Voices of Digital Communities

Communities in the Cloud

Listen to the podcast     Follow me on Twitter I just finished reading a report on the future of science parks.  ...

by / December 8, 2009

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I just finished reading a report on the future of science parks.  The title, "Future Knowledge Ecosystems," is a real snooze but the report actually has a lot to say to communities everywhere.  It presents possible futures for science parks, those custom-built clusters housing scientific and technical research organizations - and hopefully spinning out lots of start-up companies.  The authors are worried that science parks are in decline, whether they are Krista Science City in Stockholm or a three-story building in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.  In the most dramatic of three scenarios, they paint a picture of a future in which a "research cloud" of small, cheap, nimble groups connected online becomes the favored way of doing research.  This deals a terrible blow to science parks and the universities that host them. 

Here's why the report matters.  It captures a worry that is universal.  Manufacturing hubs from Eindhoven in Holland to Northeast Ohio, USA fret about losing their competitive edge to nimble, low-cost manufacturers in Asia.  Small cities and towns from Bristol, Virginia USA to Ballarat, Australia fear that they will dry up and blow away as youth leave for greater opportunity elsewhere.  Even financial capitals from New York City to Hong Kong worry as more transactions move online, empowering smaller financial centers at their expense.

We are all worrying about the same thing: in the broadband economy, does location matter?  Of course, we know that for some things it always will.  If we are extracting raw materials from the earth, Mother Nature decides where we do it.  We will always need to transport people and things - whether raw materials, fuels, foodstuffs or goods - and communities benefit from being on the transport network or, best of all, a place where networks converge.  But as economies mature, a rising share of employment comes from selling intangible things.  In 2007, the OECD reported that that nearly three-quarters of employees in the richest 30 nations worked in services.  And in many developing nations, the export of services grew a lot faster during the last boom than did the export of goods. 

In advanced economies woven together by a broadband "cloud," location matters a lot less.  Brick-and-mortar retailers compete with e-tailers.  The owners of office buildings, not to mention jetliners and hotels, compete with telepresence.  Employers that historically needed to be in a particular city or district suddenly find that they no longer need to, because their workforce and suppliers are scattered and mobile.  I see it every day in New York's financial district, once wall-to-wall brokerages and banks, and now increasingly a mixed-use residential and business neighborhood. 

That's troubling news for communities.  If investment, jobs and trade can go anywhere, why should they come to you?  If it matter less in economic terms where people are, what will keep them at home?

I write a lot about economic forces, because I believe they color how we think, what we do and what we say in ways we seldom realize.  But we are far more than just economic actors.  Location still matters because, in our deepest core, we need it to matter.  We need to belong somewhere, in relationship with people we know and trust, in order to know who we are.  Communities will always matter because they are where we feed our spirits.  And since we are going to live in communities together, we are going to find ways to generate economic growth together. 

But I do think that "communities in the cloud" will have to rethink what makes them communities.  We like to define who we are by insisting that we are better than somebody else.  We may have our problems, but at least we're not those other guys.  You know the ones I mean: the people in the next town or next country, the ones who look different, who believe different things, who follow customs we don't understand.  We may have our problems, but we stand head and shoulders above those shady, deceitful bags of scum. 

That isn't going to cut it in the broadband economy.  The way for communities to win is use the power of broadband to invite the world in.  We need to learn to define ourselves, not by who we are not, but by who we can connect with.  I have visited many small communities that are located in "the middle of nowhere."  I believe that "the middle of nowhere" is fast becoming just a state of mind.  If your community has robust broadband and people who know how to use it, you are not in the middle of nowhere, you are in the middle of the world. 

"Future Knowledge Ecosystems: The Next Twenty Years of Technology-Led Economic Development, by Anthony Townsend, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang and Rick Weddle.  The Institute for the Future, The Research Triangle Park Foundation and the International Association of Science Parks.  Published June 2009 by the Institute for the Future (www.itif.org)

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.