Voices of Digital Communities

Intelligent Communities: The European Way

Listen to the podcast    Follow me on Twitter Is there a distinctly European way to be an Intelligent Community?  In my ...

by / January 12, 2010
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Is there a distinctly European way to be an Intelligent Community?  In my last post, I took the risk of describing three characteristics of Asian Intelligent Communities.  I did it knowing full well that the Intelligent Communities of Asia are more different than they are alike, and that many communities outside Asia share some of their attributes.  The same is certainly true of Intelligent Communities in Europe.  But the similarities are still striking and have something to teach us all.

1.  Multi-Level Leadership by Government.  Western Europe is home to the welfare state, which actively intervenes in social, business and civic life.  In today's Europe, however, the "state" has many levels.  Policies and funding flow from the European Commission to member states and then, in the form of both programs and grants, to municipalities.  Rare is the European Intelligent Community whose programs fail to integrate with national plans and pay homage to European policies.   

Trikala, Greece, a 2010 Smart Community, has mastered the difficult art of leading while at the same time remaining comfortably integrated with national and European priorities.  With the help of European Union funding, Trikala built a metropolitan network and launched numerous e-government and digital inclusion programs.  On the strength of these achievements, the Greek Ministry of Economics named Trikala the first Digital City in Greece.  This opened up additional funding for research, urban and regional development from the EC and national government. 

Tallinn, Estonia, another 2010 Smart21, has benefited enormously from national programs.  In 1999, the government sold 49% of its state-owned telecom carrier to foreign companies.  A Telecommunications Act, Digital Signature Act and Public Information Act were passed in quick succession to create the conditions for growth in all forms of telecom.  The government launched a "Tiger Leap" program to put PCs in schools and triggered a wave of IT and network investment fueled by NGOs.  These actions put the wind under the wings of Tallinn's own Intelligent Community programs.  The result was a surge of local growth and one of the most Internet-savvy populations on the Continent.

2.  Focus on Social, Civil and Cultural Priorities.  Welfare states spend heavily on services that foster social progress and individual well-being, from health and pension systems to education and environmental sustainability.   ICF's 2009 Intelligent Community of the Year, Stockholm, will be the European Green Capital in 2010.  And Europe is surely the only place where cities take turns serving as Cultural Capitals.  Tallinn will be one in 2011. 

When European cities invest in becoming Intelligent Communities, they carry these priorities into the digital realm.  Besançon, France was named a "Ville Internet @@@@@" (Internet City) by the French government in 2008.  Not only because it built one of the first metro fiber networks in the country but for applying information and communications technology to improve urban living, culture and education, social life, citizenship and business.  One of its many projects, the Digital Schoolbag, grants every student a free laptop with educational software, a discount broadband subscription and computer workshops for adults.  At a significant cost, Besançon is trying to erase the digital divide for future generations.

3.  A Bias for Publicly-Owned Fiber.  Government ownership of utilities, railroads, airlines and other infrastructure is a tradition in Europe.  Anyone who has ridden trains on the Continent knows that quality of service is the first consideration with cost a distance second.  So it is with broadband.  Alone and in partnership with business, European Intelligent Communities build broadband networks with a marked preference for the high speeds provided by optical fiber.   In the UK, the 3i group is collaborating with Dundee, Scotland to lay fiber-optic cable throughout the city sewer network; in 2010, 40% of homes and businesses will be passed by fiber offering 100 Mbps connectivity.  Eindhoven, Netherlands is the site of multiple fiber deployments, from the nationally-funded Kenniswijk pilot project (15,000 homes) to the Nuenen co-op (7,500 homes), and major deployments by Reggefiber (230,000 homes).  One of the latest projects of Eindhoven's Brainport public-private partnership is the Eindhoven Fiber eXchange Foundation (EFX).  This nonprofit seeks to interlink local, regional and outside networks to manage capacity and interconnections, with the modest goal of making Eindhoven the "ultimate broadband region."

There is much to like about the European Way of being an Intelligent Community.  Because Europeans are comfortable with big government, they put a lot of emphasis on setting policies.  Once the policies are agreed, all those layers of government can throw huge resources at building networks and funding programs.  Those policies measure the well-being of the community as much by health, safety, social progress and cultural vibrancy as by job and wealth creation.  On the other hand, there is also a lot of bureaucracy.  In the European Union countries, because so many decisions are reached by consensus, there can be a lot of compromises that lead to muddle.  And the flow of cash that accompanies European and national priorities sends some communities chasing whatever program is being funded rather than creating sensible strategies to tackle their problems.  At worst, the European Way makes passivity profitable as communities wait for directives and money to arrive from above before taking action.  At best, national and European policies and funding energize local ambitions and empower Intelligent Communities to amazing achievement.

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.