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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Tuli’s lesson here for me was to understand that not everyone needs, wants or must have the latest, dazzling and super-dooper smartphone in order to meet their goals and to be able to do something hugely impactful. This has and will in the fullness of time demonstrate that “good enough” is absolutely just right and has been able to execute the necessary tipping point to achieve good works; in fact, it even may be able to create excellence.

Similarly, Mr. Ang Lee was able to excel in his work, the Life of Pi by going to a non-Hollywood location and in an environment that would be considered by all measures, “good enough”. He was able to not only create a brilliant masterpiece from this exercise, but made a huge impact and created a legacy for the lives of his homeland and the citizens of Taichung. 
From this point onwards, a location and facility considered initially good enough, has an excellent chance now to transform into a center of excellence. 
Monday, April 22, 2013
Landscaping the Front Yard of Heaven

clientuploads/Images/Zach-NameCaption-2013-140.gifIf you have ever been greeted by a large toilet seat as you arrived into town, you most likely were driving into the Nevada community of Battle Mountain.  Few other rural communities in the USA or elsewhere have the credibility to welcome you that way.  Or the guts.  Forget the cliché that “first impressions” are the most important.  It has always been gross impressions that count most.   According to Maury Forman, author and director of rural entrepreneurship for Washington State’s Department Commerce, who I dub the Intelligent Community movement’s resident humorist, Battle Mountain was referred to by a Washington Post writer as America’s “armpit” in 2001.  That stunk.  It was also unfair, but revealed how some urban writers may have thought about small communities.  The Washington Post, for the record, is based in Washington, DC, the city which uses toilets very effectively, mainly to flush down good ideas for connecting villages, as well as taxpayers’ money.  

Rather than get depressed or, worse, defensive, the city took notice.  It took notice with a sense of humor.  Then it took action.  It performed an exercise in economic development and creative public relations which resulted in the Festival of the Pit.  Short for armpit of course.  The Pit was a hit.  The festival’s 2004 talent pageant, which ended in a tie between a woman who glued crickets to her underarms and a tiny girl who did breakdance, was one of many tongue-in-cheek events that led Old Spice deodorant, an international brand, to become a major corporate underwriter.  Today, a blue grass festival has replaced the Pit.  However through the process the community regained its pride and fired one of our movement’s first shots to signal the start of the rural renaissance.

In most parts of the world, urban and rural cultures have been out of balance and out of synch for at least two generations.  The imbalance has exacerbated the stresses of the global economy and made cities desirable.  A two-fold tragedy occurred as young people fled, while referring to their rural districts or the cultures they left behind as being in “the middle of nowhere.”  (My least favorite phrase.)  But the Middle of Nowhere is no more.  Broadband communication changed that.  So did common sense.  The change has been most effective when linked to a coherent strategy, as I observed during my recent trip to both Washington State and Taiwan.

In Taiwan, there is a new way to view the digital divide.  In the words of Chunghwa Foundation CEO Mike Lin, a former Microsoft executive, “we turn the digital divide into a dividend.”  The cloud, broadband and the Intelligent Community Forum’s concept of ecosystem evolution are altering the imbalance and, in the case of agriculture, education and entrepreneurship the results are as striking as the orchids grown and exported by Taichung-based Green Culture Biotechnology.  

Green Culture Biotechnology is located in one of this year’s Top7 communities.  It is part of a community cluster whose success is tied nicely to an approach that many nations preach about, but which Taiwan is perfecting patiently and effectively.  Note that I do not say easily.  It never is.

clientuploads/Images/Taichung Green Culture (orchids).jpg

Green Culture, housed in a factory with clean rooms and an R&D equivalent to any of Taiwan’s silicon wafer foundries, geneticallyengineers tissue culture to raise orchids that are exported around the world.  It owns patents for virus control and detection, as well as patents for the nano machines that detect viruses.  It even developed a new generation of plastic containers for shipping the young orchids to Europe and Brazil.  A walk through the rows of its prime orchids is to imagine what the landscaping may be like in Heaven.

