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Friday, January 15, 2016
Looking Forward: Talk to Anyone in Any Language?

It’s been clear for some time that the Internet can connect everyone around the globe – in theory. This opens up tremendous potential for collaboration, mutual economic growth, education and a variety of other benefits. We’ve seen many of those benefits, but we still haven’t touched the surface.

Among other reasons the true potential of a globally connected world hasn’t yet been realized is that many people still can’t communicate when they communicate – they don’t speak the same language.

So it has been interesting to me to see the recent improvements in real time translation on the Internet. I’m not talking about the translation of text that has been around for a couple of years through, for example, Google Translate of websites or even the very useful app, WordLens, which I have used in my travels when I had to read foreign signs.

No, the new improvements are in speech – taking speech from one language and ultimately, quickly converting it correctly into another language. Although text translation is not easy, speech introduces much greater challenges.

These new real-time voice translation services and devices aren’t perfect, but they’ve improved enough that they are usable. And that usability will begin to make all the difference.

Last year, Google took its Translate app into speech. You can see a quick video example here. Google claims it can handle 90 of the world’s languages.

Then, more recently, Skype made its Translator generally available, although it’s clearly still in a sort of test mode. For English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Mandarin, Skype describes its capabilities quite simply:

“You can call almost anyone who has Skype. It will translate your conversation into another language in near real-time. What someone else says is translated back in your language. An on-screen transcript of your call is displayed.”

They have a charming video of school children in the US and Mexico talking to each other somewhat awkwardly.

There’s another video, titled “Speak Chinese Like A Local” with an American photojournalist in China arranging a tour for himself.

This translation work hasn’t only be done in the US. The Japanese have also been busy at this task, in their own way.

While not using the Internet, a Panasonic translator – in the form of a smart megaphone – will be tested at Narita Airport to translate between Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English.

Then there’s the “ili”, a portable device (also not connected to the Internet) which translates between Japanese, Chinese and English. The company describes it as “the world’s first wearable translator for travelers”. They’ve posted a video athttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6ngM0LHxuU. The video is a strange combination of cute and creepy, but it gets the point across.

These developments have led some stories to proclaim the arrival of the universal translator of Star Trek. But as Trekkie experts say, unlike the one in Star Trek, this doesn’t read brains, which may have been a necessity to communicate with non-human species.  

On the other hand, if you only want to talk with other people, the new language translators are pretty good substitutes ;-) With more use, they can only get better, faster, all the while helping to improve understanding between people around the world.

Monday, January 11, 2016
Light a Candle, America, for the Common Core

On December 10, President Obama signed a reform of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, which had been passed by Congress the day before.  It preserves standardized testing but eliminates any consequences to states and school districts that perform poorly.  It also bars the Federal government from imposing academic requirements like the Common Core, America’s first serious attempt at a national curriculum for elementary and secondary school students.

Parents, weary of test preparation, celebrated.  Teachers rejoiced.  School boards and state education departments cheered. Republican Presidential candidates applauded the brave blow struck against government encroachment on our sacred liberties.

In this season of rejoicing, I make a humble request.  Let us light a candle of mourning for the NCLB and the Common Core. 

The NCLB Act was a bold and bracing vision wrapped in a truly terrible package, like a Ferrari engine shoehorned into one of those Ford Pintos with the exploding gas tanks. It introduced the idea – revolutionary in America – that states and school districts should not be the final judges of what is taught in schools.  There are good reasons for this.  In the best-performing state in 2015, Massachusetts, about 50% of 8th grade students rated proficient or better in math and reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  In the worst-performing state, Alabama, only 17% of 8th graders were proficient or better in math and 31% in reading.  The last time I checked, the residents of both state qualified as American citizens.  In my book, that should entitle children in both states to a decent education at public expense.

The Common Core introduced the idea – another American revolution – that a child in Massachusetts and Alabama should be learning more or less the same thing at each grade level.  That’s not a bad idea in a country where, according to Pew Research, 12% of people change residences every year and 38% say that the place they consider home is not where they are living right now.  If I move my family from the state of New York to the state of California, how much better would it be if my children entered schools teaching essentially what they were teaching in their last school? 

Unfortunately, these goods ideas went up in flames.  NCLB demanded that every student in every school improve every year.  The mathematical impossibility of such a thing boggles the mind, yet ratings of school and teacher performance depended on it.  Testing based on the Common Core was introduced in some states before a curriculum or teacher training was in place.  That’s like building the foundation after you put up the house.

The only way to achieve a poorer outcome would have been to put America’s most bloodthirsty enemies of education reform in charge of implementation.  Conspiracy theorists, check your email.

