Past Issues of Government Technology

John M. Eger

John M. Eger -- former advisor to Presidents Nixon and Ford, director of the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy, and a former vice president of CBS -- is today helping define the new role of cities within the global information economy.

by / March 31, 1997 0
GT: You were previously involved in the national political arena, and yet today you are not only focusing much of your time and effort on city-based politics, but you also say that national government is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Can you explain your shift of emphasis?

Eger: It has been a strange personal odyssey for me. I spent 10 years in Washington both in the FCC and the White House. I had never really lived in a community or worked in a community to understand how things really worked. And I was also buying into the notion that you had to get the president of the United States or some very senior government official to take ownership of an issue before it was real. So when a few people woke up and said that we have to do something about the 1934 Communications Act and asked me to go to Washington to put together an organization, I went.

People were saying we've got to do something about creating a vision for America in the Information Age and we want to change the way people think, particularly in Washington. This made sense to me and led to the formation of an organization called Opt-in-America. We established this very distinguished board of advisors, but nothing really happened because I couldn't get an ear. However, as I crisscrossed the country talking to librarians and to school boards and local chambers of commerce and so forth, I realized that there was a deep frustration with the way in which our system of government worked, a deep frustration with those we were electing to represent us. And while people in local communities weren't necessarily on top of everything that was happening, they were a reasonably informed group. And they were angry.

What I discovered during that two- or three-year period, from 1987 to '90, was that what happened in Washington really wasn't that important. I realized that maybe what Daniel Bell and Marshall McLuhan and others talked about had finally happened. We had reached that funny stage in the history of the nation state where, to paraphrase Bell, the nation state had grown too big to solve the problems of the city and yet was too small to solve the problems of the world.

Then when I began to look and read more, one of the things I came to grips with was that there really was only a global economy and a consolidation of regional economies with strong cities at the core. At that point I began to realize that power had shifted. Sovereignty was being redefined. And while most communities did not know they had this power, they did. They just had not found a way to exercise it.

GT: In San Diego, at the International Center for Communications, you have been examining what it actually means to reinvent the city for the 21st century and you have come up with some very definite ideas. Can you describe some of this work?

Eger: The first effort we undertook was a study called San Diego in the Global Village. Previously, while I was busy reinventing myself -- repotting myself if you will -- I went back and reread McLuhan and realized it was here. It is not the same world community that he envisioned, but the global village was here. Telecommunications and technology, or telecom and IT, and economics -- the economics of the global economy -- had converged. And in the wake of this convergence between technology and economics, we are seeing the rise and rebirth of city states that [will be], if they are successful, connected to this global economy. That is what the first study dealt with.

We tailored it and we put it on the desk of every city council member and every supervisor, knowing that we were going to take it to the next step, but we wanted to see if we could create a private/ public collaboratory -- an agreement among senior people in government and in industry to work with the university in taking this to the next step. How do we reawaken civic pride? How do we get more and more people involved in their own government rather than just complaining about what is happening in Sacramento or Washington, D.C., or somewhere in the world, and continuing to pass the buck to their elected representatives? Could we rekindle interest?

Supervisor Golding, now Mayor Golding of San Diego, decided she wanted to do something with this idea. This led to formation of the City of the Future Committee. We deliberately didn't call it the telecommunications committee or the technology committee. It was important for people to see that this was not just about technology but about their own future, and that technology was playing a critical role simply because technology and economics had a life force of their own.

So we formed the City of the Future Committee. And we then formed 10 subcommittees and there were over 300 people who got involved in one aspect or another. We tried to divide it up in such a way that people could identify. Maybe it was a library subcommittee or maybe it was an education subcommittee or maybe it was tourism. We tried to divide up life and work into sectors of the economy or society that everybody identified with. The result was that we generated a lot of participation. This was the basis for the first -- and what is now an annual -- Cities of the Future Conference.

Today, there are perhaps 100 groups that are meeting throughout the San Diego area who claim they are responsible for creating "San Diego, the City of the Future." In other words, the idea has taken on a life of its own.

GT: It seems that all this is coming out of a vision of what the role of the city will be in the context of a global information economy.

Eger: We have just published a Guidebook on Smart Communities which addresses this. The work we were doing in San Diego came to the attention of other communities who started coming to us and saying, "well, we are doing something smart too. But it is different from what you are doing. Yet you seem to have captured an enthusiasm and an interest from so many more people. Why is that?"

Well, I hadn't thought about it either, but fortunately, California and many other states have been trying to develop their own state initiatives. There are a lot of national initiatives, starting with France as far back as 1976. There is Singapore's Intelligent Island project, Japan's Technopolis project. A lot of these major national information strategies preceded the Clinton-Gore NII. But when Clinton and Gore began talking about information technology as the tools of wealth creation -- and information as the new wealth -- they had their intended impact.

But when it came to state governments developing their own initiatives, we began to say that we were not so sure they should simply be adopting a me-too approach and mirror the NII or any national information infrastructure. At the highest level I think it is good that our national leaders recognize the power of technology as a catalyzing influence. But really what we need now is not so much an NII, but an LII, a local information infrastructure. Eighty percent of the country is already wired. But that other 20 percent represents every small community throughout the country.

But more than just connectivity, there is the question of what are you going to do when you get connected? This gets down to the nitty-gritty of the applications in health care and education and business and government itself. These applications are where the energy needs to be spent. So when California began talking about an SII, as the Western Governors have been talking about, we said we're not so sure this is they way you want to go. The whole idea of top-down infrastructure and top-down programs may be pass
Blake Harris Editor