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Thursday, October 8, 2015
The Countryside is Doomed to Decline? Eersel Begs to Differ.

The countryside is in trouble.  You know it.  I know it.  The United Nations says so.  The share of the world’s population living in the countryside is shrinking as megacities grow.  Opportunities for education and employment are shrinking with it, forcing bright kids to leave town to pursue their ambitions.  The tax base erode, schools consolidate, services falter and stores close.  


There’s just one problem with this picture.  As George Gershwin so famously put it, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

There are places in the countryside giving birth to a new economic model.  I was in one last week – and there I exactly saw how information and communications technology (ICT), plus a dose of vision, ambition and hard work, can get the countryside growing again.   

Eersel, Netherlands, is a rural city of 18,000. "City" may be a bit misleading, since it actually consists of six rural villages that share a municipal government. Like many rural places, it is spacious and beautiful, and its biggest industries are agriculture and tourism.  But that is about where the resemblance to everyplace else ends. 

97% Broadband Coverage in the Countryside

A Dutch broadband pioneer, Kees Rovers, has led the city in rolling out fiber to the premise to fill the gaps left by private-sector telcos and cable companies.  The capital comes from government grants, but property owners contribute as well to the costs of the last mile, and strong take-up produces positive cash flow.  Through this effort, Eersel has already reached 97% coverage at fiber speeds, and they are now working on in-fill of the last (and most expensive) 3%.   At age 70, Kees is a serial broadband champion, having led the unique fiber network deployment in Nuenen, Netherlands that contributed to Eindhoven’s selection as the 2011 Intelligent Community of the Year.    

That connectivity is being put to good use.  On the farm of Jacob van der Borne, you can see something called “precision farming” at its most advanced. Jacob and his brother have assembled it all from scratch, combining imagery from satellites and drones (they run a small fleet of them) with hands-on soil testing and obsessive measurement how much they harvest.  The result is an incredibly detailed digital map of the land they farm, with the potential yield of each square meter carefully plotted.  (See his entertaining video on YouTube.)    

The map, in turn, is used to guide planting, irrigating and spraying machines with the goal of giving each square meter exactly what it requires.  If the soil is relatively poor, plants are spaced farther apart.  In rich soils, they are bunched closer.  Irrigation, fertilizers and chemicals are applied in the smallest possible amounts only where conditions justify it.  

Overall yields are up 20% over pre-digital days, and they run the farm with just three hired hands. That means higher profit, and the brothers van der Borne plough their profits into better technology and that most traditional of farm supplies, manure. One investment will help them continue to monitor and respond better to their farm. The other will enrich square meters that they believe should be producing more.

The Booming Business of Agriculture

Drive to a different rural village, and you come to the 30,000 m2 headquarters of the Vencomatic Group. This zero-energy smart building is solar-powered, airtight and incredibly efficient. It is also shaped, from the air, like an egg – I will explain why in a moment. Its construction involved taking over part of a neighboring pond used by a local fishing club. So carefully did the company handle the consultation with the club and the subsequent construction that club members came to the opening of the building and thanked the company’s founder, Cor van de Ven, for keeping his promises to them.

Now, about that egg shape. Vencomatic makes groundbreaking nesting and feedings systems that automate raising of poultry and collection of eggs The chickens run free instead of being penned in cages, but do so within an automated “jungle gym” that provides them with food and water, routes eggs to a conveyer for removal and clears waste. The system isn’t cheap, and it is only by significantly boosting the efficiency of the farming operation that they can make a sale.

They make more than a few. This private company tucked into rural Holland has 350 employees and offices in Spain, Brazil, China and Malaysia. Its systems are sold from South Korea to West Africa, and they demonstrate how expertise specific to the countryside can achieve a global market.

When you hear talk about the “innovation economy,” you probably think of urban Creative Class types in black jeans or apps developers in T-shirts and hoodies. You think of people in the countryside being left behind. It may be time for a change of view. Places like Eersel prove that, given the right infrastructure and people, they can create an economy as dynamic and attractive as the biggest city. Through ICT, they can have the prosperity they need without surrendering the peace and beauty they already own.

Monday, October 5, 2015
The Countryside is 33% Closer to Being Connected


We launched our New Connected Countryside crowdfunding campaign last week and I am pleased to report that we are already at 33% of our goal with 55 days left to go.  We really appreciate the early signs of support – but we need much more.

Funding this project will let us create an online platform where rural community leaders, residents, institutions and businesses from around the world can connect, exchange advice, share resources and build a global network of peers. 

 Year round, they will share their discoveries, their successes, failures and lessons learned with each other.    Once each year, they will come together for a Virtual Summit featuring mayors, CAOs and CIOs, county executives, technologists, educators, investors and all the other players in the new rural economy.  We plan to have simultaneous events in dozens of communities around the world, connected by the online platform and addressing the same set of topics together.  

