Voices of Digital Communities

Noise Through Which the Signal is Delivered

The same tools helping to foster the Arab Spring work just as well for those whose only ideology is theft and destruction.

by / August 16, 2011

This week's news offers three examples of information and communications technology (ICT) changing how we live, and of the fact that deep change – the kind that creates new value – requires much more than learning how to use the latest app.

In Britain, where riots convulsed major cities, rioters were reported to be using social media on their smartphone to target locations where police presence was thin or nonexistent. (ICF Intelligent Communities of Manchester and Birmingham were among those affected.) It was another demonstration of the fact that the same tools helping to foster the Arab Spring work just as well for those whose only ideology is theft and destruction.

New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristoff wrote this week about Rachel Beckwith, an American child with a lifelong devotion to helping others. At age 5, she heard about an organization called Locks of Love, which accepts donations of human hair to make wigs for children with cancer, and cut off her own hair to make a donation.  The lifetime was a short one: it ended in a car accident at age nine. At the time of the accident in July, she was raising money for charity:water, which funds the drilling of wells in Africa to give people access to clean water. She set up a birthday page at the charity:water site and asked her friends to each donate $9 online instead of buying her presents. Her goal was to raise $300, but by the time of her birthday, she had raised only $220.  After the accident, however, friends and members of her church began donating again.  By time her family removed her from life support and she passed away, she had raised $1 million for the cause, outperforming her favorite singer, Justin Bieber, who raised $47,544 on his 17th birthday.

In Eindhoven, Netherlands (ICF's Intelligent Community of the Year), a government-funded project is testing meters that use GPS and wireless Internet to track how many miles a car is driven. The objective is to determine the feasibility of a system to replace conventional automobile taxes and fees - which seek to recoup for society the costs of wear and tear, pollution and congestion - with one based on actual usage. The test of "road-charging" is already revealing what psychologists predicted: that providing immediate feedback to drivers causes them to drive less, because they intuitively understand the cost. 

As you can imagine, the barriers to adoption of such a system are political rather than technological. Perhaps "psychological" is an even better word. Measuring miles driven by GPS feels like an erosion of both privacy and autonomy. Such a system could be made fairer than current road taxes, because they would be paid by those who actually use the roads most, and the average cost per driver would shrink for the same reason.  But a new Dutch government, which took office in 2010 on a pledge of no new taxes, shelved a prior administration's plan for nationwide rollout. 

If we can dream it, we can do it.  If it makes overwhelming good sense, we will eventually overcome the obstacles to getting it done.  There will be darkness and chaos but, to use a communications metaphor, these are merely the noise through which the signal is delivered.  We need these bright and powerful applications of ICT because we will never stop striving for greater well-being, and they help us manage locally the unintended consequences of that global appetite.

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.