On January 23, for the 12th consecutive time, ICF named its Top7 Intelligent Communities of the Year. There were two European cities, two Asian communities and three North Americans. That’s a pretty average spread – but there was little else average about the group.
For one thing, they skewed large. Over the past five years, the Top7 averaged 440,000 in population. In 2013, the average population of the Top7 was 1.2 million because, for the first time, they included three cities with more than 2 million inhabitants.
Something else about the 2013 Top7 stood out. There was a dramatic and instructive spread between what I think of as the Center and the Edge. Toronto, Canada’s finance capital, is an example of a Top7 community clearly at the Center. The biggest city in Canada, it is the hub of a region of 6 million people that produced C$286 billion in GDP in 2012.
Oulu, on the other hand, is a community on the Edge. It is in Finland, a country whose entire population is slightly outnumbered by that of the Greater Toronto Area. It takes six hours to reach Oulu by car from Helsinki, Finland’s business and political capital – considerably more time than it takes to go from Oulu to the Arctic Circle only 200 km north. But it is a highly successful tech hub with a global reputation for innovation in wireless and a growing roster of other technologies. Utterly different from Toronto, it is just as great a place to live, to work and to raise a family.
In more than a decade of work with communities, we have seen that success is not a matter of size or wealth. Those things are not causes – they are results. Their success is the product of a belief that they are at the burning center of the human universe. They have something special to offer the world and are hungry to see what the world has to offer them. They have the power to think big even if, in physical terms, they stay small.
One of our first-time Smart21 communities – which did not yet make it into the Top7 – offers a great example. It is the city of Mitchell, home to 15,000 souls on the plains of South Dakota USA.
Mitchell is the Center of a region on the Edge – one that has lost 30% of its population over the past 70 years. But Mitchell’s fate is not that of its region. With a willing private communications company and a Federal broadband stimulus grant, Mitchell developed a fiber-to-the-premise network serving every business and residence. Its university and technical school have leveraged the city’s agricultural heritage into academic leadership in precision agriculture, in which farmers use satellite and remote sensing data to develop a highly detailed portrait of their land and apply that knowledge to boost yields.
They also work closely with city government, business, and public institutions to promote digital literacy and supply the highly trained workforce in increasing demand by area businesses. These include software companies, data centers and consulting firms attracted by Mitchell’s network or fostered by its construction. Alone in its region, Mitchell has grown both in population and prosperity.
Today, “the middle of nowhere” could just as easily be a street corner in a crumbling city as a town on the prairie. Which is the Center and which is the Edge? In a global economy woven tightly together by information and communication technology, it is no longer so easy to tell.