Words Matter in Building Intelligent Communities

Many communities are by now familiar with the annual selection and awards process of ICF. Selecting the Smart21, then the Top7 and ultimately the most Intelligent Community of the Year occurs in several phases and in many ways. There are rigorous quantitative evaluations conducted by an outside consultancy, field trips, a review by an independent panel of leading experts/academic researchers and a vote by a larger group of experts.

Although communities like to focus on the #1 spot, the biggest distinctions are not between the #1 and the others in the Top7, but between the Smart21 and the Top7. An especially important part of the selection of the Top7 from the Smart21 is an independent panel’s assessment of the projects and initiatives that justify a community’s claim to being Intelligent.

It may not always be clear to communities what separates these seven most Intelligent Communities from the rest. After all, these descriptions are just words. We understand that words matter in political campaigns. But words matter outside of politics in initiatives, big and small, that are part of governing.

Could the words that leaders use be part of what separates successful Intelligent initiatives from those of others who are less successful in building Intelligent Communities?

In an attempt to answer that question, I obtained and analyzed the applications submitted over the last ten years. Then, using the methods of analytics and machine learning that I teach at Columbia University, I sought to determine if there was a difference in how the leaders of the Top7 described what they were doing in comparison with those who did not make the cut.

Although at a superficial level, the descriptions seem somewhat similar, it turns out that the leaders of more successful Intelligent Community initiatives did, indeed, describe those initiatives differently from the leaders of less successful initiatives.

The first significant difference was that the descriptions of the Top7 had more to say about their initiatives, since apparently they had more accomplishments to discuss. Their descriptions had less talk about future plans and more about past successes. In describing the results of their initiatives so far, they used numbers more often, providing greater evidence of those results. Even though they were discussing technology-based or otherwise sometimes complex projects, they used more informal, less dense and less bureaucratic language.

Among the topics they emphasized, engagement and leadership as well as the technology infrastructure primarily stood out. Less important, but also a differentiation, the more successful leaders emphasized the smart city, innovation and economic growth benefits.

For those leaders who wish to know what will gain them recognition for real successes in transforming their jurisdictions into Intelligent Communities, the results would indicate these simple rules:

  • Have and highlight a solid technology infrastructure.
  • True success, however, comes from extensive civic engagement and frequently mentioning that engagement and the role of civic leadership in moving the community forward.
  • Less bureaucratic formality and more stress on results (quantitative measures of outcomes) in their public statements is also associated with greater success in these initiatives.

On the other hand, a laundry list of projects that are not tied to civic engagement and necessary technology, particularly if those projects have no real track record, is not the path to outstanding success – even if they check off the six wide-ranging factors that the ICF expects of Intelligent Communities.

This analysis is clearly only an initial exploration of the relationship between the words that leaders use and the success of their communities. Given the relative paucity of similar research, it is nevertheless a useful start.

As a word of caution, it is worth noting that the applications may or may not represent how the leaders communicate their Intelligent Community initiatives to their constituents. There may be greater differences in constituent communications than show up in the applications. However, anecdotal observations from the field visits that are part of the final selection process would seem to indicate consistency in the

While words do matter, it is also true that other factors can impact the success or failure of major public initiatives. However, these too can be added into the models of success or failure, along with the results of the textual analytics.

Overall, the results of this analysis can help public officials understand a little better how they need to think about what they are doing and then properly describe it to their citizens and others outside of their community. This will help them to more successful most importantly for their communities and, if they wish, as well in the ICF awards process.

Norman Jacknis
Columbia University, Faculty; Intelligent Community Forum, Senior Fellow; Former Director, Cisco IBSG Public Sector & CIO Westchester County, NY

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