’t necessarily see, but increasingly experience: the impact of broadband wireless services in public spaces and how it contributes to the sense of place in our communities.

As the design and infrastructure of our urban public spaces are undergoing significant transformation, broadband wireless Internet access is becoming as important and pervasive as the provision of other public amenities on streets and in public squares and parks such as sidewalks, cycle paths, benches, and water fountains. Activities related to Internet use has become an everyday activity in public spaces and is no longer limited to private spaces in the home, workplace or library. Tourists, local workers and residents use the public realm to experience the social diversity that urban spaces offer. But they are also increasingly flocking to urban spaces seeking free Wi-Fi hotspots for their smart devices, such as in Federation Square in Melbourne, Sugar Beach in Toronto and Bryant Park in New York City. These are made possible through the proliferation of broadband wireless Internet provided by municipal and community Wi-Fi offerings, free hotspots in cafes and restaurants and through 2G, 3G and 4G LTE wireless communications provided by advance mobile networks. But can the rapid rise of Internet access in public spaces reshape the public realm of the future and change what we define as sense of place?

The public realm is a social setting defined by its public urban spaces, and typified in a city’s streets, parks, and plazas, but it is also understood as part of a much larger public sphere of influence that connects many types of physical, social and viral networks. It plays host to both planned as well as serendipitous encounters with existing acquaintances and strangers alike, as well as it invites others to come and participate. For instance, flash mob experiences are organized through social media, resulting in a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual event and just as quickly disperse. Their performance occupy a space in a unique and special way, from entertainment to political advocacy, and can have a lasting impression about the space in the same way as historical events can create a unique sense of space and place.

For example, millennials use Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to instantly promote by “sharing” details about the places they, their friends and heroes are currently occupying, attracting others to participate in physical and viral space as well. These actions, multiplied many times over, have significant implications on tourism, activism, neighbourhoods and sense of place. A formerly underused street or square could become famous through social media overnight and may attract many new participants instantly to that space or over the next several years. For instance, the New York Times recently heralded Cairo’s Tahrir Square as Egypt’s newest tourist attraction. Previously, in 2011 we witnessed the impact that social media like Facebook and Twitter had on helping demonstrators in that very same square (and later across the Arab Spring) to organize, transmit their message to the world and to galvanize international support. That space, formerly not so well known around the world, has been changed to become an important place locally as well as internationally. How will it change with notoriety? For instance, Tiananmen Square became famous through global media exposure, but as a result it has also become a different space physically through security access limitations as well as procedures for entering and using the space.

Studies undertaken of the use of broadband wireless Internet in the public realm suggest that there is currently a significant enough shift from previously known ways that these spaces have been used that it may have significant implications on future urban planning, the design of future streets and open spaces and perhaps even on the nature of democracy, as described above. While designers of public spaces may have new tools for communicating their ideas to the public, they also have the ability to gain data and insights via the Internet of Things (IoT), among devices through M2M (machine to machine) as well as strategically between people and devices. Public lighting, benches, trash cans and sensors imbedded in concrete, flower beds and buildings will communicate in ways that we have yet to imagine. Today’s 15 Billion IoT connections will expand to over 50 Billion IoT connections by 2020. As a result, our public spaces will become very different places, both good and bad.

Today, security concerns of the use of personal data devices in public areas offering free WiFi is on the rise. Identity theft and data hacking are key reasons for not allowing your personal data devices to access free wireless offerings in public spaces. But on the positive side, broadband wireless is also seen to be revitalizing and repopulating public spaces by providing increased amenities, improving the safety of public spaces and increasing opportunities for social equality and diversity. Communication among park users engaged in social media using tools such as laptops, tablets, cellular–based cameras, combined with security, information and entertainment-based elements, hardwired into the public spaces, may actually help to provide added security in the space. These could also be used to increase opportunities for raising public awareness, improved social cohesion, increased tolerance, and exposure to diverse experiences.

