The art of city making is not a formula. The annual lists of top cities for business, young people, startups, fun, and food all belie a distortion that is at the heart of the current hype around the so-called Internet of Things.

The cacophony of unbounded enthusiasm, promises, dollars, and technical specifications surrounding the Internet of Things development is like a tower of babel without a common identity or purpose. Fifty years ago, French theologian Jacques Ellul wrote an important treatment called The Technological Society, on the emergence of a homogenized culture driven by technological determinism. “The further the technical mechanism develops which allows us to escape natural necessity,” he wrote, “the more we are subjected to artificial technical necessities…. Who is too blind to see that a profound mutation is being advanced here?”

This is not to suggest that instrumenting the city through a network of sensors and tunable smart devices is not technically interesting, prospectively profitable, or conceptually of curiosity value. The Internet of Things or its big brother, the Internet of Everything, is an impenetrable abstraction. As Ellul wrote 50 years ago, “The aims of technology, which were clear enough… have gradually disappeared from view. Humanity seems to have forgotten the wherefore of all its travails, as though its goals had been translated into an abstraction or had become implicit…” The Internet of Things reflects an implicit value commitment to the notion of accelerating the build-out of a hyper-connected world of billions of communicated-enable devices. The rest, as the sages say is “just commentary. “ However, the value is not in the billions of devices being able to communicate with each other. Rather, it is in our ability to strive to create a connected society in our cities (and rural communities) in which the oceans of data generated from the billions of connected devices begin to address our common priorities. In addition to billions of dollars of market value to be had there is an opportunity, perhaps a unique opportunity, to architect and articulate an explicit set of goals of this emerging stage in the maturity and our conceptualization of the connected society.

British cultural planner Charles Landry has noted that the central challenge facing us, and the shredded fabric that is too much of our urban life, is not to strive to be the most creative city in the world. Rather, if we are to recapture some of the idealism, reframe the opportunity, and reinvigorate our common hope in finding and defining a sustainable urbanity in the 21 century, we would do well to become the best and most imaginative city for the world. In the search for a divining rod to guide us in the pursuit of 21st century urbanity the answer is not a technical fix, even one with as much promise as the Internet of Things. Rather, the move from in to for gives us, as Landry points out, an ethical foundation for making the city a place of solidarity, where our relations with each other in the broadest sense are informed by common social priorities. Setting aside those who will immediately dismiss the notion of the very existence of common social priorities, the price for failing to respond to the growing gaps, sense of alienation, surplus hopelessness, and escalating environmental crises comes with substantial and ever increasing consequence.

The art of framing a connected society begins with an explicit commitment to an ethical position on the just society. The goal of a connected society is more than simply the sum of its parts. It is a vision of a just and equitable society and focuses our attention to the human networks and relationships to one another and to the environment around us. This overly compressed and simple vision of the connected society is nothing new. Cybernetics, as the field was once called, was overwhelmingly concerned with using networks to improve the human condition. At its core the view was that if we were successful in creating converged networks to connect our institutions to each other and to one another as individuals we would increase the probability of establishing bonds that would shed light on our common humanity rather than the impulses that divide us as humans. In the aftermath of the last great world war, those advancing cybernetics as a field of study and outlining the various technical requirements had themselves witnessed the horrendous price for the disintegration of Europe and the failure to build resilient networks (of nation-building, economic integration, social mobility, and leadership). The art of a connected society-building project concerns itself with the relationship between endogenous goals and the external environment.

Engaging the Coalition of the Willing

In practical terms, the art of a connected society begins by turning the conversation on its head. Yes, billions of devices can be connected to each other and to billions of humans. To what end? As we think about the wherefores of our efforts here in Northeast Ohio, here are three conditions that outline common priorities and require collective action to have impact. Put another way, our connected society strategy needs to solve for “ x”. Here are three inter-related common challenges.

  • Ten percent of people in Cleveland have a four-year college degree; six percent have an associate’s degree. Our future is tied to our ability to improve student success as they graduate from high school (college ready) and experience their first years of post-secondary exposure.
  • One in three women in Cleveland have Type II diabetes. More than one in three Cleveland adults is obese. Our future is intimately connected to educating and to establishing and maintaining a public health commitment to wellness and chronic disease prevention.
  • More than fifty percent of the region’s total poverty is now in the suburbs around the City of Cleveland proper (in Youngstown the percentage of total poverty in the suburbs is 75 percent). Ninety-nine decimal nine seven (99.97) of children in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

The revitalization of our local economy must be understood in the context of poverty amidst plenty. Equity, opportunity, and a commitment to common priority setting is how history will judge all of us. Our community’s health and wellness, education and opportunity, and the prospects for economic hope and greater dignity of the human condition are the essential opportunities upon which we can, indeed we must, engage in making our connected society.

