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Sunday, July 26, 2009
We Like What We're Used To - Even When We Don't

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Here’s an experiment you can do at home.  Fold your hands with your fingers interlaced, thumbs on top, one of those thumbs folded over the other.  Now, switch positions so that your top thumb moves to the bottom.  How does it feel?  Weird, right?  If you allow your attention to lapse for a moment, you will reflexively rearrange things so that the proper thumb is back on top. 

This minor experiment shows why change is so hard.  We like what we’re used to, even if it’s as minor as which thumb sees daylight.  It brings a form of comfort that we abandon only with an effort – and even when we don’t particularly like the situation that we are used to. 

We see this all the time.  Companies start failing and then go on failing for years, sometimes decades, despite announcing fresh starts over and over again.  Our current poster child in the US is General Motors, once the world’s largest company and now a bankrupt hulk struggling to do the most basic thing a company does: make a profit producing a product people want to buy.  Our president is struggling to make the American people understand just how badly our health system works today and why the time for change is now.  The overwhelming response so far?  Americans like what they’re used to, even when they don’t really like it at all.

And communities?  There are thousands of communities around the world struggling to adapt to the tidal wave of economic change we call the broadband economy.  The fundamental skill of Intelligent Communities is knowing how to do it: how to motivate change-averse people to move from the comfort of what we know to the discomfort and risk of something new.  (See my blog post for July 11.)

There is a tried and true method.  Step One: be in terrible trouble.  When communities face crises that most citizens can see and feel, they can move with surprising speed.  In the 1990s, the closing of the only manufacturing plant in LaGrange, Georgia, USA left that city with agriculture as its only employer.  That’s not a winning proposition in an industrial economy.  Visionary leaders from Mayor Jeff Lukken to City Manager Tom Hall and Economic Development Officer Joe Maltese led the effort to create a city-owned telecom carrier.  Deployment of broadband attracted call centers, Internet hosting centers and TV production facilities – and the city became the IT manager for surrounding city and county governments, earning over US$1 million a year in the process.

In Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, the near-simultaneous closing of rail yards and a national retail catalog center drove home the same message.  Moncton’s response was to focus on becoming a call center hub, then leveraging that success to create a homegrown ICT industry.   In Sunderland, UK, the last shipyard closed in 1988 and the last coal mine followed in 1994, leaving the city with a 22% unemployment rate.  But midway between those years, the city established its Sunderland Partnership, which brought together city government, educators, nonprofits and businesses to envision a better future and then bring it into being.  By 2005, gross weekly pay in Sunderland was three times the national average and the city was securing 72% of the new jobs created in the region. 

Some 250 years ago, England’s Dr. Samuel Johnson observed that “nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of being hung in the morning.”  It is entirely possible to waste a good crisis, but Intelligent Communities seldom do.  Instead, they use bad times to focus their citizens on creating a better future – even if it means giving up what they are used to today. 

Saturday, July 18, 2009
The Pressure is On

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I spend a lot of time talking or writing about the "broadband economy."  And when I'm doing it, I suspect that most people don't know what the heck I'm talking or writing about.

And why should they? It sounds like such an abstract idea, like globalization or paradigm shift or collateralized debt obligation.  It sounds like it has nothing to do with Main Street: with the daily doings of the people in your community in all their different walks of life. 

And then, every once in a while, comes a real life story that perfectly illustrates why the broadband economy is the biggest thing to hit Main Street since the automobile.  

Jon Horne is a journalist who covers the movie business for the Los Angeles Times.  In a recent story on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, he spoke about how connectivity is putting new pressure on the studios.  The new Shasha Baron Cohen movie, Bruno, went into its opening weekend with a lot of what Horne calls "marketability."  People knew who Cohen was, they remembered his hit movie Borat and were eager to give his new film a try.  But then, said Horne, "People came out of that movie and started texting and twittering their friends and telling them it wasn't any good.  So from the Friday opening to Saturday, Bruno ticket sales fell off 40%, which is just unheard of." 

How does that affect movie-makers?  "It puts pressure on them to make good movies," Horne said.  "Even as little as two years ago, if the studios had a turkey, they would know that they had two weeks of business before the stink really caught up to the movie.  Now they have twelve hours.  People will come out a theater so quickly and share their opinions so fast and that word will spread so virally everywhere, that if a movie is bad, the audience will know it by Friday night and the movie will be dead by Saturday."

