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Sunday, September 25, 2011
How Communities Can Beat the Jobless Recovery
It is a sign of things to come.  According to a June 2011 study from the McKinsey Global Institute, the “jobless recovery” may be America’s new reality.  From the end of the last World War through the 1980s, it took an average of 6 months for employment to recover from recession.  But after the 1990-91 downturn, it took 15 months.  After the “dotcom recession” of 2001, it took 39 months.  If recent trends continue, it could take 60 months – five years – for employment to recover from the 2008-10 recession.

Other industrialized nations experience the same pressures.  But because they tend to protect employment more, things play out differently.  In Europe and Japan, high unemployment is concentrated among the young, whose entry into the job market can be delayed for years, and among temporary workers, who make up an increasing percentage of the workforce. 

What’s going on?  Blame is on the changes wrought by information and communications technology (ICT).  Another McKinsey Global Institute study, on the Web’s economic impact, claims that the Internet was responsible for destroying 500,000 jobs in France over the past 15 years while creating 1.2 million new jobs. That’s a good deal for the economy as a whole.  But here’s the thing: the people who worked in those half-million former jobs are not necessarily working today in one of those million-plus new jobs.  They may not have had the skills.  They may not have wanted to relocate.  They may have been seen, and seen themselves, as too old.

ICT has created a global marketplace and is helping us do everything faster, cheaper and better.  But the changes it creates, both positive and negative, are coming so fast that we struggle to keep up.  The McKinsey study of employment estimates that, by 2020, the US will be short 1.5 million university graduates that it needs to fill high-skilled positions.  Nearly 6 million Americans without a secondary school diploma, however, will be jobless. Already today, sixty-four percent of companies interviewed by McKinsey had positions open for which they could not find qualified candidates. 

And it is not just in the industrialized world.  China faces talent shortages, according to executives interviewed by a March 2011 survey.  Over three-quarters expect to increase hiring this year but the same percentage expected it to be hard to recruit top talent, citing a skills shortage in new graduates.  India is in the same boat, despite graduating hundreds of thousands of engineers each year.

So here’s a question: what can you do about it at the level where it counts, the level of the community where you live and work? 

The single most important thing, from our study of Intelligent Communities, is to get your academic community deeply involved with local businesses and institutions.    Whether they are universities, community and technical colleges or secondary schools, they are the local talent factories.  They can only prepare students for the future if they understand that future on a gut level.  And the information they need resides inside the employers of your community.

It is not easy to bring these players to the same table and foster real and deep collaboration.  But the payoff can be extreme.  In Arlington County, Virginia, they have identified the “government-industry-university innovation triangle” as essential to their economy, but also engage secondary school students in structured and intensive internships with local organizations to immerse them in local job opportunities.  In Eindhoven, Netherlands, they call it the “triple helix” and have set themselves to create and maintain the world’s most talented workforce in the specific fields their industries require.  In Suwon, South Korea, government has driven the formation of dozens of research institutes that unite business and universities to accelerate innovation.  In the process, they vacuum up talented students while enriching the curricula of the universities.

If your local educational institutions are not sitting at the economic development table, it is worth a lot of effort to get them there.  We have big, global economic challenges right now, and can only hope that our national leaders are equal to them.  But today, in your community, you and your fellow citizens can do something to begin taking the “jobless” out of recovery.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
On the Road and in the Sky

Skylogic (www.skylogic.com) is one of my favorite corporate names.  It combines the dreamy, poetic quality of the skies above us, with the grace and grounded quality of that most splendidly vital “output” of the human species: logic. 

Skylogic is the broadband subsidiary of Eutelsat, the earth’s third largest satellite operator.  Paris-based Eutelsat, through its subsidiary, has 27 satellites orbiting overhead and earns $1.48 in revenues.  Today it grasps the potential of using satellites to cure the multi-pronged issues poking at a scab we call “the digital divide.”  It believes it has a business model that will address the issue.  However as its Director of Strategy Yohann Leroy notes, “The digital divide is not exclusive to the developing world.  In our view it exists within mature economies as well as those considered underdeveloped.”  This is a point that is often overlooked.  But it is a fact.  There are large underserved communities throughout North America and Europe.  15 million homes in North America, for example.  More in Europe.  Fiber does not do the job and, as result, the communities suffer.

