What is an Intelligent Community?

You probably know what a Smart City is.  But what is an Intelligent Community?  Do we really need another word for the same old thing?

We don’t – but then, it is not the same old thing.  “Smart” is about applying technology to make cities work better, faster and cheaper.  It is like automating a factory.  Install the sensors, cameras, computers and network connections.  Integrate them all with software, big data and artificial intelligence.  Better data leads to better decisions, and automation lets you do more with less labor.  It’s a win for the city, its residents and taxpayers. 

It's not good enough

But cities, of whatever size, are not just collections of technology and infrastructure.  They are stories, living and breathing.   They have their roots in the first decisions of people to settle in that place, to group together by a riverbank or lake or ocean, or at a sheltered place where roads crossed and both water and fuel could be found.  The visible parts of the city – and today, the invisible elements of the digital web being weaved within it – are the outward signs of an inward spirit.  The life of a city, the spirit of the place, begins with its people. 

That’s why, at ICF, we don’t think that being Smart is nearly good enough.  We think the real journey of the place called home should be from Smart to Intelligent. 

From Smart to Intelligent

Here’s an example.  Traffic studies show that 30% of the cars in congested central business districts are looking for parking.  So, if we can reduce the time they spend in that search, we should also be reducing congestion and air pollution.  A Smart City will specify its requirements, do an RFP, select vendors, install systems and start sending data to apps on phones that direct drivers to available parking.  "Smart," right? 

“Intelligent” means something more.  It means engaging local universities and technical schools, entrepreneurs and established businesses as partners in planning and carrying out this innovation project.  What can be sourced in the municipality or the region?  Where is there expertise that can help?  If the expertise and capabilities are missing, what must the community undertake to put them in place?  It also means engaging the public in helping determine how and where the innovation should happen – or even if downtown congestion is really that big an issue.  It is about solving problems that matter – not just problems that technology can solve. 

Good Jobs Matter Most

For all of its cool technology, the Smart City movement has completely ignored the single most important contributor to a community’s quality of life: employment that pays well and offers new opportunity to each generation.  Employment alone will not make a great place to live, but it is what makes possible everything else. 

In the digital age, employment is under siege.  Any line of work that pays a living wage demands a good basic education, “hard” skills needed in specific industries, the “soft” skills of the work­place and access to digital technology.  To be successful, the com­panies that employ them need continuous innovation, market knowledge, adaptability and access to digital technology.  And none of this stand still.  The bar continuously rises for people and organizations due to the competitive acceleration brought by digital technology.  Those who fail to keep up are lost to stagna­tion, decline and impoverishment.  We see the results all around us in an economy divided into “haves” and “have-nots” with all the social, cultural and political destruction it creates. 

For local and state governments, eco­nomic development is the critical task of supporting local employers and attracting new ones to maintain and increase the supply of good jobs.  Large sums are spent on cultivating relation­ships, developing offers and providing incen­tives – but the tra­ditional practices have failed to keep up with the changes in the economy.  Companies seeking a location need more than cheap dirt, cheap labor and adequate transpor­ta­tion.  As McKinsey partner Susan Lund put it in a paper on globalization, “Our picture of globalization is the offshoring of manufactur­ing jobs.  But increasingly, only a small share of goods is traded globally.  Low wages are no longer the driving force in global trade.  If low wages aren’t important to companies, what is?  R&D, innovation, a skilled workforce and a start-up ecosystem.”   

Only rarely does this combination spring up on its own – it requires conscious cultivation over many years.  The ICF Method provides the framework, specific strategies and real-world examples that communities of all sizes need to pursue this new approach to economic development in the digital age. 

So, by all means be as Smart as your ambition and budget allow.   But why settle for Smart when your community has what it takes to become Intelligent?

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