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Monday, May 23, 2016
Changing the World? There’s an App for That.

I recently spent two intensive days visiting the 2016 Top7 Intelligent Community of Montreal, in Quebec, Canada. While there, I learned that the world may be a lot more hopeful place than you might think. (For a taste of the experience, see the video compiled by my hosts below.)

I grew up in a time of protest. In my youth, it was America’s war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement. Today, I still live in a time of protest. In Europe, it is about immigration and austerity. In Taiwan last year, student protests drove the approval ratings of former President Ma Ying-Jeou to new lows. In China, the protesters battle environmental destruction and political repression. From Beirut to Brazil, people are bringing their rage onto the streets over corruption and and political cronyism. In America, it is Black Lives Matter on the one hand and, on the other, keeping transgender people out of the wrong toilet (whichever one that may be.)


In Montreal, I must have met nearly 100 young people of prime protest age. But instead of marching in the streets and throwing Molotov cocktails, they are turning their urge to save the world into something with higher odds of success.

The founder of Youth Fusion, Gabriel Bran Lopez (pictured standing, right), came up with a way to keep at-risk youth in high school. Working with schools, universities and sponsors, he hires university students to teach cutting edge topics like robotics, video game design and fashion to high-schoolers. He started with a two-school pilot and now has instructors in 92 schools, supported by 40 companies and nonprofits. YouthFusion was named the most effective charity in Canada for generating C$16 in social value for each C$1 invested in it.

Hacking Health got its start as a one-time event put at Montreal’s Sainte Justin hospital, which put health care experts into a room with programmers, app designers and business mentors. There are now 33 chapters of Hacking Health on five continents, as well as accelerators in Montreal and Toronto, all aiming at the same goal of stimulating IT innovation in health care, something the world sorely needs.

Breather is a successful start-up that leases small spaces in commercial office buildings by the hour for corporate teams who need some alone time. Alveole is a service company that helps people and organizations install and care for urban honeybee hives, mostly on rooftops. Their app-enabled services make money from fees, while users get to keep the honey. Across Montreal’s Innovation District, there are 250 startups like these as well as seven incubators and accelerators, 150,000 university student and 350 established companies employing 20,000 people.  

If you follow ICF, you know that information and communications technology is radically changing the place called home. A lot of it is for the worse, in the form of lost jobs, disrupted industries and disappearing ways of life. In Montreal, I got to see the other side. These young people have access to digital infrastructure that the youth of my time could not even imagine: supercomputers in our pockets, incredibly cheap cloud storage, massive open data sets and toolkits that build powerful applications in hours, then make them available to millions with the click of a mouse. They are putting it to use to make a living, possibly to make a fortune – but to also make home a better place. 

Monday, May 16, 2016
Surrey’s “Cuba Policy”

The Jury has again warned me. 

Before I leave for our annual Top7 site visits I get the same thoughtful warning from members of ICF’s international awards jury.  It goes something like this, “Beware of the ‘Potemkin Village’ stunt that these cities may use on you once inside their borders.  They will try to show you their best parts, not their broken ones.”  The Jury has recommended in the past that we include a second person on our site visits.  The second would serve as the provocateur for ICF.  This makes sense because I am often there to perform necessary cheerleading with the media, and to remind other stakeholders in the cities why their city was chosen.  So far, however, we have determined that the cost to the host community does not justify this.

However, it is good advice.  As result, the three of us are now more sensitive and watchful.  In the Top7 communities’ defense, I would expect a bit of it to take place.  It is natural that a place in the running for a global award put on its best face, and maybe even do a little short-term plastic surgery as well. 

For the Jury to do its job, they need to know the unvarnished truth, and our observations need to be straight-up with no chaser.   So I guarantee you that our reports, to the best of our ability, are not only about the shiniest lights among the Top7, LED or otherwise.  While we are being hustled past the broken parts, we look and ask about them too.  To the credit of Surrey, Canada, where I recently did my site visit, the city added broken parts and access to those tasked with mending them, including the Fire and Police chiefs, as part of my Agenda. 

Of the group of Top7 this year, Surrey (despite making the list for the second straight year) remains the most controversial selection.  Even Canadians refer to it as a kind of “ugly sister” to nearby Vancouver, and a place that is not “nice enough” by Canada’s marvelously civil standards to be considered one of ICF’s elite.

