|Monday, April 7, 2014|
|What You Can Learn from the Intelligent Communities of Taiwan|
In 1950, the gross domestic product of Taiwan, measured per person, placed it squarely in the third world. In 2012, this small mountainous island of 23 million people ranked 29th in the world, ahead of France, Japan, Finland, the UK and South Korea.
How did they do it? How did they create an advanced economy that produces most of the world’s silicon chips, motherboards, laptops and tablets?
I got a first-hand look during my Top7 site visits to New Taipei City and Hsinchu City in March. I saw a culture that values hard work, education, good order and long-term investment. But the real secret, the one that the rest of us can learn from, is how government at different levels manages to be activist on the one hand and flexible on the other.
In both cities, I was exposed to national government policies that promote very specific agendas. Taiwanese Intelligent Communities have some of the most impressive digital inclusion programs in the world because the central government requires private carriers to deliver high-quality broadband even to the remote villages of this mountainous land. The national government also wants every municipality or district to cultivate a culturally unique product or service – something arising from the history of that place – whether a particular style of meatball, traditional sky lantern or museum-quality art glass. That’s smart. Specialization creates commerce: I spend money to buy your meatballs and you spend money to buy my art glass.
Taiwan’s government also thinks global. I asked the deputy director-general of Taiwan’s oldest technology center, Hsinchu Science Park, what had made his “Silicon Valley” successful while nearly every other attempt to replicate California’s success has failed. Kuan-Hsiu Hsaio gave me a very interesting answer. “We did not build a science park just for Taiwan. We built it for the world.” Hsinchu Science Park is home to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, the company that invented the idea of the silicon wafer “fab,” which was spun out of a central government R&D organization.
The park is there, however, not only because of central government backing, but because Hsinchu leaped to assemble land, develop infrastructure and manage the continuing challenges of growth. And that is where the flexibility comes in. Central government policies no doubt create a lot of mandates and red tape, but the New Taiwan Buck stops at the local level. It was New Taipei City (NTC) that built the Yingge Ceramics Museum (pictured right) to help rescue a commodity ceramics industry and direct it to art and high tech production. It is NTC that organizes missions that take its ceramics artists and arts to conventions in Europe and the US to create an international brand for local products.
It is Hsinchu that devised a resident smart card that provides discounts in stores and can be loaded with money and act like a debit card in shops and transit – while capturing valuable data that helps local government plan transit routes, zoning and traffic patterns. (Mayor Hsu presented me with my own card when I visited.) It is Hsinchu that, with the help of central government training programs, guided manufacturers of glass and tile to open “tourism factories” that attract visitors and expand revenue opportunities.
What are the lessons we can take away? First of all, go to your local temple, light some incense and pray for clear, consistent and smart national policies. Second, don’t be afraid to act. When infrastructure is needed, when traditional businesses are losing ground, when cultural treasures are threatened, only local government can get it done.
|Monday, March 24, 2014|
|No Idea is Too Small and No Community Too Remote|
“No Idea is Too Small and No Community Too Remote”…With those basic ideas I began my precious 18 minutes on the stage at TEDx Pirai. They were a quick 18 minutes as TEDx events severely limit each speaker. A huge timer counts down the seconds. If you go over, it visually assaults you from the back of the room with a huge flashing sign and in front of your eyes at the base of the stage with a 64 inch screen, flashing “00.00” over and over again in different colours. There is no such thing as missing the end of your presentation. They might as well pull you off the stage with a hook. The production - yes production - not a conference- is exciting to be part of, but also intimidating. This is entertainment as much as it is a “talk”. Thank goodness I am right on time with a few seconds to spare.
I was invited to Pirai on the outskirts of Rio for this TEDx talk. Since I first came across this community over a decade ago, I had always imagined it was in the middle of a jungle. Not so. It’s a quaint town of about 25,000 inhabitants. The former Mayor, now Vice-Governor’s house, is as elegant as you would find in Westchester or even London. True; the jungle surrounds it and I could hear the unmistaken sounds of a jungle in the summertime late into the evening. It was quite peaceful, actually.
Pirai was recognized by ICF in 2005 as one of the Top 7 Intelligent Communities in the world. I imagine that few people had ever heard of it before then outside of Brazil. Its small but brilliant idea of connecting a 14 Mbps wireless broadband network to every public school, the town hall and all other public facilities was pretty impressive for such a small and remote place at the time. The political will of its Mayor Luiz Fernando de Souza and the collaboration of its community members made the difference and established it among the international ICF jury as one of the best that year.
