Cities and the Enlightened Tribe

Cities are the primary incubator of the cultural, social and political innovations which shape our planet.

by / November 27, 2013
Columbus, Ohio has shaken off the rust and entered the knowledge economy.

The sun has long ago set on ancient Greece, Rome, and the British Empire -- on which the sun never sets. But American history is relatively short. We've so far avoided lying down for a long nap on the soft couch of a glorious past. Or have we? Our parking lots are full of Japanese cars, our space program has thumbed a ride with the Russians, and among a long line of creditors, we owe $2.3 trillion to Japan and China. And while fast food serving has become a career, we don't have enough graduates in science, technology, engineering and math to fill vacant high-paying jobs. So while we have lots to be proud of, we also have some holes in our shoes.

According to some experts, our future -- good or bad -- will arise from cities. And while many cities have had a rough time in the recent past -- some even went bankrupt -- most are required to balance their budgets every year, unlike the federal government. And cities have to get things done: haul the garbage, keep the water running, the streets paved and the lights on. In addition, people live in cities and have a personal interest in what goes on there. Nation states, by comparison, are abstract concoctions build on power relationships and consolidations, according to Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) co-founder Louis Zacharilla. "They are abstractions. Communities are real."

As one looks at public approval ratings of government, the more real, the more local, the better the rating. The federal government recently dipped to 28 percent approval, while cities have stayed relatively stable at 63 percent. And according to most projections, most of us will live in cities fairly soon. Cities are where the jobs are, and where the action is.

"Human beings now recognize that national governments are not going to solve a lot of their local problems," said Zacharilla, who sees cities beginning to dictate the national discussion. "They are the primary incubator of the cultural, social and political innovations which shape our planet. And most importantly, they are unburdened with the issues of borders and sovereignty which hobble the capacity of nation-states to work with one another."

And with the Internet, cities can participate in the global economy just as well as state and federal government. Zacharilla sees this trend as a sort of return to tribalism but with a twist. "Whether my tribe is Buckeye fans or a bunch of Kiwis in New Zealand, we've got enough natural resources in our culture, in our local industries and in our schools to have a home-grown solution because we now have the opportunity by ourselves to go out and participate in a global economy." With pieces in place such as broadband and an educated workforce, he said, "we can be an enlightened tribe."

So if cities are the future, what kind of cities are we looking for? Zacharilla and his colleagues at ICF think they know, and for many years now, have put their efforts into singling out and acknowledging cities and communities that embody the best features of an enlightened future.

For example, four U.S. communities were just named as Smart21 communities, semi-finalists in ICF's 2014 Intelligent Community of the Year, to be named next June. Arlington County, Va.; Columbus, Ohio; Mitchell, S.D.; and Walla Walla, Wash.; are among the Smart21 Communities for 2014, selected for "their ability to use innovative ideas, broadband resources and hard work to improve local economic and social conditions." Also in contention are seven Canadian communities, as well as communities from Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. The communities range in population from 15,000 people in Mitchell, S.D., to more than six million in Rio de Janeiro.

Walla Walla is a community of about 30,000 that envisions a future around its agricultural heritage and more than 150 wineries. The plan, said Zacharilla, is to build on its "plow to plate" program linking farming and agricultural products to culinary arts, then develop a creative community of digital industries. Assisting in that is Walla Walla Community College, the number one community college in the country, according to the Aspen Institute.

Columbus, Ohio, is no longer a member of the rust belt, says Zacharilla, and has moved into a knowledge economy. The region has a business incubator called Tech Columbus, it has Ohio State University, the largest private research institute, the number one metro library and the number one science center in the country. So is this knowledge economy thing working? According to Zacharilla, 29,000 new jobs say yes.

"We have a choice right now," said Zacharilla." It's a choice between enlightened tribalism in which a Dublin, Ohio, thinks of Eindhoven, Holland as a fellow tribe, because they think alike about the future. Or it can be like a Tehran that thinks the 12th Century is what we should move into next. If we don't get that right, we'll have a lot of problems."

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.