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Sunday, April 8, 2012
How to Persuade Apple to Donate iPads to your School - Maybe

My conversation partner was about four feet high, a woman of a certain age, and as relentless as an avalanche moving down a snowy slope. 

I had been speaking that afternoon to the Community Technology Day in Muskoka, Ontario, Canada.  She had been at the back of the room, listening intently, and had asked the day's most pointed question.  

At a post-conference reception, holding glasses of low-end Cabernet, we pondered together the issue behind that question.  How do we move from good intentions to action? She was a Council member in Gravenhurst, a town within the district municipality of Muskoka, which is what Canadians call "cottage country," a beautiful place for summer homes on the region's lakes.  The wintertime population of about 20,000 swells to 80,000 once the weather turns warm.  Like other tourist centers, the economy largely moves in the same cycle, up and down with little sustained growth, particularly of the high-skill, high-value type.  That's fine for the 60,000 summer folk but not so good for the 20,000 year-rounders.    

The event organizer, Muskoka Community Networks (MCN), has done a great job of extending broadband across the region using wireless towers and the Motorola Canopy system.  The core broadband asset is in place to power a better future.  In the view of MCN Executive Director Rob McPhee, it was now time for the region's leaders to decide how to use it.  

My conversation partner was one of them, and she wanted to know what it would take to convince Apple to donate a lot of iPad tablets to her school.  She was convinced that, properly used, they could bring her school into the 21st Century.  Did I know anybody at Apple?  Could I help her?  

Knowing people at Apple was fine, I said, but the real issue was: why they should make the donation?  This is not a company that needs help in making headlines or, for that matter, penetrating the school market.  Just then, I got that pleasurable little buzz that accompanies a new idea.  How about this, I asked? Apple has just released a new upgrade to the iPad.  Demand is hot.  But the biggest obstacle to new sales has to be the millions of older iPads that are already out there.  (I'm not planning to upgrade myself until they come up with something more than a sharper picture.)  

What if Apple and Gravenhurst made this offer: donate your old iPad to the school, and Apple will give you a 20% discount on the latest generation?  The school gets the technology it needs.  The 60,000 affluent people who spend part of their year in Muskoka can feel generous and get new technology they secretly crave.  It sounded like something a savvy marketer like Apple might go for.  It sounded like a national campaign that could win them a lot of friends as well as move a lot of product.

If my companion's brain had been equipped with one of those lights on your computer that flashes when it is accessing the disk drive, you would have seen it blinking furiously on and off in the middle of her forehead.  She got a faraway look and our conversation gradually ground to a halt.  The avalanche was no longer rolling down my hill but was headed to wherever Apple Canada is headquartered.  I silently wished them luck.

A healthy community is a collection of people with a particular history and culture, who share ideas about what the community is now and should become.   I had fun contributing the idea, and I hope it goes somewhere.  But it is people like my companion, steeped in her culture and with strong ideas about what should be done, who give communities the future they deserve. 

Photo credit: Wake Forest University

Friday, March 16, 2012
The Voice of ICF’s Visionaries

If you recall the February 8 blogs, you will not be surprised to learn that Suvi Linden’s post received great attention.  Characteristically gracious and insightful, Finland’s former Minister of Communications and ITU’s current Special Envoy to the UN’s Broadband Commission, reflects on broadband, political life and the past seven months as ICF’s Visionary of the Year.  Each reflection gives you insight into her vision of how to strengthen the world’s communities.  Like our Intelligent Communities, the results and outcomes of these people continues to validate the now all but universally accepted idea that rebuilding communities can start with a single person and the passion to go forward, rather than back.  

Madame Linden’s blog is the first of my invitations to each of ICF’s Visionaries of the Year to post their own blogs on a rotating basis.  It is our hope that this new series will keep present and make loud the voices of the people who have received an award which is increasingly generating as much attention as even our Top Seven Award.

We are off to a good start thanks to Suvi.  Our current Visionary of the Year’s honesty and enthusiasm are refreshing.  Moments after her blog was posted, one reader was moved to an eloquent reply.  The reader was not a person with a lot of time on his hands, nor someone unfamiliar to ICF.  It was Mark Whaley, one of the essential leaders from the 2007 Intelligent Community of the Year, Waterloo (Canada) and a City Councilor.  Councilor Whaley, whose drive, passion and insistence that even the best need to improve, wrote in reply, “Part of my longevity in the role of elected official at the municipal level has been to seek out shining examples on the political stage who guide and inspire.  But so often in this profession one can be fooled.  Too frequently we see charisma override content, influence smother ideals, bombast drown belief.   And that is why I was absolutely thrilled when Suvi Linden was chosen as the ICF visionary of the year 2011.  A legend in her home country…… no one would have blamed her for taking time to stop and smell the lilies of the valley.  (The national flower in Finland.)  Instead, she turned her attention to the global cause of providing internet access as a fundamental human right for all.  

