March 28, 2012 By Wayne Hanson
For the past six years, The Intelligent Community Foundation (ICF) based in New York City has selected an organization or an individual as its Visionary of the Year. For 2012, ICF is honoring Australia's Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy.
Conroy, said ICF co-founder Louis Zacharilla, became a lightning rod in Australia when he took on the nation’s telecommunications monopoly in order to build a national broadband network (NBN), an AUD 36 billion (USD $37 billion) project to connect more than 90 percent of the nation’s homes, schools and businesses to high-speed fiber.
“The NBN will support a new wave of digital innovation that will change the way Australians live, do business, receive services and connect with the world,” said Conroy in a release. “The NBN will improve efficiency and boost access for Australian businesses; it will deliver better health and aged care services, better online education, and improved access to government services.”
ICF’s past visionaries all “articulate and represent” the intelligent community movement, said Zacharilla, who is also a blogger for Digital Communities. “Last year, we named Minister Suvi Linden who was the minister of communications in Finland, as our visionary. She was the first person in history to push through a mandate that said broadband is not just a good thing to have, it is a human right.” Linden, said Zacharilla, is now UN commissioner for digital development, and has global leaders from Taiwan’s President Ma to U.S. President Barack Obama thinking about broadband in a very different way. “To us,” said Zacharilla, “that’s a visionary.”
Zacharilla thinks the most significant change occurs at the community level. “We focus on communities that are using technology and innovation, and are using their cultures to reenergize themselves for the 21st century.” He said that in this “disintermediated” age, national governments are increasingly dysfunctional, and that local leadership and local initiatives are the keys to improvements in the economy, education and in society as a whole.
Visionaries might not know specifically the consequences of their initiatives, but Zacharilla thinks each has an intuitive element, a practical sense that economic and social development depends on it. And in pushing change, they take risks. Amirzai Sangin, for example, communications minister of Afghanistan — and ICF’s visionary for 2007 — had a comfortable job as a telecom executive in Scandinavia, but chose to return to Afghanistan to help build his country's future, using technology, at grave risk to himself.
Zacharilla said it’s human nature to resist change. “We depend on consistency, we depend on habit, we depend on routine; it’s critical to our lives. But Buddhist scholars and monks will tell you that a noble truth of Buddhism is that suffering is caused by attachment and resistence to change. Successful intelligent communities embrace change and disruption and reflect the strengths of ancient cultures as they give a new voice to old truths."
Zacharilla is a true believer in the value of community and the ability of the individual to make life better. “I believe that we construct our communities to be places of hope. The Nobel prize dinner is held in City Hall in Stockholm, and think of the march of humanity that’s been through there, the ‘Dr. Kings’ and the ‘Mother Teresas.’ That’s the place we all want to go, we all aspire to that.”
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.