March 20, 2008 By George K. Beard
I am an old guy. Well, not really old, but getting older. At 57, I'm middle-aged and entering the final third of my life; the runway ahead is getting shorter. I'm a member of the baby boom generation that's in the queue to retire, and will soon claim the bounty of Social Security and Medicare entitlements.
I am old enough, too, to see that we stand at a unique moment in the history of not only the United States, but the world as well. It has nothing to do with who will win the presidential election later this year. It has everything to do with the fact that we face challenges more daunting than any I have seen in my lifetime. I sense it is a bit like 1960 once more in America: There is a big decade coming.
Transformation is in the air. I can smell it.
The next decade will be driven by a range of factors, and we will witness significant shifts in how we conduct our affairs as individuals and institutions. One of those shifts will involve the deliberate rise of digital communities as a strategic choice and public policy necessity. Before explaining, let me highlight several factors that will fuel this shift.
In 2007, in a sober assessment of the Earth's health, scientists on the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that global warming is "unequivocal," and that human activity is the main cause. The IPCC found that carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases from automobiles, coal-fired power plants and manufacturing emissions have been the main causes of warming since 1950. Many on the panel predicted a doubling of greenhouse gases by the middle of this century unless there's a rapid movement away from these sources of pollution.
This is deeply troubling news. It is our wake-up call - our Pearl Harbor moment. But so far, it's business as usual. I haven't seen or heard anything that gives me an iota of confidence our nation's leadership has taken this threat seriously; mobilized the citizenry for action; or grabbed hold of the economic, political, environmental and cultural levers of change.
Urbanization of the planet has gone largely unnoticed. In 2007, for the first time in history, more people lived in cities than elsewhere. There are more than 400 cities worldwide with populations of at least 1 million residents. By 2030, dozens of new urban areas will join the big city ranks, driven by industrialization and fueled by globalization, raising the tally of urban dwellers to 60 percent of the world's population.
The phenomenon of mass urbanization will unfold primarily in Asia, South America and Africa. Rapid-growth cities span the alphabet - from Abidjan, Accra, Bamako and Barranquilla to Wanxian, Xiantao, Yaounde and Zhanjiang. More urbanization will impact the world's carbon footprint and global warming.
The U.S. population has reached a little more than 300 million. A big number, to be sure, but we live in a big country. There's still a lot of room here, particularly when you consider denser population centers in Asia, parts of Africa and western Europe.
Hearkening back to 1960, when I was finishing elementary school, I recall one of those barely useful facts I was required to learn in sixth grade: In those days, the population of the United States was 185 million. That number is less important than my memory of life nearly 50 years ago. There was more space, more land, more air and much less friction. So I am not surprised today when I face crowds at the airport, on the freeway, in the suburbs or at the checkout stand. There are simply more people in our country - 60 percent more - vying for place and space.
All over the country, community leaders are looking to boost economic development through various initiatives. One key element in many of those initiatives is the use of information technology. When local governments build IT infrastructure, create e-government applications, assist high-tech startups or otherwise focus on technology, they create conditions that draw businesses to their communities and help retain skilled workers. This paper discusses and provides examples of these various ways local government can use technology to ultimately make a community more attractive to businesses, visitors and residents.