That's the broadband economy at work.  It is the ability of millions of customers to rate their experience of a purchase instantly and move markets overnight.  It is the opportunity for a small-town manufacturer to sell goods to customers on the far side of the planet – and for multinationals to move manufacturing anywhere they find the best mix of talent, cost and access to markets.  It is the story of the swine flu circling the world a dozen times before we even had meaningful facts about how dangerous it was or was not.  It is the power to export local culture, knowledge and experience for profit – and to have children in your schools encounter first-hand the culture, knowledge and experience of distant lands.  Whether we like it or not, the broadband economy puts pressure on us all to "make good movies."  In the broadband economy, success goes not to those who know how to play for time but to those who know that twelve hours is all the time they have.  

Monday, July 13, 2009
What I (am doing) on my Summer Vacation – Part One

Our first school assignment upon returning back to class from Summer holidays was to write an essay titled, “How I Spent my Summer Vacation.”  It was a challenging exercise, since I did the same thing each Summer:  swim, play baseball and attend large family gatherings, either in my hometown or in the wine country surrounding Keuka Lake, where we spent time with relatives and friends.  

Despite this I managed to find ways to be creative with my essays, and entertained my teachers with stories about occurrences that were atypical (and mainly true!)

I thought I would revisit that tradition this year, and write during my Summer holiday, which has been spent mainly in eastern Long Island.  

And yes, all these decades later I am still swimming, watching baseball games (with an occasional game of “catch” or a session inside a mechanical batting cage), in between hosting family gatherings.  Some things, I am pleased to say, never change.

However, there are other things taking place during my Summer vacation that reflect change.  Especially changes in the economy, workplace and emotional connections we have to time and place.  Even while away from the office and in a small community far from crowds these things serve to remind me that no matter where I am, broadband, work and community are paramount considerations as we attempt to enhance our social and economic experiences at the community level.  The “Broadband Economy” is but the underlying structure in a tumultuous transformation of the community experience at most every level.

During this holiday I have been working as a creative consultant to a friend, film and theatre actor Stephen Axelrod.  Steve is working on his new, second play.  Steve also has community on his mind.  He is known by folks outside New York for his role in an acclaimed Jim McKay/HBO movie “Everyday People,” a tight story about a mixed race community in Brooklyn resisting gentrification.  He is the author of his own play about a once-proud community in Queens (New York), titled “Blue Collar Bay.”  The play revolves around many of the themes ICF is addressing with its new theme for 2010.  I feel a bond and an opportunity to look at community issues though another filter as I relax and reflect.

In Blue Collar Bay, Mr. Axelrod’s character struggles to leave behind a community where a manufacturing, unionized and securely-employed culture had taken root beneath his father and grandfather.  This slice of life reflects, symbolically, many of the communities ICF examines.  In the play, the character describes how he leaves his job as a newspaper delivery truck driver for work in the “white collar” culture.  In this case that culture is Manhattan and Wall Street.  (Steve once had a seat on the NY Stock Exchange before launching his acting career.)  

His approach to community is to write evocative snapshots of a time when the “blue-collar” worker was able to provide a middle-class wage and a viable economy arose as a result.  From an artistic perspective, the play looks inside characters who define themselves through their work.  It gives us a sense of the emotional components of this profound aspect of their lives, and what it means in their relationships throughout their family and community.  It also suggests the degree to which education became both a path forward and a tool that severed chords that had been carefully nurtured, for better and for worse, within his family and within the community.  Social mobility, it seems, has its costs.  

As with all art, this serves as a lesson (perhaps a warning) of the risks and dangers of social or economic mobility simply for its own sake.  For me it raises a question: how can we transplant, to the degree possible, the entire experience of community, roots and work without severing the most precious chords which also inform and “educate” via experience.  Can we?

As I work and talk with the author, I am sensitive to other activities taking place around me that reinforce how important it is to answer the question.  ICF plans to take it on in 2010 and beyond.  It is clear, from merely a few experiences within my small universe here in a seaside village on the North Atlantic shore that these issues are very much with us and embedded throughout the world.
For example, while watching C-SPAN over a rare second cup of coffee I watched President Sarkozy of France address the Parliament.  The president referred to community and investment, and how both are being reconsidered nationally, in the light of the 21st Century and the economic crisis.  He insisted that France will remain a nation with factories and “manual workers.”  I do not know how accurate the English translation was, but it appeared that Mr. Sarkozy has concluded that, “The idea of a France without factories or manual workers is an insane notion.” He went on to discuss how the nation needed to rethink its tax system, give more “value” to labor for the sake of more profitable returns and competitiveness and, presumably, better jobs.  He noted the importance of providing workers with a greater stake in their performance.