So I began with this particular baggage.  However, my experience offers filters and challenges to these often aging stereotypes.  It is increasingly true that ICF has evolved into the champion of the “no-name” place.  For a good reason.  The “no-names” try harder and think in more innovative ways.  When you have little money, when nothing has worked and when you have little or nothing to lose by going in a new direction, you are presented with the “Municipal Cuban Policy.”  This refers to the USA’s new policy to open up a relationship with Cuba, a long-time enemy, and to try something new.  President Obama said simply, “Why keep trying what does not work?” Common sense, right?

Surrey can teach the big boys in Washington and Havana a lesson.  They had little to lose by going down the path toward Intelligent Community status.  As I looked around at their relocated City Center, which is near a major university, nearly 30 new developments and the increasingly iconic Innovation Boulevard that is part of an agile, work-in-progress 50- year Sustainability Plan, I sensed that while this was Surrey’s “Potemkin Village,” it was also quite real and has started to have the effect of creating a real center of gravity for the place – and a new image.  One of Surrey’s goals is to not be defined as “a bedroom community” with Vancouver as the main room in the house, but a community with its own personality and economic core.  This core is going to be the robust clean technology industry, which has already launched.  Ten percent of all of the cleantech companies in the province of British Columbia are located in Surrey.  It is one of Canada’s demographically youngest places, is accepting of immigrants (nearly 20% of its residents are from India’s Punjab), and has affordable and developable real estate.  They take the Revolution to Renaissance (www.revolutiontorenaissance.com) idea seriously.  Council member Tom Gill, who is Punjabi by descent, advocates that Surrey be a place where iconic structures rise to define it.  Their fire and police chief are using innovative “socio-cultural” approaches and data-driven methods to combat crime and fires.  It is working.  Fires are down and crime is going the same way. 

“The greatest waste in the world is the difference between what we are and what might become,” Ben Herbster once wrote.  This is echoed by the city’s mayor and IT manager, both of whom have directed that information technology be a part of every municipal activity, but not without innovation at its core. “We want to find out who we are,” IT Director Sean Simpson told me.  “It is an adventure.”

Surrey is not a spectacularly visual treat.  It is not as pretty as the Bambino dance group I discussed in my speech about innovation at City Hall!  Worse, it is concentrated throughout not one, but five basic city centers or towns.  This adds to the challenges.  It has a troubled past.  The media, always slow to recognize a resurrection – and rightfully skeptical when one is claimed – is quick to reinforce the poverty which does exist (16% of Surrey in fact).

But my eyes told me that while the broken stones are visible, a lot of them are from demolition from a past that is vanishing.  A new “Cuba Policy” is underway and the adventure in Surrey will be one that our Jury must consider.

Monday, May 2, 2016
A Visit to Limbo by Bicycle

Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered that people have a better memory for incomplete tasks than for complete ones. Not surprisingly, when we finish a project, we file it away. But when it remains “in limbo,” it stays active in our minds.  This is how I describe the “inner lives” and the real, on-the-ground activities of Intelligent Communities. While policies are in place, they are on shifting sand. The communities I see and like are a wave of unfinished business and ideas being thrown into places that have been disrupted and were once reeling. It is the right approach, but it is also why netizens in places like Surrey, Canada (@SurreyBC) will post comments that utter a sense of disbelief and skepticism over learning that they have made an international list that ranks them high among cities. Some call it skepticism, others a PR stunt (others worse), although the majority cheer the news because an outsider has recognized their hard work.

I have seen enough Top7 cities through my work to know that people prefer complete tasks, and are not very good at accepting “Limbo” as a destination.  But as great urban planners like Jennifer Keesmaat say, Limbo is precisely where we need to be at this moment.

Last week I visited a Limbo in Asia: New Taipei City, Taiwan. As many of you know, it is a Top7 community for the third time in a row and one with high hopes for getting the Big Prize in Columbus in June.  My visit, or at least my report of it, began on the airplane heading into Taoyuan Airport. I sat next to the head of a company that sells high-end bicycles in the USA, which are produced in Taiwan. Why? Because Taiwan is one of the major bicycle manufacturing capitals of the world. Taichung, our 2013 Intelligent Community of the Year, is a powerhouse in cycling design and manufacturing. It remains this way because, while other nations may assemble more cheaply, the Intelligent Communities of Taiwan are able to add electronic innovations to bicycles. This allows new things to happen, such as adding gear-shifting to a wireless platform and removing it from handlebars. This is adding IT over the Industrial base, which we talk about all of the time (www.revolutiontorenaissance.com).

