Told Ya So!

It was just Yesterday, or 25 years ago, as some people call it, that John, Robert and I produced an event in Toronto called “Smart95.” Most of you attending or downloading the video from this year’s ICF Summit were not there. But there were two features of that event that have withstood the test of time because their arrival was inevitable.


ICF produced the world’s first “smart” conference in the world in 1995 in Toronto.

Above image of Toronto is used under Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

The event in Toronto (a city that went on to become the Intelligent Community of the Year in 2014) was the first event in history to use the word “Smart.” You can look it up. John Jung named it and a search revealed it was not in use anywhere. It gives us bragging rights for life, I guess. Most important, it triggered a movement and a way of thinking that has spread out far and wide, from East to West.

That way of thinking can be summarized by the phrase, “The Middle of Nowhere Is No More.” More important than the use of the word “smart” in 1995 were the clunky, but very cool demonstrations of broadband’s ability to move content on the Internet from anywhere to anywhere. That made everywhere potentially somewhere important. A new philosophy was born.

But we had to show them, not just tell them. So, we had a band performing which was located in another part of Canada and coming in, as we glibly say now, streamed. John had arranged it to come in over the Internet. But the point was not to hear the music. The band, Lighthouse, was lightweight. We could have played Miles Davis over the sound system in the hotel, and it would have been a ton better. LOL. But the point was to show how connectivity was emerging as a critical economic force and to establish the idea of convergence. We gave people a peek at the “new railroad” that in years to come would save many who were about to be run over by the decline of the old one. While this was the first conference named “Smart,” it was also the first event that brought together the telecommunications industry (including the satellite industry) and the economic development, academic and real estate communities. There were a few local government types there, too. Their ranks would grow, of course. Unlike the City of Dublin in 2020, which you have seen displayed over the past eight days, no one really knew back then what the hell they were all doing in the same room. But when everyone left Toronto and Smart95, those who weren’t scratching their heads had new and powerful ideas which grew and grew and grew.

In those days, new ideas were needed. An Occupational Outlook report for the USA, which would be published a few years after, noted that the two fastest growing occupations were college teachers and registered nurses. They paid a relatively high US$41,000 per year at the time. The bad news was that millions of jobs in seven of the eight next fastest growing occupations, service representatives, food preparation workers, cashiers, etc. paid the worst. The economy was shifting, and communities were looking for a new path.

There was no Top7 or Intelligent Community of the Year back in 1995. There was not even an ICF Method or “factors.” These evolved from a 2001 funded study of six communities, including Sunderland, England. It allowed us to start to track and quantify trends that seemed to make disparate communities successful. One of the early surprises was Sunderland, England, soon to be a multi-time Top7 community. (The Top7 started in 2002.) Sunderland drank our Kool-Aid early and in a few years, it had gone from 28% unemployment to 4%. It continues to be one of the best places in Europe to do business. Ask the Queen of England. She gave them her award for Enterprise, the UK's most prestigious award for business performance.

Over time, the convergence of those disciplines became obvious. Broadband was the first key to the castle. It began to be accepted as something that was needed. Our analogy of it being “the new railroad” gained traction. Some got it; many did not.

The word “Smart” meanwhile took on all kinds of definitions. The corporate giants sniffed around our hydrant and poached what they could to sell boxes and gear. But we knew that what was really at the end of the line was more than smart lighting. It was complete community transformation. It was to become new, but not phony. It was to enable places to become more of themselves, and to give that identification economic expression. The goal was to become “Intelligent.” Those places that were nimble enough to think ahead and use broadband to actually do something with a strategy driving them, thrived. And they still do. Taiwan, Canada, The Netherlands and parts of Europe and the USA have seen growth that will hopefully last generations. The Top7 City of Hudson, Ohio has a median income of US$129,000 per year.

When COVID came in the spring, the proposition we had fought to bring into the world from that first event in Toronto became obvious. So obvious that it has been the salvation of many. That band in Canada may have been lame, but todays’ Zoom meetings and the ability to create an online business and work from HOME is a mighty choir of economic salvation. And the communities that were prepared, like the seven you met and studied this week, shed their anonymity and were revealed for what they are: leaders who would not be chastised when they said, “We told ya so!”

Today we are going to honor a new community as our Intelligent Community of the Year. By the time you read this, you may know who that is. That place will not say, “We told you so,” however. They will say, “How can we help you?”

That is the ICF way.

(NOTE: You can hear about our founding and early days here:

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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