“My first interaction with Minister Linden was brief but profound.  Unfailingly polite, she listened more than spoke.  Ever inquisitive, her questions were pointed yet delivered gently.  When it came her turn to speak, it was with quiet certainty and conviction.  In short, she is a politician who every other elected person the world over may hold up as an important example of leadership and determination. Well done ICF!  You chose a Visionary we can all celebrate.”

To Councilor Whaley and others we say thanks for the comments and we will keep the Visionaries chatting away and inspiring those of you tasked with making your communities Intelligent Communities.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012
The Latest Intelligent Community Institute is All About Adaptation
It is easy to forget how much computers have changed.  I worked on the first generation of PCs, when you typed cryptic words into the command line.  Now you move the mouse or swipe the finger.  In the Seventies and Eighties, we worried that the coldness of the machines would destroy our souls.  Now we conduct our social lives online in a whirl of text, photos, emoticons and amateur video.  

But as the Web has adapted to our needs, we have also adapted to the Web.  According an article in The New York Times, engineers at Google have discovered that people will visit a Web site less often if it is slower than a close competitor.  How much slower?  250 milliseconds.  That is 250 thousandths of a second.  

Impatience rules online.  Four out of five users will click away if a video stalls while loading. Two professors studied the user experience over the timeshare computer networks in the 1960s and concluded then that a delay of more than 10 seconds hurt the user experience.  Today, having adapted to what is possible, we expect a daily dose of miracles from the World Wide Web.

Adaption is at the heart of the next Institute for the Study of the Intelligent Community at Walsh University in the state of Ohio USA.  It is a Catholic institution with nearly 3,000 students from 25 countries.  While it now offers more than 50 undergraduate programs, it started out in 1960 with a practical purpose: to educate secondary-school teachers and business people in what it called “servant leadership” – leading in service to others.  The University remains deeply involved in how we can best prepare the people to whom we entrust the education of our children.  

Walsh President Richard Jusseaume (right in photo with ICF’s Louis Zacharilla) has worked with ICF to define objectives for the new Institute.  The leading goal is to investigate new models of teacher training for those who will educate the next generation of knowledge workers.  By connecting students and teachers around the world with best practices in teacher education, the Institute will work to transform the classroom and the way students are prepared for the global economy.   

Keynoting at the announcement on February 29 was Mayor Dan Mathieson of Stratford, Ontario, Canada (left in photo), which agreed to become home of our first Institute in December of last year.   The Stratford Institute will provide deep analysis of the process through which that community – where automotive and agriculture once dominated – is building an economy focused on digital media.   

Both Institutes are now entering intensive development: setting milestones, negotiating financial commitments and developing research plans.  They have one more thing in common as well: at heart, they are about how the Web adapts to us and we adapt to the Web.  The questions they ask, and the answers they seek, will change over time.  One thing that will not change is the focus on how the people, institutions and culture of a community can best adapt to the broadband economy.
Monday, February 27, 2012
Keeping it Weird in Austin

I am gearing up for three visits this year to ICF’s Top 7 Intelligent Communities. I won the 3 sided coin toss this year and got three of the seven cities to evaluate. My luck! But they are three communities that I very much wanted to visit – Austin, Texas; Riverside, California; and Taichung, Taiwan. My colleague, Robert Bell will be visiting Stratford, Ontario and Oulu, Finland, while Lou Zacharilla is in Quebec City and St. John, New Brunswick. All of these are incredible Top 7 Intelligent Communities, so it will be a very difficult year to be a jury member to select among these fine communities. But neither Robert, Lou nor I are members of the ICF International Jury. The jury members are international members from every continent around the globe who will be reviewing the applications and will also be able to review our individual site reports. Therefore we take our site visits extremely seriously as we recognize that they will help in the evaluation process. We are looking, listening and learning about each of these communities, on behalf of all of the jury members. Our site visits help to validate their application and bring forward questions our jurors might have asked themselves. Together with two questionaires that each community has responded to, our site visit reports and the original application, the Jurors will have ample information to provide their own ranking of the Top Seven communities. It’s a big job. The entire process takes nearly a year to complete.

So first of all, let’s look at Austin’s 2012 ICF Application. According to my host’s application for recognition as a Smart21 Intelligent Community, Austin “is a healthy balance of culture, technology, business, education and government. These sectors help to incubate new ideas and accelerate innovation into marketable products.” OK, I have seen that in about 100 cities that ICF has recognized as Intelligent Communities. So, tell me more! What differentiates Austin from the rest of the world?

Well, say my Texan friends that, ahem…..well,  Austin’s weird!?!

“Weird?” I ask in astonishment, “Is that a new Intelligent Community criteria?”

Well no, but it is a pretty incredible way to market a city with some humor and self deprecation and it does speak volumes to its creativity and innovation.

“Keep Austin Weird” is the slogan that the Austin Independent Business Alliance used to promote small businesses in Austin, Texas. I first noticed it on a bumber sticker as I approached the city on the highway many years ago. At the time I thought it had to do with a specific baseball loving Governor-cum-President, so that dates my last visit a bit, but I was wrong. It actually came about in 2000 when a fellow called Red Wassenich said it during an interview and somehow it caught on and became a bumper sticker phenomenon in the region. I heard about it all the way to the east coast of North America at the time and I was so attracted by this bit of unique marketing that I had to see for myself when I was in the area for a conference.

