Voices of Digital Communities

Intelligent Communities: The North American Way

Listen to the podcast     Follow ICF on Twitter I wrote in earlier posts about the Asian Way and the European Way ...

by / January 19, 2010
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I wrote in earlier posts about the Asian Way and the European Way of being an Intelligent Community.  Now it's time to come home and reflect on the North American Way, as illustrated by our Smart21 Communities of the Year. 

The same caveats apply to North American communities as to their Asian and European peers.  All are different from each other, and all share characteristics with communities in other parts of the world.  But they occupy a distinctly North American cultural, political and social environment.  That has shaped their evolution. It has given them something unique to share with the world. 

1.  Eagerness to Experiment.  North America is known as a place where innovation thrives.  It goes back a long way in history.  In his 1835 book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville told about a conversation with an American sailor, in which de Tocqueville complained about the poor quality of American shipbuilding.  The sailor told him that ship design changed so fast that it wasn't worth building ships that would last very long.  They became uncompetitive too quickly. 
Innovation thrives because of a willingness, often an eagerness, to experiment.  In the Smart21 Community of Riverside, California, USA, a new city manager experimented with a whole series of changes.  He hired the city's first CIO.  He asked that CIO and the city's Economic Development Department to collaborate on an economic growth agenda.  He tried hiring a "high technology business concierge," and having this single point of contact helped attract and retain high-tech companies.  In another experiment, Riverside installed a small WiFi zone in the city's downtown.  It proved popular, so the city's new CIO started work on a more robust system that would double as the city's first-responder network.   

Arlington County, Virginia displays the same restless energy.  Government, business, institutions and citizens engage in intensive, ongoing collaboration that has been named "The Arlington Way."  This collaboration spawns an apparently endless flow of programs, projects and ideas, from professional internships in the schools to educational programs on the local cable TV network and the Web-based Arlington Teen Portal.  Successful programs endure.  Unsuccessful ones expire.   And the community as a whole moves forward.  

2.  Focus on Job and Wealth Creation.  Lacking the job and income protections common in Europe, North American Intelligent Communities make the creation of jobs and prosperity their top priority.  Many of the 2010 Smart21 offer "comeback" stories.  Windsor in Essex County, Ontario, Canada, is sister city to Detroit in the US.  Its fortunes waxed with those of Motor City, and have waned just as drastically.  With an unemployment rate the highest in Canada, Windsor and Essex County put retraining, job creation and economic diversification at the top of their list, and are pursuing them through an impressive array of programs from broadband deployment to education to investment attraction. 

Danville, Virginia, USA prospered when tobacco was a growth business and the American textile industry was globally competitive.  But by the beginning of the new century, it had Virginia's highest unemployment rate.  The nDanville fiber network was conceived as a means to change the dynamic - to create a knowledge-based economy and transform the city into an entrepreneur's haven. 

3.  Local Solutions in the Absence of National Policies.  While nations in Europe and Asia have long had national broadband strategies, it was only with the coming of the Obama Administration that America got serious about a Federal plan.  By contrast, Canada has been a leader in broadband policy and development projects for more than a decade.  In the US, the lack of national policy was hardly helpful, but it did spawn really innovative local solutions.  The history of rural electrification left many US communities the owners of their own electric and water utilities.  Some, like Bristol, Virginia, turned them into telecommunications carriers - and like Bristol, many spent years in the courtroom fighting incumbents for the right to compete.  Running at a profit, the Bristol Virginia Utilities network now extends into neighboring communities and counties, and has put Bristol at the center of an expanding web of connectivity for regional and national companies.  Dublin, Ohio followed the same path: laying conduit for carriers, then building its own fiber network in partnership with a telecom contractor and interconnecting it with public-sector state and national nets, and finally overlaying a WiFi network on top of it for public use.  Using tax-increment financing, Dublin ensured that the network paid its own way at every step in development.   Because American taxpayers are fierce overseers of every penny of public spending. 

And in some Canadian communities, they have decided that local solutions offer the best return.  Moncton, New Brunswick, relied on its incumbent carrier to help transform a former railroad town into a mecca for call centers.  But as the community's needs grew, it was forced to branch out.  Working with a local company, it installed WiFi in its downtown core, its municipal bus network, sports arena and concert site.  The city will soon expand and diversify that network to bring Moncton's fast-growing businesses the world-class connectivity they need.

The North American Way of being an Intelligent Community seems natural to me, because this is where I make my home.  But beyond that, I find it offers interesting values.  I believe that job and wealth creation belong at the center of the Intelligent Community movement, because it is economic vitality that makes possible everything else we love in our communities - the culture, social connections and quality of life. 

The willingness to try new things and then either scale them up or end them is essential to successful innovation anywhere.  So much so that innovation experts have a name for it: "fast failure."  If it's going to work, find out fast.  And if it's not going to work, find that out fast, too. 

And finally, I just like the scale of local solutions.  They are something you can pursue and hope to see results in your lifetime.  And that's true no matter where the community is.  During the last Building the Broadband Economy summit in New York, I spoke with Vice Mayor Ulf Kristersson of Stockholm, which was named the Intelligent Community of the Year.  He talked about his previous career in Sweden's Parliament and his decision to return to local politics.  "It was interesting being a legislator," he said, "and working on national policies.  But I prefer working in local government, because you know you are making a difference."

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.