Please take a moment to check it out at www.connectedcountryside.com.  If you like what you see, make a contribution.  We offer rewards for your generosity at a wide range of donation levels.   In any case, share the news among your colleagues and friends and give them a chance to support this vital work. 

Monday, September 28, 2015
Looking Forward: Helping A City Envision Its Future

There are some interesting developments happening in Winter Park, Florida.   Established in the late 1800s as a winter haven for the wealthy of northern states, it is now a city of about 29,000 people in the Orlando metroplex.  

Although it has a nice quality of life, relative affluence, other good aspects, etc., like every city, it faces its challenges.  What makes it interesting is how the city is responding.

For many years, a significant part of the city felt that their library needed to be replaced and brought into the new century.  This effort came closer to reality with the creation of a library facility task force more than a year ago and, more recently, with three workshops in which hundreds of community residents participated.  

Needless to say, this is not how the majority of new library building projects go about planning.  It is an example of the open and collaborative spirit of ACi Architects, the architecture/urban design firm that the city retained, which is leading this effort.  (This is clearly not the exercise in egotism that too many architects practice.)

In my role as a member of the Advisory Group to the Aspen Institute’s Dialogue on Public Libraries, I was invited to talk at one of these workshops about how the changes in the world and libraries provided the basis for Aspen’s report and how that report could inform their own plans for a future library.

Since a good library is very much a part of the fabric of its community, it is especially interesting that the library planning effort has been conducted in parallel with a larger “community visioning” project to provide direction for all of the city for the next 50 years.

While no city will ever achieve 100% agreement on anything, it’s been fascinating to watch these efforts develop with generally civil discussion – and visible in real time online to those who couldn’t be there.  

This picture is from one of the breakout groups during a workshop. 

In the case of the library workshops, part of the challenge is that the best site for a new building is in a city park named for Martin Luther King, Jr. and that there is also a need for what has been a civic center (community meeting building).  So the design needed is not just for a library building.

While this complicates things, it also presents an opportunity to create something new which combines a new library building and the recreational area around it – an opportunity to create a kind of knowledge park or knowledge experience.  The library can offer its services not only inside the building, but on it and beyond in gazebos around the park – and a new civic forum space.

A combination library/park/civic space is not common, but not rare either.  Many large libraries sit in parks, most notably the New York Public Library in Bryant Park.  But these two public amenities – the library and the park – are not all that often integrated together.

Recently, WIRED Magazine in its design issue article, “8 Cities That Show You What the Future Will Look Like”, featured Medellín’s Biblioteca Espana library/park that is “Combining Libraries and Parks into Safe Spaces for All”, while serving and helping to upgrade the impoverished neighborhood that surrounds it.

The New World Symphony in Miami Beach provides another model of how a park can be integrated with cultural events inside a building.  With a large video wall on the outside, it is a natural place for people to sit or even picnic while listening to great music and seeing great musicians.

Sometimes the park is jam-packed with listeners.

Building a library in a park offers similar possibilities.  Even the always necessary garage for a library can be turned into a set of display walls for the projection of knowledge outside of the building – and thus upgrading, perhaps, hiding its parking function.  For instance, pictures and text from the city’s African-American history museum could be made more widely available this way.

Although no two cities are exactly the same, Winter Park is a good example of an historic, but relatively small, city that is now striving to re-define itself as part of a larger metropolitan area in a 21st century digital economy.  For that reason, I’ll be reporting back on how the residents proceed to set an example for many other places in the USA and the rest of the world.

Monday, September 14, 2015
European Migrants: Problem or Opportunity?

 Every day now, the migrants flow north by the thousands from the arc of chaos on the Mediterranean’s southern shore. Their fearful, inspiring stories grip the world and confront the nations of the European Union with yet another challenge to unity. 


Whether to let the migrants in, whether to let them leave, where and how to distribute them, how generously to meet them – these are fundamental questions of policy and humanity. One answer comes from the German and Austrian citizens who flock to train and bus stations bearing food and clothing, calling out greetings to exhausted travelers.  They challenge us all to find the compassion hidden in our hearts.  They remind us of the many times a stranger helped us without being asked.

Yet in all of the news coverage of this immense human drama, there is one bit of reporting I have yet to see. Everyone is worrying about costs and burden-sharing.  Everyone fears social tensions and the rise of hate crimes targeting immigrants.  The missing story is about the future wealth and economic growth the immigrants are bringing with them. 

Migration is a powerful force in our global economy.  In our book, Brain Gain, we looked at the research on its economic impact. Are immigrants a drain on the public purse?  America’s National Research Council says no.  It found that the average immigrant contributes about US$80,000 more in taxes over a lifetime than he or she receives in public services. 

