Voices of Digital Communities

What Makes a Community Intelligent?

You can't have an Intelligent Community full of dumb people. Because, however visionary, a leader with no followers is just a guy out taking a walk.

by / June 27, 2011

“Can you have an Intelligent Community full of dumb people?”  That bracing question was once posed by the manager of a city-owned electric utility who had successfully deployed cable and Internet services to his customers in competition with the local cable franchise. 

“You better hope so,” he said in answer to his own question.  “Because you can make the network as smart as you like, but the people don’t change.” 

I loved his comment. I was sitting in the audience and knew he was poking fun at me, because I was one of the founders of the Intelligent Community Forum.   

I also heartily disagreed.

I think people do change.  In fact, if they don’t, it doesn’t matter how smart your systems are.  You won’t achieve your goal, whether it is greater economic prosperity, the solution to social challenges or greater sustainability. 

In our decade-long study of innovative communities, we have learned a few important lessons.  In every case, Intelligent Communities engage in intensive collaboration among organizations, government and citizens to create change.  They also have leaders who know how to develop and sell an ambitious vision and how to create the collaboration needed to see it through. 

The leadership, the vision and the collaboration usually arise in response to crisis.  It may be an environmental crisis like the one that struck Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA.  It may be an economic crisis, like that of Dundee, Scotland or Windsor-Essex, Ontario, Canada, or our Intelligent Community of the Year, Eindhoven, Netherlands..  The people of these communities changed in order to adapt to the new world in which they found themselves.  They worked to create a more knowledgeable workforce, a higher rate of innovation and greater digital inclusion.   ICT became central to their transformation because it has become central to economic and social life. 

The McKinsey Global Institute just published a remarkable study called Internet Matters: the Net's Sweeping Impact on Growth, Jobs and Prosperity.  I am neither economist nor statistician enough to evaluate its methods, but its conclusions are striking.  Based on studying 13 economies that make up 70% of the world's economy, McKinsey says that the Internet has been responsible for 10% of GDP growth over the past 15 years.  That contribution amounts to an increase of $500 per person on average over 15 years.  Not so impressive, you might think – but it took the Industrial Revolution 50 years to make the same impact.  If Internet consumption and expenditures were a separate industrial sector, its contribution today would be greater than that of energy or agriculture. 

My favorite part of the study was its explanation of how "Internet ecosystems" let countries capture the maximum economic value from the Internet.  The countries profiting most were those that (a) actively develop Internet infrastructure, (b) effectively promote human capital, and (c) ease access to financial capital while creating an attractive business environment overall.  all.  That list sounds very familiar.  At ICF, we use different words – broadband deployment for Internet infrastructure, knowledge workforce for human capital, and innovation for financial capital and an attractive business climate.  But the insights are the same. 

So, what is an Intelligent Community?  It is one where the new infrastructure of ICT is used to make everything in that community work better, where ICT becomes the path to economic prosperity for those who know how to use it, and where people also use it to engage actively in the transformation of their community.  You can't have an Intelligent Community full of dumb people.  Because, however visionary, a leader with no followers is just a guy out taking a walk.

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.