If it were all alone in the community, or situated on the outskirts of the “middle of nowhere,” Green Culture would still be an impressive business.  But in Taichung, it is symbolic of a city which, due to the alignment of central government funding and the governance of cities, is part of a municipality which includes a vast agricultural district.  The city of Taichung has responsibility for its rural areas, which includes native Taiwanese tribes and many schools and universities in its mountainous areas.  This gives it sensitivity to the environment.  But the city’s push to become “green” is obsessive.  Taichung is more ecologically sensitive than Hawaii, in my experience.  It's natural, given its heritage and its shrewd understanding that quality of life is capital.  It is helped by the political and cultural alignment of city and countryside.  Rather than neglect the rural, it emphasizes agriculture, education and entrepreneurship.  Its rural schools are connected and its students have wonderfully talented teachers and principals with an ability to teleconference with other teachers in the city and access any book anywhere through a mobile system.  (Oh yes, the average elementary school student reads an average of 200 books per year and collaborates online with its classmate to produce other books!)  Its farmers are aided by a “triple helix” of local government, academia and connectivity by the two carriers, Chunghwa and VeeTime, to produce value-added fruits and produce for markets such as Singapore.  

Is it a perfect place?  Far from it.  I am told that in Taoyuan, the other Top7 Intelligent Community, there is still a desire by developers to cover over many of its 1,000 ponds.  But I suspect that attempt will not go all the way – or will be balanced.  Taiwan has its own champions, as Battle Mountain had.  Taiwan’s is the famous “Rice Bomber,” Jang Yu-Men, whose Seed Project evolved from a series of “bombings” ten years ago.  Not the terrorist type.  Yang planted rice-filled explosive devices in Taiwan in 2003 and 2004 in protest against what he called the government's neglect of farmers.  He has since adopted a more peaceful approach in his efforts to revitalize agriculture and promote a vision of development.  Today, the government has unveiled programs that reach out to anyone wishing to become a farmer and return to the land.  The life on the land is never easy, but the economic and social rewards – the landscaping of Heaven which is now possible – are not romantic notions, but a part of local GDP.  The Green Cultures of the world are booting up in Taiwan.

Monday, April 15, 2013
The Radical Openness of Columbus, Ohio, USA

I have been making site visits to Top7 Intelligent Communities for a lot of years and, I have to tell you, the delights are many. Meeting the world’s most dynamic, innovative and committed government leaders. Seeing people passionately committed to transforming the place they live, whether through technology, business, education, healthcare or other social services.  Being in meetings, demonstrations and presentations from 7:30 in the morning to 9:00 at night. 


Well, maybe not that last one. But the cost in lost sleep and sore feet is well worth it. 

My most recent visit was to Columbus in the US state of Ohio. I took away pages of notes, which I will turn into a report for the international jury that helps select the Intelligent Community of the Year. I also took away one of those delights I mentioned – the pleasure of coming across something new.   


I was welcomed to Columbus with a luncheon that placed me next to Mayor Michael Coleman. Now in his fourth term, Mayor Coleman has the soft-spoken authority of one who has been winning elections for fourteen years. Much of that time has been spent doing creative deals with developers, who have transformed the skyline of the city and brought much-needed, high-quality housing to formerly run-down neighborhoods.  In his first run at office, he promised to construct 10,000 housing units, and more than a decade later, his administration is well on its way.

There’s nothing new about city governments pursuing property development.  While making a visible mark on his city, however, Mayor Coleman also set out to change its soul.  

He believed that immigration was the key to the city’s future.  At a time when immigration is a hot-button political issue that can start arguments in most industrialized nations, he thought his city needed more of it, not less. So he persuaded a small group of business leaders to accompany him on a study tour to Toronto, Canada’s business capital, which prides itself on attracting immigration from around the world.  (By coincidence – or not – Toronto is also a 2013 Top7 Intelligent Community.)  Returning to Columbus, he launched programs to ease the entry of immigrants, from English as a Second Language classes to lessons in how to live, work and raise a family in Columbus.  

It worked.  Columbus, which is Ohio’s state capital, has one of America’s largest Somali populations as well as a fast-growing minority of Mexican immigrants. Americans tend to think of Ohio as home to a homogenous white population.  Not in Columbus.  

