If you have ever been greeted by a large toilet seat as you arrived into town, you most likely were driving into the Nevada community of Battle Mountain. Few other rural communities in the USA or elsewhere have the credibility to welcome you that way. Or the guts. Forget the cliché that “first impressions” are the most important. It has always been gross impressions that count most. According to Maury Forman, author and director of rural entrepreneurship for Washington State’s Department of Commerce, who I dub the Intelligent Community movement’s resident humorist, Battle Mountain was referred to by a Washington Post writer as America’s “armpit” in 2001. That stunk. It was also unfair, but revealed how some urban writers may have thought about small communities. The Washington Post, for the record, is based in Washington, DC, the city which uses toilets very effectively, mainly to flush down good ideas for connecting villages, as well as taxpayers’ money.
Rather than get depressed or, worse, defensive, the city took notice. It took notice with a sense of humor. Then it took action. It performed an exercise in economic development and creative public relations which resulted in the Festival of the Pit. Short for armpit of course. The Pit was a hit. The festival’s 2004 talent pageant, which ended in a tie between a woman who glued crickets to her underarms and a tiny girl who did breakdance, was one of many tongue-in-cheek events that led Old Spice deodorant, an international brand, to become a major corporate underwriter. Today, a blue grass festival has replaced the Pit. However through the process the community regained its pride and fired one of our movement’s first shots to signal the start of the rural renaissance.
In most parts of the world, urban and rural cultures have been out of balance and out of synch for at least two generations. The imbalance has exacerbated the stresses of the global economy and made cities desirable. A two-fold tragedy occurred as young people fled, while referring to their rural districts or the cultures they left behind as being in “the middle of nowhere.” (My least favorite phrase.) But the Middle of Nowhere is no more. Basically communications changed that. So did common sense. The change has been most effective when linked to a coherent strategy, as I observed during my recent trip to both Washington State and Taiwan.
In Taiwan, there is a new way to view the digital divide. In the words of Chunghwa Foundation CEO Mike Lin, a former Microsoft executive, “we turn the digital divide into a dividend.” The cloud, broadband and the Intelligent Community Forum’s concept of ecosystem evolution are altering the imbalance and, in the case of agriculture, education and entrepreneurship the results are as striking as the orchids grown and exported by Taichung-based Green Culture Biotechnology.
Green Culture Biotechnology is located in one of this year’s Top7 communities. It is part of a community cluster whose success is tied nicely to an approach that many nations preach about, but which Taiwan is perfecting patiently and effectively. Note that I do not say easily. It never is.
Green Culture, housed in a factory with clean rooms and an R&D equivalent to any of Taiwan’s silicon wafer foundries, geneticallyengineers tissue culture to raise orchids that are exported around the world. It owns patents for virus control and detection, as well as patents for the nano machines that detect viruses. It even developed a new generation of plastic containers for shipping the young orchids to Europe and Brazil. A walk through the rows of its prime orchids is to imagine what the landscaping may be like in Heaven.
If it were all alone in the community, or situated on the outskirts of the “middle of nowhere,” Green Culture would still be an impressive business. But in Taichung, it is symbolic of a city which, due to the alignment of central government funding and the governance of cities, is part of a municipality which includes a vast agricultural district. The city of Taichung has responsibility for its rural areas, which includes native Taiwanese tribes and many schools and universities in its mountainous areas. This gives it sensitivity to the environment. But the city’s push to become “green” is obsessive. Taichung is more ecologically sensitive than Hawaii, in my experience. It natural, given its heritage and its shrewd understanding that quality of life is capital. It is helped by the political and cultural alignment of city and countryside. Rather than neglect the rural, it emphasizes agriculture, education and entrepreneurship. Its rural schools are connected and its students have wonderfully talented teachers and principals with an ability to teleconference with other teachers in the city and access any book anywhere through a mobile system. (Oh yes, the average elementary school student reads an average of 200 books per year and collaborates online with its classmate to produce other books!) Its farmers are aided by a “triple helix” of local government, academia and connectivity by the two carriers, Chunghwa and VeeTime, to produce value-added fruits and produce for markets such as Singapore.
Is it a perfect place? Far from it. I am told that in Taoyuan, the other Top7 Intelligent Community, there is still a desire by developers to cover over many of its 1,000 ponds. But I suspect that attempt will not go all the way – or will be balanced. Taiwan has its own champions, as Battle Mountain had. Taiwan’s is the famous “Rice Bomber,” Jang Yu-Men, whose Seed Project evolved from a series of “bombings” ten years ago. Not the terrorist type. Yang planted rice-filled explosive devices in Taiwan in 2003 and 2004 in protest against what he called the government's neglect of farmers. He has since adopted a more peaceful approach in his efforts to revitalize agriculture and promote a vision of development. Today, the government has unveiled programs that reach out to anyone wishing to become a farmer and return to the land. The life on the land is never easy, but the economic and social rewards – the landscaping of Heaven which is now possible – are not romantic notions, but a part of local GDP. The Green Cultures of the world are booting up in Taiwan.