 
Tuesday, December 8, 2015
Looking Forward: Urban-Rural Interdependency

Much of the discussion about economic growth and the availability of broadband assumes there is a vast gulf between rural and urban areas. I’ve written before about how, in some ways, trends in this century seem to be leading to something of a convergence of rural and urban areas.

So I thought it especially interesting that the NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association yesterday hosted a policy meeting in the US Capitol that was titled: “Beyond Rural Walls: Identifying Impacts and Interdependencies Among Rural and Urban Spaces”.

I was there for the panel discussion, along with Professor Sharon Strover of the College of Communication at University of Texas in Austin and Professor Charles Fluharty of the Department of Health Management and Policy at the University of Iowa (who is also the CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute).

We covered the changing demographics and ambiguities in the boundaries between urban and rural, broadband deployment and adoption, and how to measure both the interdependencies between these areas as well as the impact of broadband communications. Perhaps there were too many knotty issues for one morning!

Since the NTCA will be making available further information about this, I’m now just going to highlight my own observations.

There are many examples of rural communities using broadband in innovative and intelligent ways. One example is the work of the counties in Appalachian Kentucky, one of the poorest parts of the US.

But most of these communities don’t know about each other, which means that each has to re-invent the wheel instead of learning from others’ experience and experiments. That’s one reason ICF is planning a global virtual summit for these communities.

The limited distribution of this news also encourages major national/global philanthropic foundations to give up hope for rural areas in the US. Dr. Fluharty noted that less than five percent of philanthropy goes to American rural areas, although twenty percent of the population lives there.

He also emphasized that doing something about rural broadband and development is a national issue, not something to be merely dealt with locally. He even classified it as a national security issue because the countryside holds so much of the country’s critical resources – our food, not the least.

The problem is that for many national leaders, especially members of Congress, the mental image of the countryside is of past decline and abandonment. The national media reinforce that image. So they may feel it’s a hopeless problem and/or have no idea what might be happening that ought to be encouraged.

Many of our current national leaders also have forgotten the common understanding of the founders of the USA that a large country would only succeed if it was brought together. That’s why building postal roads is one of the few specific responsibilities given to Congress in the constitution. It’s why the Erie Canal was built, the Land Grant colleges, etc. We seem to have forgotten what led to our success. In this century, physical roads aren’t enough. Digital communications are just as important.

Of course, not all public officials are oblivious. There was a keynote by Lisa Mensah, Under Secretary for Rural Development of the US Department of Agriculture.

Representative Bill Johnson (Republican of Ohio’s 6th District) opened the conference with a statement about the importance of rural broadband for urban economies. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota closed the conference by saying he viewed rural broadband in the same way people viewed rural electrification decades ago – a basic necessity and common right of the American people. Or, as he said “A no-brainer”.

Along with these misperceptions on the part of media, national officials and foundations is the failure to recognize the increasing integration of rural and urban areas. The boundaries are getting fuzzy.

Even residence is no longer clear. There are an increasing number of people – especially knowledge workers and creative folks – who may spend 3-4 days a week in a city and 3-4 days a week in the countryside. They may contact you, via broadband Internet, and you won’t know which location they’re in. Are they rural residents or urban residents or is that an increasingly meaningless question?

Finally, in the question-and-answer part of the conference, one of the many operators of rural communications companies there pointed out that they know how to deploy broadband and run it, but that their communities need help figuring out what to do with it. Of course, that provided me an opportunity to discuss ICF’s accelerator program and workshops that help community leaders do exactly that.

 
Friday, December 4, 2015
Life, Death and Broadband

 Life in the broadband economy can be a real killer.     

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No, I am not talking about the horrific ISIL attack on Paris, despite the online propaganda skills of that 12th Century band of cutthroats.  Instead, I am referring to an insight brought to us by two Princeton economists, Ann Case and Nobel prizewinner Angus Deaton.

What they found is that white poorly-educated white Americans of middle years are dying faster than they did in the 20th Century.  Specifically, the mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old who have no more than a secondary school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014. 