Although my fellow passenger was heading to Taichung, he was going to stop in the New Taipei City facility because it is where many of the important tech parts for the bicycle are made.

I often heard stories like this, where New Taipei City companies had some hand in the guts of a product. I saw a few, including one which was inventing and beta testing exotic surge protectors for the new, “smart electrical grids” coming on line. The city’s 260,00 businesses (7,100 added in the past 60 months) are an array of large, medium and small companies that do all types of things.

What does this have to do with Limbo? While much of the broadband infrastructure is finished or planned, as is the massive construction and modernization of new local and national railway lines (which BTW have libraries and book kiosks inside the stations!), from the human flow, the city seems chaotic and unfinished. It is an array of day and nightlife (it abounds with late night shopping districts), where retail businesses continue to evolve. I am still not sure if there is balance to it all, but I did find one thread between the bicycle and the future of the city.

I located it in the policy and inside the office of Mayor Eric Chu. He is a central figure in Asian politics and was his party’s candidate for the nation’s presidency this past year. He lost to Taiwan’s first female president Tsai Ing-wen. To borrow a phrase from Professor Ben Barber, he is far better off ruling the world from the mayor’s office. His enthusiasm and sense of unfinished business to advance his five-year old city is better fed leading this large city than with figuring out ways to limit the expansion of the Chinese navy.

Thanks to the mandate for Mrs. Tsai he can concentrate energy on projects like the U-Bike. Nearly 8,000 of these yellow bikes populate the City. From a window in City Hall, he pointed to a cluster of them near the Subway station. He grew very animated and sounded very proud.

Using a telecommunications analogy, he said, “The bikes are the ‘last-mile’ for people, and allow them to get from the train stations to their homes. Each bike turns over six times each day!” Another 5,000 will soon come on line. While nations like China attempt to put more cars on crowded roads, the Intelligent Community nations, Taiwan and The Netherlands, are putting high-tech bike systems in place. As I say, Intelligent Communities give a “new voice to the old truths.” Their air is also cleaner.

The thread that began in row 7 on my United flight ended in an incubator work space called InnoSys. There venture capital, mentoring and a workspace converge to help startups pedal faster. One company, PAIX, which I sought out, was developing a “smart backpack,” although it calls itself a backpack app developer. When I asked what being in a Top7 city like New Taipei does for them, they did not say the food was great or that they liked late night shopping. They said that it was because of New Taipei City’s policies that they went into business. That’s big. When U-Bike was rolled into existence by the city, it was followed by City’s decision to allow data for its transportation system to be made open. From here, it was easier for PAIX to create “back pack apps.”

“This was not possible ten years ago,” said a software developer, as he fitted me with the new backpack.

Neither was the embrace of Limbo, where more and more people seemed comfortable in New Taipei City and elsewhere.

Friday, April 29, 2016
The Last Big Barrier To A Rural Renaissance: Healthcare

I’ve written before about the ways that small towns and rural areas can take advantage of broadband Internet connections to gain access to global economic opportunities, educational and cultural resources, even the virtual equivalents of coffee shops that used to be only available in big cities.

Perhaps the biggest remaining barrier to a 21st century rural renaissance is access to world class health care.    

With that in mind, President Obama’s Rural Council brought together about three dozen experts to the White House complex last week to identify innovative ways of bringing health care to the countryside and to establish a “community of practice” that will help the Obama administration and hopefully its successor to address the problem.  

The group included:

  • Federal officials from various agencies, including Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack
  • Leading broadband providers and the Rural Broadband Association’s CEO, Shirley Bloomfield, and Joshua Seidemann, Vice President of Policy (who helped organize this meeting)
  • Exemplary providers of tele-health, and
  • A couple of other experts, including myself (in my role as Senior Fellow of the Intelligent Community Forum and director of its New Connected Countryside initiative)

This “convening” was led by Doug O’Brien, Senior White House Advisor for Rural Affairs.

It was noted, although not news to those around the table, that the nearly 60 million Americans who live in rural areas were hit especially hard by the Great Recession.  Their local economies have taken longer to recover, still not back to pre-recession employment levels.

But the comparisons of rural versus urban health care were most striking.  Here are just some highlights:

  • Rural areas have higher rates of disease and higher mortality rates than urban areas. In 1980, the rural mortality rate was 2% worse than the urban rate and now it’s 13% worse.
  • While approximately one in six Americans live in rural areas, only one in ten physicians practice there. There are even fewer medical specialists per capita.
  • Suicide rates are higher and getting worse in rural areas. Along with a growing drug abuse problem, this is a reflection of a growing need for mental health services.