My first impression was that it is unusual to hear a leader discussing factories and manual work, especially in a Western European nation (France) that is home to Top Seven community Issy-les-Moulineaux, where the transition from a manual workforce to high-technology employment and advanced manufacturing has produced jobs and the successful and significant outcome of which President Sarkozy speaks.  It seems this is what he meant.  However, the lack of perfect clarity on the subject is both understandable and reflects the conflict in which we seem to be caught.

This evaluation of how to preserve and yet change the landscape of “muscle work” seems to point back to “Blue Collar Bay” and its search for a balance among the competing forces of stable communities, shifting economic ground and the ubiquitous advance of broadband and other forms of access.

During the same week, another example of this conflict appeared when I pulled the 28 June issue of the NY Times Magazine from my beach bag to read.  Jonathan Mahler’s story about the struggle of General Motors in America, and how its current demise has produced the seeds for a potential fall of the black middle class in Detroit, is written as a “multigenerational family saga.”  The collapse of employment leads to an erosion of a person’s sense of self and place.  

Another series of readings revealed to me that this subject has been intellectually around since the 19th Century and is of concern to those concerned with the moral construction of people and their places.  In Laborem Exercens, the late Pope John Paul II, began with a reflection of this idea, as he wrote, “Through work man must earn his daily bread and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family. And work means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work, in the midst of all the many activities of which man is capable and to which he is predisposed by his very nature, by virtue of humanity itself.”

As ICF heads towards it examination of the “Education Last Mile” through our Intelligent Community of the Year Awards nomination forms and related study, I will be seeking a link between the competing elements of the need for a stable sense of community and the necessary movement required to both shake free the legacy of economic instability and redefine both learning and work as interconnecting pieces which, like a fine automobile, protect, transport and enable.

Until then, I will continue for a few more days to read the material I have put aside until now, and of course to wonder whether the New York Yankees can overtake the Boston Red Sox and win the American League pennant in October!

Saturday, July 11, 2009
The Habit of Change

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Shortly after dawn, on a lonesome rural highway, a guy stops at a roadside restaurant for some breakfast.  Seated at the counter he finds an old-timer, stooped, grizzled, wearing a flannel shirt and battered cap.  They fall into conversation about times good and bad, past and present.  After finishing his meal and paying the check, the guy says to the old-timer, “You must have seen a lot of changes in your life.  A whole lot of changes.” 

“Yep,” says the old-timer.  “Been against every damn one of ‘em, too.” 

Not so Intelligent Communities.  You could say that they are in the business of change.  Intelligent Communities deploy broadband and deepen education and training.  They fight digital exclusion and encourage entrepreneurship.  But the foundation for this work is a talent for creating and managing change month after month, year after year.  Edwards Deming, the guru of “total quality management,” called it continuous improvement.  Intelligent Communities never stand still, any more than you would stop your car in the middle of a highway, rural or otherwise.  Sooner or later, you are going to get run over. 

Yet deep down inside, we all hate change, no matter how many gurus have told us to continuously improve.  We seem to be hard-wired that way.  From the revolving seasons to the total recycling of our skin cells every few weeks, we are immersed in change every moment, but we never fail to be surprised by it.   When you were a child and went to visit that aunt or uncle you only saw once a year, what did they always say?  “I can’t believe how much you’ve grown!”  Really?  You were expecting maybe that I would shrink?  Okay.

The fundamental skill – and fundamental mystery – of the Intelligent Community is change.  How do they motivate change-averse human beings to move from the comfort of what we know to the discomfort and risk of something new?  I want to write more about this, using examples from the Intelligent Community archives.  But for now, here’s something I learned from being a volunteer. 

From athletic and social clubs to hobbyists circles, volunteer groups are amazing places.  On an organizational level, they are all carrot and no stick.  Nobody can fire you for not doing a good job.  You are a member by your own volition and you can withdraw that volition at any time.  They appear to be governed by rules but the real governing authority is the culture of the group.  That’s why they tend to be pretty change-averse.  Leaders can call for change but they have no means to enforce their will.  As the old joke goes about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb: “Only one.  But the light bulb has to really want to change.”