A primary objective of a connected society project is to be able to answer the question: Where does instrumenting the city and creating a network of various sensors and other connected devices have the greatest potential to create economic and social/community value? Answering this question would place Cleveland at the forefront of a global inquiry process that could lead to significant benefits for the city and the region. What assets does the region have to both frame and address these challenges? Much can be made of our Midwest culture and can-do attitude; the diversity of our backgrounds strengthens us. The loosely coupled network of post-secondary education institutions form the basis of a critical partnership for contributing to our instantiation of the connected society. The talents, dedication, and commitment of those who are unabashed Clevelanders (or hail from Akron, Canton, Youngstown, Lorain etc…) and who proudly call Northeast Ohio home are the foundation of the coalition of the willing.

The Role of Infrastructure

Every generation that engages in the art of connecting society leverages available transportation and communication infrastructure. This is essence of the cybernetic approach to building resilient networks; internal goal setting and the constraints of externalities, including infrastructure. In our geography we have taken advantage and leveraged our natural resources including the river, the lake, the landmass between major markets, the railway, the roadway, and airport gateway. All of these infrastructures advance both transportation and communication needs of a connected society. All of these infrastructure needs represent the legacy that is available to build upon, however it is no longer sufficient.

In the 21st century, digital infrastructure is a vital resource for enabling a connected society. Digital infrastructure has become a necessary (but insufficient) condition for attending to many of the highest priorities within our cities and communities. The foundational element of a region’s digital infrastructure is its physical plant, just like all other communication and transportation infrastructure. In the digital age this is about fiber optical infrastructure. A 21st century connected society must have a strategy and a capacity to deploy fiber optics. Every device, mobile phone, sensor, switching fabric, smart building, telemetry monitoring, data center, and home or business experience connects back to digital infrastructure. Unlike every other era in human history, destiny is not captive to geography or natural resources.

Northeast Ohio has commercial digital infrastructure like much of the rest of the country. Northeast Ohio also has OneCommunity, an open internet community-based non-profit services provider. Unlike the commercial providers, OneCommunity provides both an Internet service offering and, by the terms of its charter, a commitment to make its fiber optic assets available to any organization or provider, on an non-discriminating basis, who is prepared to acquire long-term rights of use. It is this characteristic, the mission to deploy and support the use of next generation digital infrastructure by anyone in the marketplace, that makes Northeast Ohio so attractive a geography for the art of a connected society initiative.

Whether the goal is direct intervention and engagement on health and wellness, education and training, economic development and workforce development, or neighborhood and public safety, Northeast Ohio has a digital infrastructure economy that advances a connected society approach.

Innovation is an Ethical Commitment

OneCommunity supports HealthNet, a network of hundreds of the region’s leading healthcare providers and educators. Innovation on the deployment of new smart health technologies and solutions to educate and advance public health are being deployed across 24 counties in both institutional and community settings in an unprecedented fashion. The healthcare community of professionals and the patient advocacy and rights organizations are charting a common destiny in the creative and appropriate use of a dedicated, private, and secure network. This network supports sensors, tele-health consultations, wearable technologies, prescription workflows and not-yet-commercialized wireless devices and other monitoring health technologies. Above and beyond the network of devices and sensors, Cleveland is home to advanced search technology startups who specialized in mining massive amounts of clinical data for both direct care and in support of health research. Big data and analytics startups in support of clinical decision making through portals and workflow startups are frequent demonstrators in the accelerators and popular TechPint gatherings in our growing and vibrant ecosystem. As we look to the critical health care challenges that represent a clear and present danger to the health and welfare of the individuals and families in our region, OneCommunity’s HealthNet is platform upon which innovation, education, and new service delivery models are being delivered every day.

If the history of community health repeats itself in the digital age, we believe we are right to hypothesize that network access and use are likely to be key social determinants of health care outcomes and community wellness. In our common belief in the value of a connected community health strategy, all of our community assets, physical, professional, institutional, and digital can, if we choose to, engage in an ongoing design process to develop a connected health strategy that builds on principles of common value, open standards, and an open health data exchange. Innovation in serving the needs of the community’s health becomes an ethical commitment of such a design practice. In that context, we are contributing to shaping the marketplace and the technology innovation to attend to those health and wellness solutions, whether targeting chronic disease management and/or wellness. The emerging coherence for a connected society that attends to the health and wellness of its community is compelling.

Air quality particulates matter in Cleveland because of our history of heavy industry airborne pollution and attendant lead poisoning. Lead poisoning represents a persistent and pressing public health need. Sensors that can be deployed to gather that data in real time contributes to better monitoring and to targeted remediation. It also stands to be a superior technology to periodic field collection of tree bark to study for lead poisoning. In smart and connected home health leveraging network connectivity is an emergent opportunity. In our connected community we are, by demographic default backing in to a growing need to attend to a smarter aging strategy. Telecommunication carriers and individual health care system providers are conducting early pilots of many one-off projects and proofs of concept. Architecting a blueprint for a connected and healthy senior community is a priority that is too important to be left to disparate and fragmented pilots alone. We can and should be inviting inventors and entrepreneurs, skilled nursing facilities and health care leaders into an open innovation program to advance connected health. OneCommunity and the venture community in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio have identified dozens of health sensor and monitoring technologies start ups that are supporting home, skilled nursing, and hospital-based care for seniors. If we are going to attend to the chronic disease challenges like obesity and diabetes we need to leverage our infrastructure assets and our collective intelligence and commitments to shape our common health future.

