What Makes an Intelligent Community Work?

Suwon, South Korea; Eindhoven, Netherlands; Ottawa, Canada; and Dublin, Ohio, show how it's done.

by / July 6, 2010
Suwon, South Korea Justin Paul Barrass (unrestricted use)

Suwon, South Korea. Photo by Justin Paul Barrass

Which parameter would you consider first if you were to judge the success of an intelligent community? The extent to which it is wired and how ICT is shaping its development, perhaps?

Try judging on the basis of "gross domestic happiness" instead and you will come up with some interesting results. Suwon for example is a city just 20 miles south of Seoul and the provincial capital of Gyeonggi-do, South Korea.

Here happiness is the center of existence for its administration. So much so that the city government even has an ICT master plan, branded as U-Happy, while "every effort and every move of the city government is aimed at providing cutting-edge intelligent services to its citizens so that everybody can be happy," says Cheol-Soo Park, the man who heads the team that designed Suwon's intelligent community drive.

The Suwon government, adds Park, works round the clock to ensure the welfare of its residents and improve the quality of life. Consequently, while waiting for the bus every citizen knows exactly when the next bus will arrive at the stop. Every apartment owner has an RFID key that provides daily, detailed home-related information, including vehicle parking charges, energy use, and even groceries that need to be stocked up.

"We call our city Happy Suwon," added Park. Small wonder then, that, right in its first year of entry Suwon bagged the 2010 Intelligent Community of the Year award, given out by The Intelligent Community Forum, a New York think tank that promotes economic and social development of modern communities.

According to ICF's Co-Founder Louis Zacharilla, as the world "emerges from the global economic crisis, it is the investment made in people that produce the truly impressive financial return. And Suwon stands out not so much for its focus on technology -- which is de rigueur anyway for any intelligent community -- but more for its focus on the development of the human software and investment in education within this highly educated community."

While hundreds of communities around the world strive to craft the most effective model to turn intelligent, "Suwon may be a model community that the world can learn from," says Zacharilla.

Instead of starting with wiring the city and then using it to uplift the community, Suwon started with investing in the most crucial tool for development: education.

"What we can learn from Suwon is that investment in education is the most rational outlay that a government can make," said Park. Between 2002 and 2009, the city invested more than $360 million in upgrading school facilities, opening new schools and expanding staff. Another $186 million is being pumped in this year for funding the 2010 Suwon Education Development Support Plan, which includes 74 individual projects.

The second focus area was to bring in industry. The investment in education helped Suwon to build up a talent base and subsequently the Suwon city government started offering a plethora of incentives and building infrastructure to attract small- medium- and large-scale businesses, said Park.

Result: today Suwon's economy is booming on the back of small to midsize enterprises -- specializing in IT, biotech and nanotechnology -- that employ 94 percent of the labor in the city.

Broadband roll-out was no less significant as the city decided to develop its own governmental network despite South Korea's impressive broadband infrastructure. Called Ubiquitous Suwon Master Plan -- or U-Happy -- this plan allowed Suwon to boost connection speeds from 32 Mbps to a blazing 1 Gbps.

"With its help, Suwon is now a city where all urban functionalities are high-tech and intelligent,"

says Park. This infrastructure is also used to create a ubiquitous online environment, which in turn has created a transparent government, in which all processes are visible and the integrity of its operations is assured, he added.

Eindhoven, Netherlands

If Suwon could be lauded for adopting an unconventional approach to turning smart, the city that deserves equal accolades for using the power of ICT to provide happiness to its residents in another form is Eindhoven, Netherlands. Home of Vincent van Gogh -- the post-impressionist artist --, this metropolitan area with a modest population of around 750,000 is also famous for another form of art; it is a breeding ground for innovation and the home base for world-class knowledge and research institutes.

Eindhoven's administration claims it is one of Europe's top 20 innovative regions where more than 90 companies and 8,000 researchers, developers and entrepreneurs are working together on the development of groundbreaking technologies and products.

