|Monday, May 19, 2014|
|The Middle of Nowhere is No More|
By now you have met or heard about our 2014 Visionary of the Year, Suneet Singh Tuli. You may have heard about him before from sources such as Forbes Magazine, or the dozens of other awards and media coverage of him and his company, Datawind. Suneet has not been shy about promoting his vision to bring “the other three billion” across the digital divide. The world has not been shy about embracing him. We are going to be like the world on June 5, as he addresses our Awards Dinner.
Suneet is our Visionary of the Year because like those before him his work is ensuring that “The Middle of Nowhere,” as people sadly and too often call their hometown or region, becomes Somewhere. And Somewhere Big and Somewhere in a Hurry. Suneet’s Aakash II/UbiSlat tablet, the world’s cheapest computer currently in mass production, is designed to make real the promise of eliminating The Middle of Nowhere. To do it, though, Intelligent Communities must continue to rise up.
Suneet has been working to justify three simple claims that I make everywhere that I go. The first is that the potential to live anywhere you wish, no matter where that place is, has finally become within the realm of the possible. Once there, and with the right level of connectivity, you can then participate in the global economy. This is the “Broadband Economy” that we often speak about. These two possibilities are the real game-changers for the rural sectors, small towns and cities which struggle to enter the new century.
Certainly for the parts of India where Suneet is having his first wave of success, the claim is not only a “game-changer,” but a life-saver. It is a matter of survival because the real key to survival for the three billion people for whom he has devised the killer device is education. And right now, education in India, with the exception of the over-hyped tech meccas like New Delhi, is literally a joke. If you don’t believe me Google, “India Teacher Funny” and cry your heart out.
Like national governments, the global educational infrastructure is dysfunctional at best. IT is the Middle of Nowhere. And most national governments seem clueless mainly because they look for a single solution when a billion solutions must be tried. Evidence this by looking at Ireland, where the political demand for austerity resulted in an E85 million propping-up of its sour banks, while communities were forced to undergo humiliating cuts to healthcare and education. As you would expect, educated, talented Irish people, like their peers in India, said simply, “Government funny,” and moved away. Does it suggest that national governments are unable to solve the very complex problems that local leaders and entrepreneurs like Suneet Singh seem able and keen to tackle? As they do, they enable the third claim I make, which is that the size of a community no longer matters. The size of their ideas, the new source of economic energy however, counts plenty.
As Suneet so poignantly noted in his address at the ICF Institute in October, his device immediately localizes education by bringing the world to the browsers. His strategy for India (and anywhere else) is simple: “To end mediocrity in education by accessing the Internet.” If you watch the video from his address, you will see a slide that will pummel you if you live far from a city. It reinforces what you may already believe, which is that the further away you are, the greater the deterioration in the quality of your education and in the quality of your teacher. This is the sad case in India. It has little to do with parental aspiration or the reliably disappointing lack of performance by national leaders. It has everything to do with lack of access, lousy roads and crime which makes it intolerable for a good teacher who wants to stay home to teach, to do so.
“No one wants this kind of education. But that’s what they have to accept,” Suneet said. Yet he is optimistic because he has seen the light and it is as simple as a hole in the wall. Professor Sugata Mitra’s famous Hole in the Wall Experiments in India demonstrated that children taking a standard math test in New Delhi would score on average 68%. The further he tested students who lived furthest from the city, however, the worse the performance. The quality of education deteriorated in direct proportion from its distance to the city. At 250 kilometers outside of New Delhi, the same test generated results in the low teens. 70% of the people of India live in places where there are no paved roads, which means the government has paved its own way to ignorance.
The professor than proved Suneet’s proposition. His office was near a slum. Just outside his office was a wall that separated it from his air-conditioned office. Mitra put a high-speed computer in the wall, connected it to the Internet, and watched to see who might use it. To his delight, curious children were immediately attracted to the new device. When they asked if they could touch it, Mitra said, "It is on your side of the wall. The rules say whatever is on your side, you can touch.” And touch it they did.
Within minutes, children figured out how to point and click. By the end of the day they were browsing. The children quickly taught themselves the rudiments of computer literacy.
One boy, Rajinder is a much better student as a result. Said his teacher, “He has become bold and expressive. I've got great hopes for this child." When asked to define the Internet, the kid replied, “It is that with which you can do anything."
