Voices of Digital Communities

Smart Grid, Smarter City

Albert Einstein supposedly once wrote that "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results."  Whether or not the ...

by / August 30, 2010
Albert Einstein supposedly once wrote that "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results."  Whether or not the Smartest Man in the World actually said it or Rita Mae Brown wrote it in 1983, it is famous because we have all been there.  Nothing could be more human than to repeat a failing strategy because it feels so much more comfortable than looking at a new set of facts.  

Case in point: the International City/County Management Association recently published the results of its Economic Development 2009 Survey, conducted in October of last year.  Over 700 members - 22% of the sample group of cities and counties with more than 10,000 people - completed the survey.  The results spoke volumes about how we prefer the familiar and ineffective to the new and promising.

When asked if their local government has a written small business development plan, 84.5% of respondents said "no."  How about a written business retention plan?  Seventy-three percent said "no."  Does your jurisdiction have special technology zones designed to encourage technology-related industries and businesses to move there?  Eighty percent did not. And what are the two biggest barriers to local economic growth?  The availability of land for development and the cost of that land.  

As I reported in a post on July 28, the latest research in the United States shows that nearly all net job growth since 1977 (practically the Stone Age) has been created by start-ups in their first year of business.  Other research stretches that period of strong job creation to five years, but the point is the same.  Getting a Fortune 1000 company to locate a facility in your community will make you a hero for a day.  But by itself, it will not ensure the prosperity of your economy.       

What do startups need?  Being new and fragile, they need access to management expertise and high-quality employees.  They need credit and capital, and connections with potential customers, strategic partners and investors.  The good news is that, if they survive and grow, retaining them is easy: startups tend to stay where they were founded unless they cannot get what they need there.  Given the fact that technology in all its forms is a part of nearly every process, service and product today, they are very likely to be technology-related in some way.  And while they may eventually need land to construct that signature building that signals their success, that's somewhere at the bottom of the priority list.  

This mismatch between the needs of the most desirable employers in the broadband economy, and the perceptions of people in economic development, is breathtaking.  I am also glad to say that there is little sign of it in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA, where I spent two days last week.  The municipally-owned Electric Plant Board (EPB) of Chattanooga is deploying a fiber-to-the-premises network to every home and business in their service area.  The driver for the project is the implementation of smart grid technology.  It is EPB's ambition to gather data and send instructions in real time to every element of the distribution network, as well as to thermostats, hot water heaters and other equipment on customer premises.  The dirty little secret of electric generation and distribution today is that the network is run by guesswork, and maintains its reliability by massive over-building of capacity to handle peak loads.  EPB expects that full implementation of smart-grid technology throughout their network will let them reduce costs enough to justify the fiber deployment on that basis alone, with the revenue from data, voice and video services adding icing to the cake as well as fulfilling EPB's mandate to support the city's economy.    

I was invited to Chattanooga by the city's political, administrative, nonprofit and business leaders, who want to understand how to leverage this asset to accelerate the community's economy and bridge its economic and social differences.  This is a place that was named the most polluted city in America in 1969.  The pollution was caused by metal foundries that subsequently went out of business, leaving the economy on life support.  From that low point, the city has fought its way back.  The rebuilding of the downtown and riverfront, which restored civic faith and pride, also taught Chattanooga's leaders how to collaborate.  They have turned to nurturing local arts and local entrepreneurship, and targeted their business attraction efforts to wind turbine and other clean energy firms, on which foundation they hope to build a competitive business cluster.   

While giving speeches and offering advice, I was pleased to see a place with so many pieces of Intelligent Community development in place.  And I was thrilled by their understanding of the need to turn those pieces into a functioning whole, an ecosystem in which broadband, knowledge work, innovation and digital inclusion can reinforce each other and drive inclusive prosperity for many years.  Stay tuned to news from Chattanooga, as the EPB shows us how to add intelligence to the grid and the city does the same for its economy.
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.