Why do I want to light a candle to mourn the demise of such a misbegotten creation?  Because in the 2012 international comparison of educational achievement by 15 year olds, called the Performance for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States ranked 36th.  The top five spots were held by China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.  Also ahead of us were such rich-world peers as the UK, France, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Japan. And let’s not forget such world leaders as Vietnam, Slovenia and Russia, which also bested the USA. 

In most of these nations, the funding of education, design of the curriculum and assessment testing is centralized at national level.  Even in the Netherlands, where more than 70% of educational decisions are made at the local level, the Ministry of Education produces a national curriculum, funds both public and private schools, and administers national assessment testing.  School districts are in charge of how the goals are achieved but nobody gets to play fast and loose with the standards without paying a price. 

A price is paid in every community where weak education fails to prepare the next generation for the global economy.  In the broadband era, that economy is at our doors whether we like it or not.  The “Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015,” which the President called “a Christmas miracle,” turns America back in a direction where Some Students Succeed – if they grow up in a wealthy place where parents demand the best and know how to make their demands count.  

Tuesday, January 5, 2016
Disrupting the Affordable Housing Model in Smart and Intelligent Communities


Every Smart City and Intelligent Community aims to create a high quality of life for its citizens. Healthy and happy citizens create a more vibrant and productive economy. According to a recent Economist Magazine article on housing in Britain, the correlation between housing availability and affordability are directly related to productivity. The choice was to either live in increasingly more crowded and more expensive housing accommodation in order to participate in a more productive community or to move out to work and live in a less productive area. But this is not unique to Britain. Many people who cannot find or afford housing in San Francisco and Silicon Valley eventually are forced to move elsewhere, even though they might have a job prospect in the Valley and wind up being less content in the new community they have been forced to move into.

In a U.S. study by the Knight Foundation called the “Soul of the City”, the authors concluded that the best way to attract and retain talent, a key element to Intelligent Communities, was to provide three things: affordable housing, accessible and affordable transit and “things to do”. These are also important elements to a high quality of life for all citizens. Shelter is a basic human need and should be deemed a human right. Movement is essential for trade and communications and a key to productivity and prosperity. Entertainment, heritage and culture, celebration, nature, the richness of urban and rural experiences and places, family, choice and variety - are all aspects of the “things we like to do” and be a part of. Why is it so difficult to provide these in every community, especially safe, clean and affordable housing for all our citizens?

Many Intelligent Communities try to address this issue from a holistic perspective. The challenge of securing and maintaining a healthy supply of affordable housing clearly impacts more than just the person and their family – it impacts the entire social and economic ecosystem of the community and region at large. Accordingly, if productivity and the economy of our cities are linked to affordable housing, it must be at the center of government policy. For instance, Germany, Austria and Singapore consider affordable housing as a “right” whereas American and British public housing programs tend to treat affordability as a commodity and privilege. Three main factors account for Germany’s stable housing: responsive housing supply; secure rental tenancy; and regulated mortgage credit availability. The German constitution enables housing supply in response to demand through ‘right-to-build’ legislation, providing confidence in the market. As German communities receive grants based on the number of its inhabitants, local governments encourage development. In comparison, UK cities are much less liberal and accommodating, surrounded by strict greenbelts, significantly restricting the availability of land for development which usually also push up housing prices. The dominant housing choice among Germans is regulated rental accommodations which prevent steep increases in accommodation prices. The political system is also highly sensitive to tenants’ rights, ensuring that renters enjoy security of tenure. Accordingly, Germans have little incentive to rush into owner occupation, avoiding ‘panic buying’ and speculation. Similarly, public housing programs in Austria, such as in Vienna, have also succeeded in meeting critical housing shortages. Their approach is to create public housing policies that avoid temporary stopgap measures for the most vulnerable in times of crisis, leading instead to managing affordable housing prices, attracting talent and encouraging greater social cohesion. This disruptive approach provides housing for all by subsidizing all elements of society, not just the lower spectrum of the economic spectrum. By contrast, New York City’s public housing tends to be limited to lower income tenant household incomes that wind up competing for an inadequate supply of housing options, most of which are also aging and need of rehabilitation, and the waiting list continues to grow. Some authors have termed these public housing developments as “islands of poverty in a sea of private-market housing”. In contrast, the majority of Vienna’s residents live in subsidized apartments which are provided by both government and a limited number of for-profit housing associations. This approach reflects that housing is a basic human right and that society as a whole should be responsible for accommodating affordable and accessible housing as it impacts all levels of the socio-economic ecosystem. Where housing is concerned, completely free market mechanisms seem to become the obstacle to ensuring safe and clean accommodation for all. Just as roads and sidewalks are deemed a human right of access for all, perhaps housing should be deemed as a similar right for society as a whole. In Austria, 80% of all new housing is subsidized by public funds, whether privately or publicly owned, thereby reducing the social stigma attached to public housing. Furthermore, the architectural quality of Vienna’s public housing stock is indistinguishable from private accommodation.