You might even become Suneet Singh, and produce a device that takes that hole in the wall and multiplies by millions. Our Visionary of the Year has the cred. He has taken companies public on the NASDAQ Exchange and has fought the predictable battles with bankers, who play by rules as ruthlessly unmerciful to someone with a mission for social good as any you can imagine. He has no government fiat in his fists but he has the knowledge, the money, the energy and the organization to take our fourth criteria (Digital Inclusion) and to make it more than aspirational. It needs to be more than aspirational in places like India, where only one in three women can read. You can several of your own rural communities to this list as well, I bet.
So for taking a big step toward making “The Middle of Nowhere” No More, we welcome Suneet to our family of Intelligent Community Visionaries. I hope that you are able to come to hear him speak on the night of June 5th in New York.
For more information on the ICF Summit, visit www.icfsummit.com.
|Monday, May 5, 2014|
|How One Man Set Out to Build a Creative Economy – and Did|
Twenty years ago, the Walla Walla High School hired a consultant named Dennis DeBroeck to install computers and a network in the school. They wound up hiring him full-time – not to manage IT but to teach it in vocational education classes for students who were not expected to go to university.
When he started his first class, there were no computers for the students to work with. But Dennis had built his own small businesses, so he did not wait for the bureaucracy to deliver but borrowed, built and scrounged to provide. He started with a course in basic computer science but soon grew dissatisfied with teaching theory to young people who needed and wanted to get elbow deep into something they could care about.
Computer science soon evolved into hands-on digital media: modeling of objects, animals and people in three dimensions, texturizing the models to make them realistic, animating them and building simulations and games around them. He negotiated cheap licensing deals with the major providers of digital animation and game software and kept expanding his offerings. He built his own network, because the school’s could not possibly support his students’ needs, and assembled terabytes of server storage.
Today, Mr. DeBroeck teaches an exhausting schedule of one-hour classes for a total of 148 students. His technology budget - $500 last year – has shrunk to zero. But he has the air of a happy man. His students work hard, with more experienced students helping others over the hurdles. You can raise your hand to ask Mr. DeBroeck a question, but his standard answer is to tell you to check the online manuals and figure it out. Some kids struggle more than others, but they all learn the lesson most fundamental to success: in the end, you are your own best teacher.
His method appears to work. His past graduates work in senior positions through the entertainment industry, and his more recent grads are leaving town for media arts programs at prestigious universities, arriving there with many times the hard-core production experience of most incoming freshmen.
Walla Walla, a 2014 Smart21 Community of 30,000 people in the southeast corner of Washington State, is now trying to figure out how to forge a creative economy that can generate local opportunities for all this talent. ICF is helping with strategy and capacity-building through our Community Accelerator program. A development economist named Chris Mefford is creating a business plan for an incubator to help young people from DeBroeck’s program and the city’s award-winning community college to start and grow their own businesses. Broadband providers are collaborating on strengthening the digital infrastructure of the town. The Chamber of Commerce is working to interest a digital entertainment company to locate a studio in the city, where an outstanding quality of life is a major benefit.
It is still early days – but they are doing all the things it takes to build a digital economy on top of their successful agricultural one. I believe in patterns. The patterns I see in Walla Walla are those of an Intelligent Community getting ready for take-off.
They also have one more thing going for them. They have Mr. DeBroeck.
He teaches technology, sure. Many of his students are the kids that nobody expects to finish high school. Whatever their talents and potential, they learn something far more important from him than digital media. It is printed right on a sticker that he hands out to every new student. “Do right,” it says. “do your best” and “show people you care.”
|Monday, April 28, 2014|
|Broadband and the Human Factor|
Since 1999 I have been working for the Intelligent Community movement to pass the point of asking whether broadband is “important” and turn to a more holistic discussion about what has always been, for me, the most interesting aspect of my work. That is, to use the tools of the “Broadband Economy” to unleash a revived global economy. I believe this is only done through a re-energized community, which is the only place where enough innovation can take place for a real transformation to begin. That is ICF’s proposition. To use broadband seamlessly, without the techno babble, and to organize communities in ways that make them canvases for economic and social innovations.