Doesn’t sound like much, does it?  That trouble is that the death rate for younger and older people of all races and ethnic groups fell during the same period. 

There has been only one contemporary trend as bad as this one, according to Dr. Deaton, and that was the HIV/AIDS crisis.  And the numbers are not the worst part.  The worst part is that the causes of death do not appear to be heart disease, diabetes or any of the other usual suspects.  Instead, the rising death toll comes from suicide and the impacts of substance abuse.  

These are the diseases of despair. Over the past forty years, no other group in the American economy has been hit harder by automation in the workplace and the rising demand for higher skills in what used to be manual and low-skilled jobs.  People of color have hardly been immune: middle-aged African-Americans still have a higher mortality rate than whites.  The difference is that the white middle-class has fallen from a high place – an industrial economy where hard work was well-rewarded – while opportunities for minorities have grown as we have slowly drained racism from our laws, if not yet from our hearts.

Can national policy, state or provincial policy come to the rescue?  I am doubtful.  Will Smart Cities innovate their way out of the problem?  Not likely – though they may “solve” it in the same way that gentrification “solves” poverty, by moving the poor somewhere else. 

If there is an answer, it lies in the very humanity that has been so ravaged by technology change.  It lies in, of all things, habit. 

In any society, people on the downward slope have bad habits.  Okay, let’s say “maladaptive” instead, for it is a matter of adaption, not morals.  Like every human being, they don’t like change.  Like many of us, they don’t like learning new things, whether from bad past experience, the culture of the place they live or fear of failure.  Resistance to learning is the bad habit that needs to be broken.  And that is one very big job, as anyone who has worked in remedial education can tell you. 

Most of our new Smart21 Communities have programs aimed at training their citizens in digital skills, as well as skilled trades and business basics.  To succeed, those programs need patient, persistent leadership and the willingness to invest for the long haul.  But these are not enough.  Most of all, they need community.  

It is in a caring community that we can let go of old habits and start building new ones.  Change does not come from a program.  Change comes from the person in that program whose eyes are opened and whose courage is rekindled.  That only happens in a community with a gift not just for technological intelligence but emotional intelligence as well.

Policies and technologies will not reduce the death toll of the broadband economy.  Communities will.  The only cure for the diseases of despair is the elixir of hope. 

 
Tuesday, December 1, 2015
The Art of Landscape in Smart Cities

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In the lexicon of planners and developers “Smart Parks” are usually reserved for new forms of industrial and business parks that provide high speed broadband to their end-users as the new form of utility. Of course many offer additional benefits to be part of this special tenant mix, from special LED lighting, guaranteed electric power, electric car charging posts, underground utilities, and gated security services. The physical environment might also include high-end data centers, incubators, accelerators and educational institutions in addition to the office environment that they normally offer. Some offer unique environmental applications such as green buildings, wind turbines, solar panels, vacuum-based waste disposal as well as collecting data via sensors to measure for system efficiencies, environmental readings and traffic flow. Some, such as the Eindhoven Tech Center in the Netherlands offer synergy centres where people gather in restaurants, gymnasiums, ad hoc meeting spaces and advanced digital libraries.  

Smart Parks are usually unique commercial environments and their landscape and design elements are not typically extended into the normal fabric of the city and regional environments, but there is no reason why they couldn’t be strategically part of the planning of greenfield sites, the strategic replacement of public works in a brownfield area of a municipality, or the planning for the refurbishment of existing parks, street and open spaces throughout a community.  Hong Kong’s Cyberport includes a complete and compact community ranging from housing, office spaces, commercial town center, hotels and educational and entertainment opportunities with smart park-like landscaping that the community benefits from. The $85 Billion, 2860 hectare new town called Springfield in Ipswich, Australia is much more than a smart park, featuring all the benefits of a smart park in the design of a new town and a new tourist destination with a swimming lagoon as a central landscaping feature for the community.

