Voices of Digital Communities

How Successful Cities Create a Culture of Progress

Culture? Why are we asking about that instead of megabits per second or incubators and business accelerators?

by / July 15, 2013

Last week, ICF opened its 2013-2014 Awards cycle (next deadline September 23!) and introduced our theme for the year: Community as Canvas.  It looks at the role of culture in the progress of a city or region.

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Culture?  Why are we asking about that instead of megabits per second or incubators and business accelerators?  Why did we write a white paper, Community as Canvas, about three specific aspects of culture in Intelligent Communities?  That’s what a blogger for Cisco asked me last week during an interview.   

Here’s why.  ICF studies how cities and regions use information and communications technology to create prosperity, so people naturally think we’re all about technology.  But actually, we have never been. ICF is about that unique place where technology intersects with human beings in a local context.  And where humans are, there is culture.  We are as dependent on culture as we are on the air we breathe.

If you follow the news these days, you cannot help coming across stories of cultural conflict.  Egypt is being torn apart by a conflict between young people importing ideals of non-sectarian democracy and those who see any modern, non-Islamic culture as unacceptable. But the culture wars are cropping up everywhere, from the street protests of Brazil to the strains affecting the European Union.  In my country’s politics, the cultures of the conservative and liberal wings have so little in common that they have completely different interpretations of the words they are fighting over.

Culture is also the foundation for all progress. No less an innovator than Sir Isaac Newton wrote that, if he had seen a bit further into the universe than the rest of us, it was “by standing on the shoulders of giants.” With those words he paid tribute to the learning he had gained from others and a lifetime of support and encouragement for his own development – to the culture that made possible his achievements.    

When we seek to chart a new course, as Intelligent Communities do, culture matters most of all. The culture of the community forms the launch pad for every program and project. It provides a wide range of intangible assets that Intelligent Community champions put to use. It helps determine how readily new ideas are accepted.  It can supply the words that persuasively explain a vision of the future and build support for it, and the narrative that helps people understand where they belong in a changing world.  

Or it can cause everything those champions attempt to blow up in their faces.  

Underneath the digital ripples of our connected age flows the deep river of human culture, unchanged in its essential operation for millennia. Humanity will continue to respond to change as it has always responded, will embrace what seems good and fear what it does not yet understand. Yet that same culture is at the heart of what ICF calls advocacy: the process of education and persuasion by which a city’s people become its most potent drivers of progress.

That’s why Intelligent Community leaders think about the cultural drivers of the community, and find ways to turn them in the direction of progress. Unless they do, all the megabits and incubators in the world will profit them not at all.

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.