As I completed my Top7 site visits this Spring, done in a year when our theme was “Community as Canvas,” I realized that the longed-for threshold is being crossed. What I found consistently among the Top7 that I visited, despite vast differences in economic might, politics and scale, was that broadband is viewed as a vital tool for connecting culture to the economy, and for allowing ambitious social and economic goals to be pursued. In the case of Kingston, Canada, for example it has the ambition to become Canada’s Most Sustainable City. Only a broadband network will provide the type of infrastructure to unleash its growing incubation and commercialization of applied sciences in the area of GreenTech.
For the vast majority of our Intelligent Communities, especially the Top7 who have been invited to New York in June, a “broadband and the light switch analogy” apply. While the linear-minded marvel over technology and its devices for their own sake, the poetry is in what they enable. A geek drools over a device or an assurance that “you will have a fast broadband connection.” But isn’t that like marveling over the way the lights come on in a room when the wall switch is flicked? While it is marvelous, and should be appreciated, no one spends a hell of a lot time discussing electricity. What is more important is what happens under those lights in that room. Kingston has a goal and broadband is the train they ride to get there, not the destination itself.
The light has gone on for the Top7, who are using broadband to reach higher goals, many of them with an eye toward the future. They take a page from Google CEO Larry Page who, when asked what most companies get wrong replied, “The future. They do not look at it often enough.”
Some of the goals of the Top7 that continue to interest me the most are those which reinforce culture and universal values, and push them at the future. Culture is increasingly aligned with economic output. In Arlington, Virginia, Cultural Affairs has been moved from Parks and Recreation to the Economic Development Department, where there is an ongoing mashing, all of it policy-based, to link entrepreneurship to art and culture. Arlington has among its creative and commercial arts community a wonderful little customized sound design company called Human Factor. Among its “hits” were its production of the sound design and effects for the (USA’s) History Channel television series, “The Bible.” It is a fun company with a serious name that I am going to use when I describe why we need to get past broadband and more deeply into our other criteria.
|Tuesday, April 22, 2014|
|You are Invited!|
Business and Investment Match-Making at ICF Summit 2014
When: June 3, 2014 (12:00 Noon)
Where: Canadian Consulate – 1251 Avenue of the Americas, New York
When you attend this year’s ICF Summit in New York City, there will be a new opportunity for delegates to meet each other on June 3. The concept is well known to economic developers – business and investment matchmaking among delegates at a conference to explore mutually beneficial business opportunities. For this inaugural gathering we are inviting the Top7 Intelligent Communities to share their investment and business opportunities with each other and with other delegates at this gathering. We will be inviting the Top7 Mayors, CIOs, CAOs and Economic Development Officials, but we are also inviting their local businesses, service providers and institutions to attend and participate in the match-making sessions. This will in fact be the first activity of the Summit for the delegates – a great ice-breaker for everyone.
The match-making sessions are designed to be brief 20 minute meetings; six altogether over a two hour segment before the Annual General Meeting of the Intelligent Community Forum Foundation. There will be an opportunity to schedule a meeting and it will be posted electronically after each delegate has registered. After each 20 minute session, the tables will be alerted to shift their meetings. Some call this business “speed-dating”. Whatever it is, there will certainly be a pile of business cards exchanged and the start to one heck of a Summit.
Why meet with these 7 cities? They are among the best of the breed of Intelligent Communities from around the world for 2014. Learn about the business and investment opportunities in each Intelligent Community; what incentives are there to locate a business or to partner with local businesses? Are the costs of power advantageous? What are the labor costs and how do they compare? What shovel-ready sites are available? Are there companies in these communities with which you can partner? Are there start-ups that are looking for exit strategies? M&A anyone? Are there companies in these Top7 Intelligent Communities that are looking to export and expand into other regions? Why not into yours? If you don’t ask, you won’t get is the old adage; similarly if you don’t attend, you will miss out on these obvious opportunities.
In addition to the tables offered first for the Top7 Cities, we will have additional tables available for our sponsors to take advantage of. These will be available on a first come first served basis. Once fully subscribed we will only be able to accept a limited number of delegates to meet due to the size of the venue in New York City that is available to us. So, I recommend that you register and reserve your meeting times with the Top7 Intelligent Communities, their business partners and ICF’s sponsors. Lunch will be served courtesy of the Canadian Consulate.
For more information, or to register your table, please contact me at ICF: firstname.lastname@example.org
|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.
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