This is being addressed, or will be in time.  By 2014 nearly US$5B in assets will have been invested to provide a new technology into the sky in order to reach the underserved cost-effectively.  Eutelsat was the first in Europe to make this gamble.  It launched a new type of satellite with something called a Ka-band capacity.  The satellite, appropriately, is called KA-SAT.  Not as romantic as Skylogic, but it does not matter.  While other satellites have Ka-band capacity in varying degrees, and a Canadian satellite (Anik) is the pioneer in this field, with some service over North America, KA-SAT is the first of what is expected to be several high-throughput satellites offering broadband service to consumers and businesses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. 

I won’t bore you with the technical explanations of why this satellite and its Ka-band is different.  Leave it to say that for the first time satellites will be able to provide something which ViaSat CEO, Mark Dankberg, whose company is preparing a $400 million satellite for launch in the American market next month, calls “DSL in the sky.”  In short,  with these new satellites broadband is slowly but surely going to be available everywhere.  As ICF has said, the key to building a global movement of intelligent communities is to ensure that the “Middle of Nowhere” is soon to be no more.  Ka-band is another step.

As many of you know, ICF was founded by the three of us under the auspices of a satellite industry trade association.  However, the industry does not get the credit it deserves for transforming the human community and experience. 

Fifty-four years after the launch of Sputnik, which symbolically ushered in the “flat world” of hyper communications that we know today, the satellite industry, dominated by engineers and the financial sector has lost its romance.  Strong cashflow and balance sheets on the part of satellite operators has taken the edge from this incredible industry.  Satellites are Google in orbit, but nobody gets that right now.  But satellites play a role in everything we do.  The industry has reached more of its potential than anyone ever imagined.  Cable TV and the cellular industry, along with the Internet, cannot not function without satellites.  Airplanes, the environmental sciences and the ability to harvest the earth would be mysteries on drawing board were it not for these spindly, orbiting “birds.”  Missions like Polarsat, which observe the polar ice caps in order to measure global warming trends, are unthinkable by fiber.  Today, over half of America’s farmers whose lands are valued at over US$250,000 use the Internet to guide their business and distribute resources.  Many of these applications are on tractors and machines in the fields.  Guess where they get their data?  Right.   I am just scratching the service.

However, the industry has become like the airlines.  It may be so seamlessly efficient that it is forgotten. It is, please forgive me, boring to most.  I am not writing to damn the industry.   Quite the opposite.  I love it.  But it is in need of a facelift.  It has been able to escape the acidic, but honest observation of Warren Buffett, who quipped, “Build your company to be idiot-proof, because someday an idiot will run it.”  There are no idiots putting satellites into space.  Honorable people run things in this industry, but perhaps too much logic has clouded the sky.

Let me clear the skies when it comes to satellites:  the Intelligent Community movement sees Ka-band as important.  Because of its ability to deliver larger chunks of capacity and bandwidth anywhere, and cheaply, it is a key which unlocks a new era for many struggling communities.  In the not too distant future Ka-band satellites and service may enable communities that have never before been able to approach intelligent Community status to do so.  They provide capacity and access.  Access is the key.  As we know from ICF’s first indicator, the availability of broadband makes many things possible.

Possibilities for a community is the logic of the sky.

Saturday, September 10, 2011
The Day New York Became One Community
Here in New York City, we are preparing for the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center.  It is officially a celebration of the opening of the September 11 memorial, but any sense of celebration seems unreachably distant to me.  I will be spending Sunday morning in a different ceremony: a silent vigil at my house of worship.

It has long felt odd to me, year after year, to commemorate being on the receiving end of history’s most grandiose act of international terrorism.  Commemorating victory – I get that.  Commemorating sacrifice – I get that even more.  But commemorating a morning when a terrible perversion of faith sent aircraft blasting through two skyscrapers and felled them, killing nearly 3,000 people just going about their daily business?  Some corner of my heart rebels. 

It calls to mind a conversation I had with a psychiatrist specializing in children.  He talked about a phenomenon familiar to parents, in which young children have a favorite movie they want to see over and over again, until their Mommy and Daddy are ready to set it on fire.  He called it a sign that the movie contains things upsetting to the child on some level, and the child goes back to it again and again in an effort to work out the anxiety the movie creates.  If you have ever picked at a scab or been unable to stop obsessing over a hangnail, you know what I’m talking about.  The right answer for the child is to give that movie a rest.  Find some other diversion.  Come back to it when time has given the mind and emotions time to comprehend. 

According to an article in today’s New York Times, not a few of my fellow citizens feel that way. 