Red was speaking for Austin’s counter-culture and turned it into a call against some of the many things that the so-called “occupied” forces today seem to have raised their voices over and yet it really seemed to me to be a lot less serious at the time, supporting all things weird, quirky and very different from the rest of Texas as I knew it.

I was only once in Austin, but it impressed me as a hotbed of creativity and innovation. But I recall when my guide first called it weird. “Everyone who is creative in Austin, she said, is weird”. And yet in the same breath I was told that Austin’s weirdness is directly connected to the city's two major employers, the state government and the University of Texas. I am not sure what that means exactly in terms of what that culture is all about, so I will keep my eyes and mind open as I undertake my first ICF site visit this year to Austin, Texas. It should make for an interesting report to the ICF jurers!

What I have read in their application is that Austin has become a real tour de Force when it comes to technology-based companies in their technology cluster, including Apple, Advanced Micro Devices, Facebook Intel, IBM, National Instruments and Samsung, among others. These companies have been drawn to the Austin area as a result of the highly talented and educated workforce that Austin creates, attracts and retains. As a result the Austin region is thriving, even in the face of dark economic times for the US as a whole, with an enviable unemployment rate of only 6.3% . But, according to the applicants, it wasn’t easy to become a bone fide tech cluster.
Apparently for years, no single body represented the interests of furthering technology and economic development in the Austin area, and no one worked to bring disparate groups together to leverage efforts and provice services. There was a real need for leadership to build a collaborative, coordinated plan. I am looking forward to learning more about Austin’s Emerging Technologies Program that support technology companies in Austin, as a clearing house for information and helps to bridge the emerging tech community with real time networks and opportunities. This Program has created working groups in key technology sectors (Clean Energy, Digital Media, Wireless Communications) which meet to compare notes, events, and offer opportunities to work together on each other's programs and events. This collaboration has led to working relationship among the organizations and increased awareness in the community of the resources available for technology companies in the region.

Another leadership collaboration is the roll out of Opportunity Austin in 2004 which Austin credits as a platform for innovation by facilitating public / private partnerships between the business community and public sector services located throughout the Austin MSA. (Note, I have always said that one of the hardest jobs in any community is to get successful collaboration happening.) Opportunity Austin’s goal was to create a “Regional Approach” for economic development in Central Texas. Here is an excerpt from Austin’s application that will certainly ring true to many economic developer’s ears:

“While a regional approach is often discussed and touted amongst neighboring communities, it is often difficult to implement due to competing interests. Rarely does one community look at the prospect of a project or employer locating in a community other than their own as win. This is not the case with Opportunity Austin. The communities that surround Austin and are part of the Austin MSA recognize that the City of Austin is the brand that draws attention both national and internationally. The unique branding of Austin as the “Live Music Capital of the World” and “Silicon Hills” creates an audience not just for the City of Austin, but also for its neighboring communities. Companies and citizens do not see city limits as an obstacle when it comes to economic development, nor should public officials. It is only by working together as a region that we are able to fully market and utilize the unique strengths of the Austin MSA.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2012
The Cultural DNA Inside an Innovation Engine
Biology was one of my favorite sciences in secondary school.  I liked it because it was descriptive rather than mathematical.  It was not about applying abstract rules to make numbers behave in peculiar ways.  It was about how real things fit together.  Or, in the case of those frogs we all dissected, how they came apart. 

If you have read anything about life sciences research lately, you know that this view of biology is very old school.  Since we figured out how to sequence DNA and to data-mine the resulting flood of information, we have been uncovering unbelievably complex chains of action and reaction at the microscopic level. 

And every time we think we understand the pieces of the puzzle, each piece seems to have within it yet another complex chain of action and reaction.  The deeper we look, the more we see.  The sheer interconnectedness of it all is mind-boggling. 

At the end of March, I will visit Oulu, Finland, one of our Top Seven Intelligent Communities of 2012.  And I am fully prepared to have my mind boggled. 

Not because Oulu is a world leader in life sciences research.  It is a remarkable place when it comes to technology innovation but its talents mostly lie elsewhere.  I am prepared for mental boggling because of the way that innovation in Oulu is driven by its cultural DNA.   

You function as a living, breathing whole in part because each cell in your body contains all of the genetic instructions for making a new you. That is pretty much how innovation seems to take place in this mid-sized city only 200 km south of the Arctic Circle. 

Whether the project is a broadband network or a tech incubator, success is built on intensive collaboration among partners in government, business and institutions.  In project after project, the story is the same.  It is as though the partners are cells in a single organism, each carrying the whole of Oulu’s cultural DNA. 

I’m sure they have their inter-organizational food fights and inevitable jockeying for position and influence.  That’s how cultures work.  But this culture of collaboration has enabled Oulu to ride through successive waves of economic change and keep coming out on top.  I look forward to seeing it, and I hope that this particular form of biology has not gone beyond my ability to describe how it works.  

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