Voices of Digital Communities

The Smart21 of 2012: Pursuing Economic and Social Transformation

Why did the Smart21Comunities of the Year start the difficult quest to transform their economy and society through information and communications technology?

by / November 13, 2011

As ICF was announcing the Smart21 Communities of the Year at a ceremony in Eindhoven, Netherlands, I was conducting one of ICF’s Master Classes in Parkland County, Alberta, Canada.  That was an illuminating coincidence: like eating dinner at the farm where your food was raised.  It is from the data provided to us by the communities in our annual Award program that we develop the best practices, strategies and tactics to share with other communities around the world.

Having written the Smart21 profiles in a rush while I was on the road, I now have a chance to reflect on this year’s list.  They hail from ten countries.  Nine have been among the Smart21 before.  Seven are the capitals of state or provinces.  Four are established tech centers.  Three are from developing nations.  And two are from the single small nation of Taiwan.   

Why did they start the difficult quest to transform their economy and society through information and communications technology (ICT)?  Eleven were responding to crisis – an economic or social body blow that spurred action.  Nine saw ICT-based development as the solution to a particular problem, whether it was regenerating an old industrial zone or boosting the number of tech companies in the local economy.  The two Taiwanese communities are each the result of recent political amalgamations that combined multiple municipalities into one.  Rather than re-create the status quo, they are seizing this unique opportunity to remake government and the business ecosystem, using ICT to boost the productivity of both.     

The bravest examples come from Mexico, which is represented on the Smart21 for the first time.  The cities of Durango and Tuxtla Gutiérrez each has its own story but they share a challenge arising from national policy: the high levels of violence sparked by the country’s war on its drug cartels.  Lack of public safety, real or perceived, depresses spending, hurts investment, frightens tourists away and steeps citizens in fear.  Both cities are investing in ICT and programs with goals familiar to the Intelligent Community movement – improving education, speeding technology transfer, bringing businesses into the digital age, making government more efficient and transparent.  But public safety is near the top of the list.   

The Digital Durango program includes a 311-style citizen contact center and a digital video surveillance system that can automatically read automobile license plates.  Together they have made a measurable impact on crime and quality of life.  In Tuxtla Gutiérrez, an innovative program has equipped the city’s 3,500 taxi drivers with free mobile phones, turning them into the eyes and ears of public safety.  Calls on everything from crime to broken lights go to a contact center, where the reports are logged into a Web-based platform that uses GPS data from the phones to plot incidents, track and report outcomes.  The program has tagged drug distribution hubs, aided in breaking up car theft rings, helped recover kidnapping victims, and reported more than 90,000 problems with streetlights, trash collection and potholes.  That simple, elegant and powerful idea is typical of our latest roster of Intelligent Communities, which are building a better future one innovative program, one inspired student, one new employee at a time. 

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.