Can an American city break through in 2012 and win acclaim as the world’s Intelligent Community of the Year?

Austin, Texas, and Riverside, Calif., will represent the nation’s prospects against an international field in pursuit of the Intelligent Community Forum’s annual prize, to be awarded at the think tank’s annual conference on June 8 in New York City.

The other finalists, announced this week, are Oulu, Finland; Quebec City, Quebec; Saint John, New Brunswick; Stratford, Ontario; and Taichung City, Taiwan.

The Intelligent Community Forum seeks to share best practices of communities around the globe that are embracing technology as a key ingredient for economic and social development. The annual award became a full-fledged program in 2004.

[Editor’s Note: The Intelligent Communities Forum blogs on Govtech.com’s sister website DigitalCommunities.com.]

Robert Bell, co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, said Thursday, Jan. 19, that Austin and Riverside both are noteworthy for using technology to address gaps in their local economies.

Riverside once was an economy built around citrus growing, but Bell said once that boom faded, the community struggled to adapt as the distribution industry — trucking, rail and warehousing — took over and brought with it a swath of low-income jobs. City leaders decided to pursue a different strategy built around the technology sector, and leveraged the cache of the University of California at Riverside and other colleges in the area to help accomplish that goal. Riverside has worked with the universities to found business accelerators, incubators and other programs.

A nonprofit called SmartRiverside is helping to transform the community into a hub for the high-tech sector. The organization works on digital divide initiatives, business development, e-waste and wireless. Eighty percent of city now is covered by fiber and wireless. A $1.6 billion public works program also is working to modernize old water and electricity infrastructure, along with improvements to transportation systems and public safety.

Riverside also was a top seven intelligent community finalist in 2011.

In Austin’s case, historically the city has had a thriving high-tech sector, but Bell said officials have been quick to realize a flaw — much of Austin’s population hasn’t been participating in the technology economy. Consequently, according to the Intelligent Community Forum, Austin’s city government and the area’s Chamber of Commerce worked on a long-range plan that has increased regional payrolls by $6 billion over five years. “A second five-year plan launched in 2010 seeks to add another $11 billion,” says the announcement of Austin’s top seven status. “To address a workforce challenge, Austin has established a program that puts ‘college enrollment managers’ into public schools to guide the choices made by students has helped boost the graduation rate for low-income students 14 percentage points to 75 percent.”

Identification of the top seven communities is based upon a metrics-based scoring process developed and administered by a team of professors in the U.S., Canada and Japan, Bell said. The field is winnowed from hundreds, to 21, and then to seven. The winner is determined through further numerical analysis, and site visits and field reporting from Intelligent Community Forum officials.

Past winners of the Intelligent Community of the Year are:

2011: Eindhoven, Netherlands

2010: Suwon, South Korea

2009: Stockholm, Sweden

2008: Gangnam District; Seoul, South Korea

2007: Waterloo, Ontario

2006: Taipei, Taiwan

2005: Mitaka, Japan

2004: Glasgow, Scotland

Read a full description of the top seven communities for 2012.

Matt Williams  |  Associate Editor