Voices of Digital Communities

The Myths That Hold Communities Back

Listen to the podcast While on a trip to London this week, I took a day to visit Birmingham.  It's about 90 minutes north on ...

by / September 23, 2009

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While on a trip to London this week, I took a day to visit Birmingham.  It's about 90 minutes north on Virgin Rail.  I met with Chris Price, Director of Digital Development & Communities, and his boss, Glyn Evans, Corporate Director of Business Change for the City Council.  I had a chance to hear from them and many other talented people about their Digital Birmingham project, as well as their science park, universities, a new Science City development program and a US$1 billion Business Transformation IT project expected to generate a $2.5 bn return for the city.

Exciting stuff, which I will be keeping an eye on.  But on the way back to London, I was unable to get out of my head an offhand comment by Glyn Evans.  He described research the community had done into the needs of its population.  "There's a myth," said Glyn, "that the low-income population are late adopters of ICT.  They are on the wrong side of the digital divide.   But our research showed that many of them are very early adopters.  They are immigrants, and they use email, IP voice, social networks and video chat to stay in touch with their home countries.  It's the kids, of course, but they teach their parents and grandparents, and the knowledge spreads."

That's a great insight, and it made me wonder how much the progress of communities is held back by just such myths. I have met many of them first-hand.  In Cleveland, Ohio, one of America's poorest big cities, there is a pervasive myth that the town is in permanent decline.  That myth is based on a lot of hard experience.  But as I did radio interviews there two years ago, everyone I talked to was surprised and skeptical to hear about the community's achievements.  This is a place that is home to one of the USA's biggest and most innovative hospitals, the Cleveland Clinic, a world-class university, the OneCommunity broadband network, and so much more.  There's a multi-billion-dollar transportation rebuild going right down the middle of Main Street.  But many people, perhaps the majority, see only stagnation.  They do not see the connection between these things and their future.  It is the myth that stands in their way - and the feeling, deep down inside, that they lack something permanent and vital in themselves.  Whereas, all they really lack are the right skills and the confidence to take the hard road toward acquiring them.   

Dundee, Scotland was also saddled with the myth of decline, after experiencing too many decades of the real thing.  It was research by the City Council that revealed, in the early Nineties, the first net job growth in twenty years.  It was coming, not from the old manufacturing or publishing sectors, but from new media, gaming and IT businesses that were spinning out of the universities.  Local government was smart enough to fan this small flame with a series of innovation projects and incentives in partnership with business, educators and the national government.  From 2000 to 2004, the city had net employment growth of 3.4%.  That may not sound impressive - until you learn that it includes the loss of 3,300 manufacturing jobs.  The losses were countered by a 20% growth in digital media, 50-60% growth in life sciences jobs, and a 7% increase in new business start-ups. 

One of the secrets to Dundee's success was their willingness to stop listening to the myth of decline, and to listen to the facts instead.  Like Birmingham, they spent some of their scarce funds on researching what was actually going on in the community, instead of assuming that the present was just another chapter of the dismal past.   

In Japan, people are saddled with a different myth.  It is that all power is concentrated in the hands of big business and the government, the individual is helpless, and a small group of powerbrokers will always run things to suit themselves.  According to an old Japanese saying, "It is the nail that stick out which gets hammered down."  Shigata ga nai, they say, which a New Yorker would translate as "what are you gonna do?"

Yet in Mitaka, a suburb of Tokyo, this kind of fatalism does not seem to apply.  When Mitaka became our Intelligent Community of the Year in 2005, the Mayor was a woman, which is even more unusual in that nation than in my own.  Moreover, she was citizen activist who had led many successful campaigns to change local government policy.  Her economic development strategy focused, not on big business, but on promoting the growth of the entrepreneurial SOHO sector that had spun out of the many research labs in the area.  The myths of the culture did not seem to stand anybody's way in Mitaka - and with the recent rout of the old Liberal Democratic Party at the national level, maybe the same change is coming to the rest of the country. 

Belief is powerful.  It is belief in a better future that powers the amazing transformation that Intelligent Communities are creating every day.  But belief can also be the obstacle: the dead hand of the past that holds us in place when the time has come to move forward.  If you are a community leader, finding and countering the myths in your midst may be some of the most important work you do.  

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.