In redeveloping existing brownfield areas in cities, some simple ideas will begin to change the landscape from old and passive to new and brilliant. For instance, look at some of the changes in the landscape that have been happening in Europe with smart landscape in mind. In Barcelona, traffic lights, LED lighting, dynamic bus shelters and parking availability signs give the city a physical sense of its new brand as a smart city. In Eindhoven, artist Daan Roosegarde illuminates the van Gogh bike path for evening commuters traveling to Nuenen.  In Rio, along the beachfront at Copacabana, public spaces have evolved in time for the massive global events including World Cup, Olympics and Formula One races. The newly landscaped spaces include misting cooling stations, modern toilets, exercise stations, coffee shops and restaurants as well as information posts and security provisions such as lifeguard stations and emergency contact support.  These are tied directly to a 24 hour surveillance system that is manned by police, fire, health and parks supervisors at a major control room in central Rio. The life along Copacabana Beach is now extended into the late evening with more activity, safeguarded by eyes on the street, both in real life and virtual. But these changes in the landscape need not be limited to massive improvements that only larger urban areas are able to undertake. A simple act as making an underground pipe available as part of the redevelopment of any street or park improvements, allows for private sector involvement to participate in the eventual upgrade of the street or park as part of a smart landscape opportunity. This empty pipe could eventually lead to provisioning of fiber optics into the area without the need for digging up the street or park again. These could further lead to interesting applications in each community that meets a specific society’s needs in the urban landscape, such as safety applications; navigating movement systems; lighting; and entertainment and information via video.

Ultimately these streetscape and park improvements lead to three key things from a smart cities perspective, namely 1. to create highly efficient and productive spaces as well as to acquire as much data and related information for civic administrators, asset managers and planners to assist in maintenance budgets and future planning, design and implementation; 2. to create interesting spaces and routes that offer users a unique, safe and satisfying experience; and 3. to create memorable and uniquely differentiated spaces and experiences that will attract tourists, talent and investors to the community. These landscaped elements provide citizens and external investors alike with the confidence of stable and good governance as well as add to the powerful image of the community, adding to its brand and competitive advantage as a memorable community that people would want to live in and invest in and to which the talent and millennials today gravitate to.

Places like New York’s Central Park and Paris’ Avenue des Champs-Élysées are tourist magnates but small and mid-sized cities can also create memorable spaces. Dusseldorf’s waterfront, for instance, attempts to create effective landscaped spaces where layers of its waterfront heritage past are incorporated into its waters edge spaces. But in Dusseldorf the future is never far from these spaces, both in built form and landscape elements ranging from its waterfront tree planting scheme to its highly articulated walkways and fanciful architecture. In between is information on transit availability with GPS guided times of arrival; signage indicating parking availability in neighbouring structures and related public information. Oulu’s central core has video screens that help with information on events, tourist information and even internet services. Many parks and streets now boast free Wi-Fi from Boston to Taipei with their ubiquitous Wi-Fi mesh equipment on poles, on roofs and on sides of buildings adjacent to the parks and streets. With the increasing applications of the Internet of Things, there will be increasing evidence that these landscape elements will include technology, sensors, video on demand and many more aspects of the new landscape frontier. In Nice, the “Connected Boulevard” project utilizes smart poles, LED light standards, benches, garbage bins and many other landscape elements to connect sensors in order to extract data from the activities that take place in the boulevard. This includes traffic flow, parking, pedestrian and bicycle traffic as well as more passive activities in outdoor cafes and people relaxing on park benches. This data (Big Data) will be used to determine maintenance budgets but also for future planning of streets and boulevards in Nice.

Landscape Architects and Urban Designers will need to consider their design carefully so that they are pleasant, safe and allow for enjoyment of the space. Some spaces are highly active landscaped spaces where technology may have its place, but some spaces should allow for calm, opportunities for privacy and not become over bearing with technology nor become a place where data on you and your activities is collected against your will. 

Note: This article first appeared in MyLiveableCity www.myliveablecity.com

 
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