Did the Mayor’s effort contribute to economic growth?   I don’t know. That was one data point I didn’t get.   But when it comes to changing a community’s soul, data points don’t always serve us well.  What Mayor Coleman’s effort seems to have brought about was a culture of radical openness to the world.  And we know from our study of Intelligent Communities that such openness has extraordinary value.  Broadband infrastructure has the potential to tie any community, urban or rural, into the global economy.  But potential is not practice.  A culture whose first impulse is to welcome the stranger is one that can squeeze the greatest value from that infrastructure. 

The tall buildings that fill the center of Columbus are one sign of economic progress.  But I suspect that the intangible attitudes I met there are far more crucial to long-term success.

Friday, April 5, 2013
It Will Only Encourage Him

My fifth grade teacher often tried to take the entertainer’s instinct out of me, but was evidently unsuccessful or mutated it badly.  Whenever I would stand up to speak, I invariably could make the entire class laugh, enabling the room to quickly became as “non-linear” as a Marx Brothers movie.  I suppose this threatened her authority, for she would say, “Please, don’t laugh when he does that.  You’ll only encourage him!”

clientuploads/Images/Zach-NameCaption-2013-140.gifDoing things others were scared to do, or simply couldn’t think to do, was a quality I always admired in others as well.  What little of that quality I have has served me well, but I know that I am not in a league where my actions can transform entire cultures and economies.  However, the people I associate with are able to do just that.

My friends, I encourage YOU to welcome Mike Lazaridis, who makes his home in Waterloo, Canada and the subatomic universe.  In recognition of his work as the co-founder of BlackBerry, the developer of smartphone technology and as the mastermind of a new vision for his community called Quantum Valley, ICF has named him as its 2013 Visionary of the Year.  You can read the press and media coverage of this announcement and get a sense of who this man is, and what he has accomplished.

I’d like to write about him in another way: as a man committed to his place, his community and who lives in a world of great imagination.  

Said the Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Orki, “The fewer the tools, the greater the imagination.”  There are several ways to look at this, even when relating to Mike’s vision.  A son of Turkish immigrants, he did not arrive in his place in life with much more than imagination, I am told.  Further, not every kid in a dorm at even the best engineering school in Canada automatically goes out and creates the wireless version of crack-cocaine.  USA president Obama, never to be confused with an addict of any type, was brought to tears when told that his would be taken away while he managed the affairs of the free world.  Mike’s work gave millions back their imaginations.  We could now imagine working anywhere we wished and the big ideas and the deals would be less likely to slip away.   However even this is to trivialize the importance of his work.  Like the man he quoted when we named him our Visionary of the clientuploads/Images/220px-Einstein_tongue.jpgYear, Einstein, he perceives the world and its phenomenon not as one brick atop the other, or the sum total of what can be put in the next generation of wafers, or a place in cruel ruthless pursuit of conquests but rather as a miraculous experience.  

This leads naturally to his vision of exploring that quantum universe, from which generations of industries and wealth and further social conquest of the planet will evolve.  It sounds downright Einsteinian to me!  

Finally this: we run a think tank and a movement committed to the idea that there is no place like home.  (If there is a more complex way to say that, go to the Perimeter Institute, which Mike funded in Waterloo.  They are way brighter about the left-brained elements of our experience!)  Mike, like Stephen Conroy, Suvi Linden, Amarzai Sangin, Scott Rourke and Andre Santini, is doing what he does with his life because he is committed to his place.  Waterloo, Ontario is much the better for it, as its mayor, the irrepressible Brenda Halloran will quickly tell you.  

I am not reaching for a poetic high when I tell you that people like this hear a higher pitch of existence.  It is in their register, for whatever reason.  While I can tell you why five criteria constitute an Intelligent Community, I cannot tell you why they, or we, see what we see or do what we do.  I honestly cannot.  It is simply a calling, and I will be forever amazed to know that people like Mike and these others – and many more whom we meet in our work – just keep coming.  They come faster if you give them a place -  a real home - for their imagination to run wild.  

Please encourage them if they are in your community.  They may disrupt the class or the town or the company.  They may also teach you and the next generations about a higher pitch of existence.

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