Decades earlier most people in Pirai worked for the local power company. But with the sale of the utility from the state government to the private sector, many thousands became unemployed. In an effort to seek new ways to create economic development and prosperity for its community, Pirai’s Mayor invited the Brasilia University to develop an IT Master Plan. Convinced that information technology and communications would convert the city’s fortunes, the city initiated its “Pirai Digital City” project, focused on development of its educational network throughout the community. The project was later expanded to bridge the digital divide. It was this small, but mighty decision that catapulted the community to domestic and later, international fame.
While it doesn’t seem like much today, back at the turn of the Millennium, fewer than 6% of Brazilians, or only about 11 million of its 180 million people were users of the Internet and mostly only in large centers such as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Undertaking such a project in the jungles of Brazil was unheard of. Without proper funding at the front end, the community was forced to innovate. An advisory board was formed under Mayor Souza’s government to guide the long term evolution of the plan. Local businesses, a competitive telecommunications operator as well as educational institutions collaborated to create an Educational Technology Center and improvements to the communications network. The innovative ecosystem that was created through these efforts helped drive down normal costs and allowed the collaborative group to focus on developing sustainable uses that would help to evolve and transform the community. Since 2004 the community came together under the mantra of “Digital Pirai”. This project has provided free access to the Internet everywhere in Pirai but more impressive is the fact that every child has been given access to a laptop, an idea that was revolutionary at the time. Today, these children have benefitted from being early adopters of technology and are much further ahead than most other cities when it comes to jobs and opportunities for further education.
According to local people I met in Pirai, the community turned around in the decade since. Most people are now re-employed, restaurants are thriving and there is a tremendous community spirit in Pirai that came out to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Digital Pirai Project. One of the children spoke at the Tedx Pirai with Intel Brazil’s President Fernando Martins about the opportunities given to her and her classmates through the Digital Pirai Project. She praised the program and spoke of the opportunities this has presented her, something that would not have normally been possible in other similar sized communities in Brazil at the time. Today, Pirai acts as a model for other communities in Brazil and elsewhere to emulate. The inspiration of what can be possible no matter what the obstacles is a very big idea which started small and in a remote corner of the globe.
So that is how I started my presentation on Intelligent Communities at TEDx in Pirai. I spoke about Smart Cities and how to convert them into Intelligent Communities. I spoke about how excellence in technology and good governance can help to create innovative ecosystems that attracts and retains investment and talent, and among other tips about becoming an Intelligent Community, I gave examples from Waterloo, Eindhoven, Taichung and Rio de Janeiro. But what captured local people’s interest that day was what resonated with them in the first few minutes of my talk as I reflected on what I had learned while I was in Pirai during these celebrations – that no idea is too small especially if it is good and can be shared globally over the Internet; and that these ideas can come from anywhere, even from the smallest and remote locations in the world, especially if they can be accessed from anywhere else in the world. Money (and people) will follow good ideas no matter where they come from. Prosperity will soon follow.
Other speakers also spoke about the process of becoming the Intelligent Community of Pirai; the struggles, the process and the many people involved in making that happen. It was not simply the work of one leader; it took the imagination and fortitude of many volunteers and devoted citizens and businesses to make it happen. More impressive than the technology of the day was the vision and the collaboration that it took to see it through. I was most impressed in the fact that the Digital Pirai Project survived all these years and is an active and sustainable part of the community, a decade later. I was reminded by the organizers (as they showed me a time line pavilion at the event) that in 2005 when ICF gave Pirai the recognition as one of the Top 7 Intelligent Communities in the world, it was the recognition that they needed at that moment to continue on. Sometimes we forget at ICF of the kind of impact we have had on some communities around the word. I was proud and honoured at that moment to see where we have helped to make a difference.
The celebration in the main square with Brazil’s iconic former Minister of Culture, and long-time favorite Brazilian musician, Gilberto Gil, heralded a celebration of community togetherness like no other I have seen. Singing nationally known songs of Mr. Gil’s repertoire, the community embraced the culture but also the spirit of the moment. In between songs, Mr. Gil spoke about Pirai’s efforts to be true to themselves; to maintain their culture but also look into their future using the technology and applications available to them to teach their children about a better way to live and thrive in modern day Brazil and in the global economy. It was inspirational.
Thank you Pirai for the lesson that no idea is too small and no community too remote, especially when you can share the idea around the world easily via access to high speed broadband anywhere in the community.
|Tuesday, March 18, 2014|
|"What Are They Saying Downtown?"|
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?
At 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.
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.
To 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|
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.
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.
While 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.
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