In Singapore, 82% of their residents live in government built accommodations. However, the government encourages public housing residents to eventually purchase their apartments when they are able to. Today, 90% of Singapore’s government assisted housing is actually owner occupied. The remaining stock is left for those who have no other options. Austria’s approach is to use housing subsidies as instruments of redistribution, whereas Singapore’s approach attempts to promote economic growth in general through the use of innovative financing tools, such as rental geared to income which allows similar units in a neighbourhood to be made available to all no matter what their income levels, reducing the stresses in a society that result from inequality. Thus Singapore’s disruptive model looked at their housing crisis as an economic development opportunity for “nation-building”. These examples of disruptive approaches to housing accommodation are not perfect but help to redefine what social housing means. In the USA, it tends to mean dealing with crisis management: offering short sighted and temporary solutions to households who need government assistance to find a roof of any kind over their heads, while Germany, Austria and Singapore appear to take a longer view to benefit society and its economy in tandem.

This article first appeared in MyLiveableCity

Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Now Never Ends

As 2015 ends I find myself wanting to write about everything which took place over the past 12 months at ICF.  It is not possible. So I will hit the high notes.  Do not expect a tedious elaboration about the family ski trip to Austria, poor Aunt Sissy’s fractured hip, or the barely disguised boast about how thrilled we “all are” about the youngest being accepted at that elite private school populated by fellow one-percenters.  This is not one of those loopy familial annual reports that have become so common around the holidays!   Although ICF is a wonderful family, and the urge is there.

2015 highlights were of different textures.  There were firsts which ensure that our movement continues to exert influence and shares knowledge and contacts well beyond our 143 ICF Foundation communities.   The ICF “Connections” program brought together like-minded Intelligent Communities to share business opportunities and build new capacities.  

2015 was also the year we left New York.  Or, at least, our Summit left to take our show on the road.  We chose to license the rights to the 2015 ICF Summit to Toronto.  As expected Canada did not fail us.  Quite the opposite.  Summit 2015 set a higher bar in all categories.  It doubled our attendance, drew a record number of Canadian and Taiwanese submissions to the Awards program for 2016 and included innovations such as the new Ideas Day.  Canada’s Governor General appeared, and spoke eloquently about the potency of ideas that drive cities forward. 

Dr. Jason Hu’s Visionary of the Year address, which was one-part roast (of me) and one part vivid, humorous and passionate chronicle of what his once unremarkable “no-name” city (the former “Mechanical Kingdom” of Taichung, Taiwan) had accomplished, will be embedded as one of the most rewarding 20 minutes of my career.  Dr. Hu, who is now running a presidential campaign for another Intelligent Community mayor-turned-national candidate, Dr. Eric Chu, stirred the souls of those in attendance and proved that inspired leadership and the application of ICF’s principles can work everywhere.  His take-away was clear:  Mitchell, South Dakota, Jonkoping, Sweden and Whanganui, New Zealand need not aspire to become the “next Silicon Valley” or Singapore.  Rather, they need to become themselves to ensure that brain drain turns to brain gain.

In a year packed with highlights, ICF announced the opening of another Institute for the Study of the Intelligent Community.  This one in Dublin, Ohio – a perennial Top7 city of 42,000 with a city manager, Mr. Dana McDaniel, who mobilized a team from the area’s rich triple helix of talent to plan his renaissance “out loud.”

The revolution has been started.  Yet as I told an audience in Lima, Peru, most revolutions fail. It is time to enter the renaissance.  Hence our 2016 theme: “From Revolution to Renaissance.” To me, it simply means that the tech revolution is a done deal and, for the most part, we get it.  What it has left us with is some confusion about where to go.  We know where the path leads: a true flourishing of the human experience.  To brain GAIN.  To a new Renaissance.  In 2015 we began a series of podcasts with planners and interesting people who can help guide us.  It is now online.

Professor Benjamin Barber estimated that today there are nearly 400 organizations dedicated to the improvement of cities through the use of technology.  That is a gain of approximately 399 since the day ICF began its mission in 1995.  We could not be happier because the results are evident.  We are getting better through the local engine.  Local governments are the new innovators of governance in the 21st Century. 

According to Google, search engines recorded that human beings searched more for the word ‘Future’ than they did the word ‘Past.’  That’s the good news.  However, they also searched for the word ‘Past’ more than ‘Present.’ There is a cliché which goes, “there is no time like Now.” Physicist Erin Schroeder said  that “Now never ends.”  He was not the first to observe this.  Buddha said it long ago.  The convergence of science and intuition leads us into 2016.  For cities, regions and towns the notion that “now never ends,” means quite literally that taking action and beginning to realize the full potential of broadband and planning for a future dedicated to creativity are not actions to be taken after the ski trip to Austria or when the streets and businesses are empty and shuttered.  The best time is, well, Now.

