The Top7 Intelligent Communities of 2015: The year of “The No Name Cities”

The best thermometer of how the world views the 2015 finalists for the world’s most Intelligent Community of the Year designation is best found in the press coverage. This year the lesson is that dark horses have reached for the top. Forbes noted that the Top7 “are not the cities you think of immediately” as tech powerhouses. The UK’s Independent said as much and concluded by saying that we can learn from them. Noting the population differences the Independent referred to Mitchell, SD (pop 15,000) as the “minnow” of the group. The South Dakota community, in the mind of the press, is swimming upstream in its quest for further glory in Toronto in June when we will announce the 2015 Intelligent Community of the Year.

The Top7 Intelligent Communities of 2015 are, in alphabetical order: Arlington County, Virginia, USA; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ipswich, Australia; Mitchell, South Dakota, USA; New Taipei City, Taiwan; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

My own surprise is balanced by what I have learned about places like these seven, and the group of 21 from which they separated. They want to future-proof themselves more than win a trophy. They are seeking how to provide political and social cover for themselves as they invest in the proper digital and human infrastructure and respond to the shocks of a global economy. In the current world economy there are surprises and unintended consequences that not even an economist can fully grasp. Lawrence Summers. President Emeritus of Harvard and an economist notes that we do not yet fully know how tech impacts our economies. He compared it to the automobile industry, noting that the car did not reach the Consumer Price Index for measurement until 1935, a full twenty years after the formation of the Ford Motor Company.

So the seven are in just as much uncertain territory as a Singapore or London. Like it or not. They know, however, that sparks are flying and they want to host the bonfire. Most communities have been working on their programs for years, knowing that the dry kindling which catches fire is not a reliable source of heat, but if you bring proper combustible elements near it, something will happen. To be honest, I dismiss most of what the social engineers tell me and, like St. Paul and Martin Luther, two modern men in their time, subscribe to the power of faith and hope as a first-mover. Why? Because this is still what ignites healthy human passion.

In the landscape of the revolutionary community that I chronicle, planning is serving much the same role. It provides a pathway. It is radical stuff to read that places that have long done manufacturing or resource extraction are now using IT to not only give those industries a jump, but to move in other directions, such as healthcare.

Each of the Top7 has begun to find hope. As they are all growing cities or towns, they have put together impressive plans to channel their expansion. Planning was the new criteria that we established this year because it is so vital to transformation. There is never a specific guarantee that planning will spark and sweep through a community, but when it does, and when a framework like the Awards criteria is in the mix, it spreads light. Good things start to happen. Statistics and doubt are insidious tools for combatting hope. They seem impregnable and infallible. But think again. Used without the poetry of a plan, they are the reflexes of the dead and dying.

American author Leon Wieseltier writes in his new essay, Among the Disrupted, that we are “busy creating ‘metrics’ for phenomena that cannot be measured.” As I look over the diverse and eclectic new group of Top7 Intelligent Communities – seven cities burning bright in five nations – and seek a subtext, you should ask what we measured and captured through our quantitative assessment. Yes, they all have WiFi and broadband. Ho- hum. That’s old news.

Where this group gets interesting to me is upon a deeper dive. The level beyond quantification. Wieseltier complains that “where wisdom once was, quantification will now be.” So first, let us prefer wisdom. Or if you are uncomfortable with that word call it “common sense.” In a place like Surrey, Canada, it was common sense that a sprawling suburb, which grows by 1,000 souls per month and has a reputation for crime and dislocation, would do something about it. They have. They implemented an early childhood intervention program, among many other things, by working through their university. This is the long-term plan while the city continues its rollout other plans to transform its economy and to build on the experiences of some early success.

The seven are each familiar with insecurity and doubt. (Perhaps well earned!) Upon first glance the names of at least three of these cities: Ipswich, Mitchell and Surrey read like a list of Who’s NOT Who. If taken on reputation alone, the elevation of Rio de Janeiro the only South America city in the Top7 might seem to be, as one twitter post indelicately put it, “A choice that could be made only by crazy gringos.” (Forget that the two groups that selected Rio were academics on four continents and a research house located in India). Civic pride, when damaged for a decade or more, is like the patient in psychotherapy. It is only over time and much hard work and commitment to the process that a true change takes root. In Rio it has. For sure. Columbus, Arlington County and New Taipei City are more polished and have been through the flames, but not until they too had gone down a rough road. Hope was justified. They remain the front-runners, in my view.

At the end of a televised Skype interview with a network news anchor, I explained why Surrey, British Columbia, the fastest-growing city in Canada, and the one that journalists seem most curious about, had been selected as a Top7. The anchorman, reflecting the skepticism of his viewers, concluded by asking me, “Does Surrey really have a chance of being named Intelligent Community of the Year?”

I said it had a legitimate shot. If you apply the metrics, it has a one in seven chance. Not bad for a no-name city!

Louis Zacharilla
Co-Founder of the Intelligent Community Forum. Louis Zacharilla helped found the Intelligent Community movement. He is the developer of the Intelligent Community Awards program. He is a frequent keynote speaker and a moderator at conferences and events.

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