According to Robert Bell of ICF, Eindhoven is one of the top seven Intelligent Communities of 2010. While a third of Europe's economy is services-based, manufacturing thrives in Eindhoven. It also one of the few regions in Europe that is still recording an impressive economic growth of about 4 percent.

The city says that it accounts for around 40 per cent of R&D investments in the Netherlands; "a fact that more than justifies its claim of being a Brainport."

So, how did Eindhoven succeed when other traditional industrial hubs in most of the developed world failed?

"Brainport's economic success is the result of cooperation," said Jack Mikkers, a member of Brainport Development, the city-promoted agency that is responsible for promoting the region. "Regionally and internationally; between top scientists from a wide range of disciplines; between knowledge industry and manufacturing industry; between producers, designers and marketers. And also between competitors who allow each other a peek behind the scenes."

Mikkers added that broadband and IT have been at the heart of this innovation engine from the beginning, and it is being used in creative ways to not only lead the region as a manufacturing and knowledge-based industry base but also to maintain a high quality of life.

"Brainport offers pleasant living and working conditions. Excellent social and cultural facilities ensure a high quality of life. Economic growth goes hand-in-hand with the preservation of green. In short, Brainport is a high-tech, high-green, high-culture city," said Mikkers.

Ottawa, Canada

Robust broadband for all, multiple public-private partnerships, and a relentless focus on education and start-ups; could there be a place where one can find all three? Yes. Ottawa. The city that calls itself "Canada's Creative Economy Capital."

For Ottawa, the financial crisis of 2009 was headlined by the bankruptcy of Nortel, its largest private-sector employer and major contributor to research and development. Yet while Canada's unemployment rate moved toward double digits, Ottawa's rate remained below five percent, despite the drastic restructuring taking place at Nortel.

Surely Ottawa's position as Canada's capital helped. But equally impressive, says Claude Haw, president and CEO, Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation, its lead economic development corporation, is the city's track record of investing in information and communications technology. That along with the local government's focus on educating its workforce -- 50 percent of its workforce has college or university education. -- creates an environment that nurtures the startup and growth of ICT-based companies, and equips its citizens to prosper in that environment.

"The significant feature of this community is that we have broadband connectivity to 100 percent of ... the city

even though 80 percent of the city is rural," said Haw. "The lesson to be learned from this is that it is possible to wire a large sparsely populated area intelligently, effectively and entirely, using a range of technologies."

Haw said that the community has given equal attention to the "last mile" between the end of education and the start of employment, when the most talented students face a choice of where to start their careers.

Dublin, Ohio

While focusing on education and encouraging industry can help a community sustain its economic well-being, Dublin, Ohio, has shown that a good way to beat the downturn could also be though building super highways. Not of blacktop or concrete, but a virtual highway in the form of a 120-mile fiber-optic network for all of its 24 square-mile area.

Deputy City Manager Dana McDaniel  said that following telecom deregulation in 1996, Dublin began installing a network of underground conduit to encourage deployment of broadband by private carriers. A public-private partnership with the Fishel Company soon followed, and by 2003, Dublin had built and lit its own fiber network, called DubLink, to connect city facilities and replace telephone company service.

That was the turning point in Dublin's fortunes. "DubLink offered Dublin's citizens, businesses and institutions access to opportunities that would never have been available otherwise," said McDaniel.

The network has also made Dublin a regional leader in e-government, with services including an interactive site locator for developers, online access to Council meetings, e-mail alerts for citizens on their choice of topics, and online filing for permits and scheduling of city services.

"Just as the coming of the highway ... allowed the prosperity of Columbus (the Ohio state capital) to flow outward ... the highway of light is doing the same for Dublin, but with a reach extending around the globe," said McDaniel.

Besides being another recipient of ICF's Top 7 Intelligent Community Award for 2010, Dublin was recently named as one of the hottest places to live by Money magazine because of the its numerous (3,000) small businesses that operate alongside Fortune 500 companies -- like Wendy's International, and Ashland Inc. It was also named as the Best Small City in Ohio for Start-ups by BusinessWeek magazine.