Happy holidays.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015
The Public Realm in Smart Cities and Intelligent Communities


The public realm in any city abounds with streets, lanes, parks and public squares, but also public facilities such as the public lobbies and spaces that anyone from the public are able to legally access. It can also include areas below ground where the public may access public areas under streets and buildings, spaces below bridges and even the airspace above these public spaces. The public realm arguably also includes public vistas, namely what the public can see from a distance. As we expand our thinking about what should be considered the public realm in our villages, towns and cities, we should also expand it to include what we can’t necessarily see, but increasingly experience: the impact of broadband wireless services in public spaces and how it contributes to the sense of place in our communities.

As the design and infrastructure of our urban public spaces are undergoing significant transformation, broadband wireless Internet access is becoming as important and pervasive as the provision of other public amenities on streets and in public squares and parks such as sidewalks, cycle paths, benches, and water fountains. Activities related to Internet use has become an everyday activity in public spaces and is no longer limited to private spaces in the home, workplace or library. Tourists, local workers and residents use the public realm to experience the social diversity that urban spaces offer. But they are also increasingly flocking to urban spaces seeking free Wi-Fi hotspots for their smart devices, such as in Federation Square in Melbourne, Sugar Beach in Toronto and Bryant Park in New York City. These are made possible through the proliferation of broadband wireless Internet provided by municipal and community Wi-Fi offerings, free hotspots in cafes and restaurants and through 2G, 3G and 4G LTE wireless communications provided by advance mobile networks. But can the rapid rise of Internet access in public spaces reshape the public realm of the future and change what we define as sense of place?

The public realm is a social setting defined by its public urban spaces, and typified in a city’s streets, parks, and plazas, but it is also understood as part of a much larger public sphere of influence that connects many types of physical, social and viral networks. It plays host to both planned as well as serendipitous encounters with existing acquaintances and strangers alike, as well as it invites others to come and participate. For instance, flash mob experiences are organized through social media, resulting in a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual event and just as quickly disperse. Their performance occupy a space in a unique and special way, from entertainment to political advocacy, and can have a lasting impression about the space in the same way as historical events can create a unique sense of space and place.

For example, millennials use Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to instantly promote by “sharing” details about the places they, their friends and heroes are currently occupying, attracting others to participate in physical and viral space as well. These actions, multiplied many times over, have significant implications on tourism, activism, neighbourhoods and sense of place. A formerly underused street or square could become famous through social media overnight and may attract many new participants instantly to that space or over the next several years. For instance, the New York Times recently heralded Cairo’s Tahrir Square as Egypt’s newest tourist attraction. Previously, in 2011 we witnessed the impact that social media like Facebook and Twitter had on helping demonstrators in that very same square (and later across the Arab Spring) to organize, transmit their message to the world and to galvanize international support. That space, formerly not so well known around the world, has been changed to become an important place locally as well as internationally. How will it change with notoriety? For instance, Tiananmen Square became famous through global media exposure, but as a result it has also become a different space physically through security access limitations as well as procedures for entering and using the space.

Studies undertaken of the use of broadband wireless Internet in the public realm suggest that there is currently a significant enough shift from previously known ways that these spaces have been used that it may have significant implications on future urban planning, the design of future streets and open spaces and perhaps even on the nature of democracy, as described above. While designers of public spaces may have new tools for communicating their ideas to the public, they also have the ability to gain data and insights via the Internet of Things (IoT), among devices through M2M (machine to machine) as well as strategically between people and devices. Public lighting, benches, trash cans and sensors imbedded in concrete, flower beds and buildings will communicate in ways that we have yet to imagine. Today’s 15 Billion IoT connections will expand to over 50 Billion IoT connections by 2020. As a result, our public spaces will become very different places, both good and bad.

Today, security concerns of the use of personal data devices in public areas offering free WiFi is on the rise. Identity theft and data hacking are key reasons for not allowing your personal data devices to access free wireless offerings in public spaces. But on the positive side, broadband wireless is also seen to be revitalizing and repopulating public spaces by providing increased amenities, improving the safety of public spaces and increasing opportunities for social equality and diversity. Communication among park users engaged in social media using tools such as laptops, tablets, cellular–based cameras, combined with security, information and entertainment-based elements, hardwired into the public spaces, may actually help to provide added security in the space. These could also be used to increase opportunities for raising public awareness, improved social cohesion, increased tolerance, and exposure to diverse experiences.

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