I prefer to remember something else about September 11 than the destruction, the rage, the breathless fear – even something other than the devotion and self-sacrifice of the rescuers, which should long be honored.  I prefer to recall that, for weeks after the 11th of September, the 18 million people in the New York metropolitan area felt themselves to be part of one community. 

We are known as a loud-talking, fast-moving and cheerfully cynical people.  When we drive our cars, we are vigorous in defense and enthusiastic in seizing the advantage.  But for those few weeks, we spoke and moved and drove as though we were surrounded by neighbors and friends.  The taste of mortality was in our mouths, and we exhibited a strange and poignant courtesy to each other. 

It did not last, of course.  We regained our emotional footing and returned to our customary ways.  But ever since that day, I have been mindful of the deep and interconnected humanity that lies just beneath our brusque exteriors.  The spirit of community is an enormous asset, whether your citizens number in the millions or in the hundreds.  With it, almost anything is possible.  Without it, we are only strangers in a strange land, powerless to make our community a better place.
Monday, September 5, 2011
What Do Rural People Need Broadband For Anyway?
About 60% of rural US Internet households use broadband, according the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), a full 10 percentage points lower than urban and suburban Internet households.  Clearly, too few members of the creative class live there.  Too few dress in black or wear ragged shorts and sandals to the office.  They still use email, for God's sake, instead of direct-messaging their inner circle on Twitter.  And if you can find a Starbucks out there in Nowheresville, you never hear anybody ordering a part-skim, part-soy double-shot macchiato.  What possible use can they have for broadband? 

It's a good question – and farmers have the answer.  It turns out, according to the USDA, that 70% of farms with sales of at least a quarter million dollars use the Internet for farm business.  Slightly over 40% of smaller farms are also online.  "The Internet is such an integral part of doing business in agriculture," Dan Errotabere told the Associated Press, "If the power goes off, everything on the farm seems to stop." 

Errotabere farms 3,500 acres (14 sq km) in the state of California.  He and his staff use the Web to communicate with and deliver documents to government officials, manufacturers, packers and retailers.  His staff catches up with pest control advisors via email, and Errotabere checks prices and trades agricultural commodity futures for his crops online.

Another California farmer, Alec Smith, says that one of the most important advances available online is in pest control.  When plants show signs of disease, Smith's staff snaps photos and emails them to plant disease specialists at universities, who email back advice on combating the disease. 

Mike Smith, who runs a small, 40-acre (162 sq m) farm in the same area, sells his crops directly to customers online.  He posts photos of his farm on Facebook, updates the farm Web site weekly with available crops and runs a blog.  Customers email their orders.  "The Internet means survival to a lot of small farmers," he told the AP.  "If you don't have a Web site, nobody's going to know about you."

I read an opinion piece this weekend by a writer for The Economist, who suggests that the key to getting the US economy growing again is to encourage higher population density in our cities.  Cities produce a great deal of economic activity very efficiently, precisely because they are so densely populated.  So if we were all packed a bit tighter, the logic goes, it would spin up the turbines of the economy.  And maybe it would.  But in my experience, people who don't already live in tightly-packed urban areas generally don't want to live there.  What they want is economic opportunity that makes it possible for them to stay where they are now.  And in rural areas as much as in urban ones, they increasingly see broadband as a channel that can deliver that opportunity. 

Broadband is delivering one more value to farmers in rural areas.  In France, according to the Agriculture Ministry, one of the threats to farming culture – a vital part of French identity – is loneliness.  It is particularly acute among male farmers between 18 and 35, especially cattle farmers, who generally work longer hours.  About 30 percent of male French farmers, and 36 percent of cattle farmers, did not have a partner in 2009. 

Helping to ease that loneliness is atraverschamps.com or "acrossthefields.com," as well as other online dating sites reserved for farmers.  Bertrand Blond, founder of a site called vachement.fr, told The New York Times that "“There is now an entire economy based on the farmer’s single status." 

It is that kind of ingenuity in the use of broadband that will help rural citizens to protect and preserve the life they love. 

Sources: "Report Shows More US Farmers relying on Internet" by Gosia Wozniacka, Associated Press, August 26, 2011.  "One Path to Better Jobs: More Density in Cities" by Ryan Avert, The New York Times, September 3, 2011.  "With Online Help, French Farmers Now Playing the Field" by MAÏA de la BAUME, The New York Times, August 30, 2011.

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