None of these medical problems are helped by the fact that rural residents are poorer and less likely to have health insurance.  Of course, given the lack of sufficient nearby medical resources, rural residents need to travel further – often hours further – than their urban counterparts.

In the Internet age, that last problem should be able to be mostly overcome with health care delivered remotely.  So most of the meeting was devoted learning about the use and deployment of tele-health care.  In this post, I won’t be able to describe all of them or any one of them in detail, but here are some that stood out to me:

  • Using cost-effective solutions, like iPads, Vanderbilt University Medical Center has established a network of rural tele-health services. This even includes virtual group sessions for people with drug addiction

The US Department of Veterans Affairs has pioneered the use of virtual ICUs in its rural clinics and facilities. With a fully developed set of tele-health tools, to the patients and local staff, it’s like having the expert ICU doctor at the bedside. As a byproduct of these virtual ICUs, the medical staff at these facilities are also getting an education in newer and better medical techniques.

Through East Carolina University School of Medicine, there is now a tele-psychiatry network in North Carolina. The relatively low cost of making tele-psychiatry available is helpful, given the increasing need for mental health services.

Obviously, many rural areas do not yet have the broadband which is necessary to deliver these services.  But there are clearly broadband providers, especially telecommunications coops, which are up to the task.  We heard about just two of those who had completed gigabit deployments to every household in their rural areas in Kentucky and North Carolina.  One of those, Peoples Rural Telephone Coop was reported on in a Daily Yonder article last month, “One of the Nation’s Fastest Networks Serves Two of Its Poorest Counties”.

Even before the recent recession, there were long term trends in rural America that called out for a different and new economic strategy.  In his closing remarks, Secretary Vilsack noted that, since 1950, agricultural productivity has increased a hundred fold on 27% less land and with 22 million fewer farmers.  So the challenge today is what opportunities and quality of life can the remaining families have.  

The people around that table last week and ICF believe that a revived rural community can be built upon the intelligent and creative use of technology – and improving access to quality healthcare is just one very important example.

Monday, April 18, 2016
Looking for Things Nearly Unseen but Real in a City

The major question Top7 host cities have before I set out to visit them is what I want to know. There is some anxiety on their part because they want to make sure that they do well in Columbus on June 16, but also because they want to show off their cities. There are also several people involved and a lot of coordination and, I’m sure, cost involved with a Top7 Site Visit. So I am sensitive to this and try to be a good guest and not make people feel like the Grand Inquisitor and Inspector General has rolled into town.

This year I have been chosen to visit New Taipei City (Taiwan) and Surrey (Canada). I am in New Taipei City this week. It is an interesting place on paper. It made the Top7 for the third consecutive year, which puts it on a trajectory to possibly follow a pattern set by Eindhoven (The Netherlands) and Columbus (USA), both of which were in the awards program three years before their number was called as the Intelligent Community of the Year. NTC interests me because it is by far the youngest city among our entire family of 145 cities, regions and towns. It was formed less than one decade ago from the 2006 Intelligent Community of the Year, Taipei. Mayor Eric Chu of NTC, who lost the nation’s presidential race this past year to Tsai Ing-wen, the nation’s first female president and the most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world, is the scion of one of the most powerful political families in Taiwan and has effectively birthed NTC and brought it into the world! It was born to privilege. NTC is a legitimately powerful economic engine. I know Mayor Chu and he is a very sharp guy, politically savvy and understands governance. While NTC has a massive tech base and much business, I am really curious to see if it has the shape and feel of a real “community” yet – and of course I want to understand how this is (or is not) happening.

When the Top7 plan for my visit, they always ask what I want to see and how the visit can be best arranged during the 48 hours that I am typically on the ground. The first part is simple: use the six ICF Indicators to guide the events and plan media around it so that you can maximize the global connection and honor.

The last part of the question, often not fully asked or understood, is to show me how you are going from technology to transformation. I always have a very simple image in my mind for this. It revolves around my 2003 moment with Blackberry co-founder Jim Balsillie. When I asked him why he chose to stay in Waterloo, Canada, he said simply, “This is where I live and where I want to live.” That’s good incentive. To live well you need more than connectivity.

A lot more. I will see what New Taipei City has that is making it more than a place with a lot of economic activity and a shiny new City Hall. More precisely, I will be looking for something intangible, or nearly, which is a sign of rebirth. That sign I will take back and share with you and the Jury. How’s that for a challenge?

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