I belong to a volunteer group and, two years ago, I set out to change how a failing committee worked.  I reorganized the workload into four categories and asked someone to take charge of each one.  I made it a requirement that they recruit others into the committee to help with their particular job.  And then, month after month, we met.  Each meeting seemed to be the same as the meeting before.  We talked about what the people in charge of each category had done – or not done – since the last meeting.  We talked about what should be done next.  We seemed to go over and over the same questions and answers.  What were the goals?  What should we be doing?  How should we measure success?   At times, I was convinced we were getting nowhere.  But we liked each other, we had fun at the meetings, and it somehow felt worthwhile to keep going. 

I had no idea at the time, but something important was happening.  Together, we were practicing a new way of thinking about the work.  We were building new habits.  And in the process, each of the people I had asked to be responsible gradually took ownership of their job.  They began having the ideas.  They set their own goals, introduced new projects and figured out what worked.  It took about a year to really see the results, but by then, people were talking about how effective our committee was compared to others and how much fun we seemed to be having. 

The lesson for me was that, before you can change the world, you have to change yourself.  If a group you lead is going to be a change agent in your community, you need to start by building the habits of change within the group.  You need to allow time for that to happen.  You need to go over and over the same fundamental questions to create a shared understanding, and to let the people in that group become the owners of its mission.  Only then will effective change begin to happen.  Some of the old-timers still may not like it.  But their grandchildren?  They'll learn to love it. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Creativity and Innovation - keys to Successful Intelligent Communities
In previous blogs about creating successful intelligent communities, I covered two key points that should be considered to future-proof our communities. Developing high-quality infrastructure and ensuring that exceptional education is available that creates, attracts and sustains skilled knowledge workers in our community - these are essential ingredients. The third key point is about attracting and nurturing creativity and innovation in our intelligent community. Creativity is the nature of thinking things up whereas the implementation of new ideas, is generally considered to be innovation and can come in the form of product or process improvement. Innovation requires the prerequisites of knowledge, access to talent and access to market.

According to Michael Porter of the Harvard-based Institute for Competitiveness, geographic clustering of firms in the same and related industries, increases productivity and innovation and tend to collectively benefit from selling into markets beyond the local region. Furthermore, the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto points out that clustered industries are more likely to draw on creativity-oriented talent, because these industries compete on productivity and value-added innovation and are more likely to be challenged to upgrade and improve continuously by global competitors.

Richard Florida has researched the benefits of tolerance, talent and technology in economic development and its relationship with the innovation agenda. Tolerance in the form of openness to immigrants and visible minorities of all kinds is to be open to new ideas. It is also related to higher regional incomes and can pay dividends in all aspects of economic and community development. Prosperity and innovation are also closely associated with concentrations of highly educated talent. Innovation is often associated with technology, which leads to wealth creation, attracts talent to the region and leads to economic growth.

The convergence of new technologies combined with access to talent and ideas is the model that best demonstrates strong intelligent communities. This combination suggests opportunities for iterative evolution of companies and organizations: some formed by accident; others by happenstance and yet others through strategic cooperation and a well-thought-through plan. Some have simply reinvented themselves when nothing else worked or the end of an era was in sight. As new technology and new ideas emerge, local talent and sometimes the imported talent of others such as international students, professors and immigrants, take advantage of these opportunities as they become evident. Results of this convergence of technologies, new ideas and talent include the garage technologies in Silicon Valley such as Hewlett-Packard and the reinventions of Waterloo such as Christie Digital or new ideas altogether like the Blackberry. Both regions are also leaders in patents, another telling tale of the convergence of technology, ideas and talent.
ICF’s latest book on “Broadband Economies,” profiles Robert Solow, the Nobel Laureate in economics, who demonstrated that 80% of GDP comes through introduction of new technology. It also points out that employers that innovate see profit margins grow 8.5 times faster than non-innovators. These can only be achieved through the right ingredients of human and capital resources, technologies and the environment of encouragement and collaboration that develops a positive attitude which promotes excellence, but also accepts and celebrates failures as steps to higher levels of innovations. While we look to the private sector to innovate to develop new products and processes, governments and institutions should create the environment to stimulate and enable entrepreneurs to develop new content, applications and products for export, thereby creating a culture of entrepreneurship.

From an infrastructure perspective, ICF’s new book states that broadband services makes it cost effective and faster to acquire the knowledge on which all forms of innovation are based, giving innovators access to talent from around the world and provides market access even to small and mid-sized companies. It is also the ability to attract, create, retain knowledge workers in a cluster that is an important aspect of increasing opportunities for innovation. To create future proofed communities, it is also vital to have government support and policies to help create the environment and encouragement to foster entrepreneurship. Add capital, R&D support and targeted international markets and we have lift off.
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