Do immigrants threaten our prosperity?  Hardly.  By increasing the supply of labor, they boost growth.  The UK’s Centre for Economics and Business Research concluded in 2013 that immigration from the EU contributes £20 billion (US$33 billion) to the British economy.  In New York City, where I work, the ten neighborhoods with the greatest concentration of immigrants have stronger economic growth than the rest of the city. 

Do immigrants bring crime and disorder?  A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center found exactly the opposite. In Los Angeles, as just one example, immigrant youth are less involved in crime and violence than their native-born peers. 

We reap what we sow.  Rapid immigration brings real problems, but also big benefits.  Your city or region gets to choose which will dominate.  If you treat migrants like criminals, shove them into ghettos and deny them opportunity, you get the problems.  If you find ways to accept them and manage the real issues and problems they bring, your community stands to gain new economic energy and a richer and more diverse society. 

That is why the sight of ordinary people in train and bus stations across Germany and Austria welcoming migrants is so inspiring.  Community intelligence is not really a matter of digits and devices – it is the willingness to accept what is new and unknown, and the wisdom to try making the best of it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Intelligent Communities Happy Hour


There is now conclusive evidence that a community seeking to provide its people with a long, healthy life and meaningful days does not necessarily need more broadband but more alcohol and good sidewalks.  It also would benefit from fewer conveniences in the home and the elimination of the word “retirement” from the culture. In fact, what National Geographic Fellow and TEDMED superstar Dan Buettner (pictured right) refers to as “de-convenienced homes,” as well as a concept which the Japanese refer to as ikigai, are major contributing factors to the shockingly long lives with which the people in Okinawa, Japan are blessed.  A few drinks each day, a walking lifestyle and Ikigai (which translates roughly into “that which makes life worth living”) are among the criteria at the heart of what Buettner and a group of extraordinary researchers discovered as the real secrets to the long lives people experience in place as diverse as Okinawa, Sardinia and, yes, 2007 Smart21 Intelligent Community Loma Linda, California.  After seeing Buettner’s recent appearance on HBO and rereading some of his work, I am surprised that Loma Linda did not make it to the top of the ICF’s Awards that year! 

Buettner’s TED Talks and his well-documented magazine article, “The Island Where People Forget to Die,” have begun to transform my thinking of what Intelligent Communities are and should ultimately become.  When I first read his widely-read article I was stunned and saddened.  Stunned because it was so remarkably simple, and it made such obvious sense that strong family ties, communal trust and a sense of purpose act as buffers against stress and diseases like the one I share with nearly every one of my fellow New Yorkers: hypertension. Saddened, too, because it reinforced what was lost and what remained when my own community, which long ago shared many of these so-called Blue Zone values, found itself in decline and trying to live without them. 

Many communities have experienced the famous Roseto Effect.  Roseto, Pennsylvania (USA) was, in 1962, one of the most remarkably healthy communities in America.  But as the post-Industrial period and plagues of confusion, mobility, underemployment and the “unfamiliar” community took root, overall health declined.  People cite a lot of reasons for this and, frankly, most of them remain anecdotal and the political solutions sucked.  However, it is clear from the work of the Blue Zone folks that when an ecosystem of social cohesion and emotional collaboration are shredded, real damage takes to the roots like a disease.  Intelligent Communities are a step back.  While no technology solution could have restored Roseto, it sure would have helped if a group like ICF or the Blue Zones were around to at least give it a path forward.  I truly believe that.

Better late than never.  Today, ICF and people like Buettner’s organization are applying principles to cities and towns with results that are leading to, what I hope, will be a new type of mutual support network that provides precisely what people in Loma Linda, Sardinia, Okinawa and the island of Ikaria, Greece seem to need to go on to live long, healthy, fundamentally worry-free lives. 

Oh yeah, another factor that the researchers cited in these truly “intelligent” places might surprise those of us who rush to one of our many specialists on a regular basis and look at the labels of every item of food that we buy: the people in these places are not concerned with living long lives so much as they are concerned with living Life fully and living it well.  A meaningful life, short or long, is the only one worth living.  One where ikigai - and not the 65-hour work week, twinned with the graceless demarcation of “retirement” at age 65 – rule.  These two things may simply be the path to a shorter, grizzlier life. The community you surround yourself with counts a great deal when dealing your own hand in life.

With regard to creating an Intelligent Community to get you on the right path: try it, you’ll like it.

We invite any of you who believe that your community has gone beyond simple smart technology and is on the path toward becoming, well, a place full of old, healthy geezers, to try your hand at the ICF Award program.  If you meet our criteria – and many of you will (take the Self-Test to find out) – the demonstration of a deliberately de-convenienced lifestyle that uses technology, rather than being used by it, might put you in the list of Smart21 with Loma Linda.

There are two webinars remaining for you to answer questions you may have about our 2016 Awards program.  They are free and they take place on 25 and 27 August.  I look forward to speaking with any of you who join the webinar.  Let’s have a “happy hour” together.    

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