Student Success in a Connected Society

OneCommunity has its origins and roots in education. The vision of the connected society can perhaps be most clearly seen in the aspiration and commitments in the broad community coalition committed to student success. Before there were e-books, smartphones, and touchscreen smartboards an unprecedented coalition of formal and informal education leaders embraced the vision of a network-enabled education future as a great enabler and equalizer for students and life long learners alike. Commitments to access, mobility, and engagement are hallmarks of the coalition that has focused on transformation and forward thinking across the education portfolio.

While there is much more work to do, schools within the Cleveland Metropolitan School District now include top performing high schools measured across the entire State of Ohio. The Early College High School, for example, has transformed students and their families into believing that they can achieve greatness. Network-enabled collaboration places students in the high school in active, video-based learning environments with peers around the world, surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic, and specialists in disciplines as diverse as French language and debating teams. Online interactions with medical students at Case Western Reserve University affords high school students at the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine and Akron’s Buchtel High School with role models for not only their academics but for guidance on everything from the value of local food to their family health to story telling about family recipes, exercise regimes, and sharing folklore.

Educational partnerships including the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Orchestra, the Cuyahoga County Public Libraries and City of Cleveland Public Libraries, the Great Lakes Science Center, the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame and Museum are engaged in creative initiatives that extend access to their collections, their repositories, and educational outreach programs.The digitization of the complete collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art is not only a technical marvel, it is an unprecedented transformation of the entire museum experience both within the walls of this world-class art museum and in its partnerships with schools, libraries, and the online learner community at large through its mobile and web initiatives. The Great Lakes Science Center has become home to one of the most innovative partnerships that includes NASA Glenn and one of the best performing STEM schools in the nation. The Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in partnership with the Cuyahoga Community College now houses the world’s foremost archival collection on Rock and American Popular Music and makes those assets available in an increasingly innovative manner

The commitment and resilience of the network of education partners is delivering meaningful outcomes to students and life long learners across the region. That commitment to long term engagement has now spawned dozens of small startup ventures engaging with accelerators in the region who are working on network-enabled education innovation leveraging platform technologies like Google Glass, wearable and wireless computing devices. These new kinds of science labs transform students into active participants in collecting and analyzing data. Education innovators (both in schools and libraries) are leading new curriculum development that leverage mobile and field experiences to advance real world learning in new experimental schools leveraging and based upon digital new media, recording arts, performing arts, and entrepreneurship. A network of maker spaces and fab labs now afford access to students of all ages, across the region access to 3-D printers and other network attached machinery and tooling technologies. New startups are working to offer learning management systems that are native to the nomadic learner. Other startups who draw inspiration from the commitment to connected learning are innovating in college admissions processes, self directed adaptive learning solutions, evaluation and assessment technologies, and partnerships to deliver oral health and other primary health directly into the school environments through innovative mobile work flows.

While there are many challenges in the education arena, the creative and extensive use of network attached devices, mobile learning, and creative initiatives like intergenerational schools reflect a commitment to engagement, access, and outcomes that focus on improving student success.

A Leadership Blueprint for an Ethical Framework

In greater Cleveland and Northeast Ohio there is a growing consensus for the need to Go Big with efforts to change the trajectory of the future of the region. There is also a growing consensus that whatever the Go Big strategy might eventually look like digital infrastructure is a critical enabler of that future. Moreover, there is a growing awareness among a number of our leading non-profit regional organizations, like OneCommunity, Nortech, BioEnterprise, and others that designing a connected society is a collective imperative. Both the future of our individual organizations, the missions we serve, and the strategies we employ are converging around the commitment to advance an integrated strategy. Ours is a blueprint in the making focused on preparing the region for the opportunity to be a national and international leader in the experimental and creative use of a growing regional ecosystem of thousands of network connected devices.

We believe that our advantage is not only in leveraging a unique asset in our fiber optic network. There is a common view that the intelligent integration of network connected devices combined with deliberate and careful frameworks for interpretation and analysis of data flowing from and interacting with the deployed network devices will contribute to our ability to attend to the health and education priorities of our community.

Our collective aspiration is the spawning of innovation, a new generation of forward thinking and clean jobs, an inspired and educated community, and finally a model of the power of an ethical framework for a connected society.

Lev Gonick is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of OneCommunity

This story was published by FutureStructure.