Government Technology
By Robert Bell, John Jung, Louis Zacharilla: Intelligent Communities are those which have - whether through crisis or foresight - come to understand the enormous challenges of the Broadband Economy, and have taken conscious steps to create an economy capable of prospering in it. They are not necessarily big cities or famous technology hubs. They are located in developing nations as well as industrialized ones, suburbs as well as cities, the hinterland as well as the coast.

We Like What We're Used To - Even When We Don't

July 27, 2009 By Robert Bell

Listen to the podcast

Here's an experiment you can do at home.  Fold your hands with your fingers interlaced, thumbs on top, one of those thumbs folded over the other.  Now, switch positions so that your top thumb moves to the bottom.  How does it feel?  Weird, right?  If you allow your attention to lapse for a moment, you will reflexively rearrange things so that the proper thumb is back on top. 

This minor experiment shows why change is so hard.  We like what we're used to, even if it's as minor as which thumb sees daylight.  It brings a form of comfort that we abandon only with an effort - and even when we don't particularly like the situation that we are used to. 

We see this all the time.  Companies start failing and then go on failing for years, sometimes decades, despite announcing fresh starts over and over again.  Our current poster child in the US is General Motors, once the world's largest company and now a bankrupt hulk struggling to do the most basic thing a company does: make a profit producing a product people want to buy.  Our president is struggling to make the American people understand just how badly our health system works today and why the time for change is now.  The overwhelming response so far?  Americans like what they're used to, even when they don't really like it at all.

And communities?  There are thousands of communities around the world struggling to adapt to the tidal wave of economic change we call the broadband economy.  The fundamental skill of Intelligent Communities is knowing how to do it: how to motivate change-averse people to move from the comfort of what we know to the discomfort and risk of something new.  (See my blog post for July 11.)

There is a tried and true method.  Step One: be in terrible trouble.  When communities face crises that most citizens can see and feel, they can move with surprising speed.  In the 1990s, the closing of the only manufacturing plant in LaGrange, Georgia, USA left that city with agriculture as its only employer.  That's not a winning proposition in an industrial economy.  Visionary leaders from Mayor Jeff Lukken to City Manager Tom Hall and Economic Development Officer Joe Maltese led the effort to create a city-owned telecom carrier.  Deployment of broadband attracted call centers, Internet hosting centers and TV production facilities - and the city became the IT manager for surrounding city and county governments, earning over US$1 million a year in the process.

In Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, the near-simultaneous closing of rail yards and a national retail catalog center drove home the same message.  Moncton's response was to focus on becoming a call center hub, then leveraging that success to create a homegrown ICT industry.   In Sunderland, UK, the last shipyard closed in 1988 and the last coal mine followed in 1994, leaving the city with a 22% unemployment rate.  But midway between those years, the city established its Sunderland Partnership, which brought together city government, educators, nonprofits and businesses to envision a better future and then bring it into being.  By 2005, gross weekly pay in Sunderland was three times the national average and the city was securing 72% of the new jobs created in the region. 

Some 250 years ago, England's Dr. Samuel Johnson observed that "nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of being hung in the morning."  It is entirely possible to waste a good crisis, but Intelligent Communities seldom do.  Instead, they use bad times to focus their citizens on creating a better future - even if it means giving up what they are used to today.

Leave a comment

The Pressure is On

July 21, 2009 By Robert Bell

Listen to the podcast

I spend a lot of time talking or writing about the "broadband economy."  And when I'm doing it, I suspect that most people don't know what the heck I'm talking or writing about.

And why should they? It sounds like such an abstract idea, like globalization or paradigm shift or collateralized debt obligation.  It sounds like it has nothing to do with Main Street: with the daily doings of the people in your community in all their different walks of life.

And then, every once in a while, comes a real life story that perfectly illustrates why the broadband economy is the biggest thing to hit Main Street since the automobile.  

The Pressure Is On.gif Jon Horne is a journalist who covers the movie business for the Los Angeles Times.  In a recent story on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, he spoke about how connectivity is putting new pressure on the studios.  The new Shasha Baron Cohen movie, Bruno, went into its opening weekend with a lot of what Horne calls "marketability."  People knew who Cohen was, they remembered his hit movie Borat and were eager to give his new film a try.  But then, said Horne, "People came out of that movie and started texting and twittering their friends and telling them it wasn't any good.  So from the Friday opening to Saturday, Bruno ticket sales fell off 40%, which is just unheard of."

How does that affect movie-makers?  "It puts pressure on them to make good movies," Horne said.  "Even as little as two years ago, if the studios had a turkey, they would know that they had two weeks of business before the stink really caught up to the movie.  Now they have twelve hours.  People will come out a theater so quickly and share their opinions so fast and that word will spread so virally everywhere, that if a movie is bad, the audience will know it by Friday night and the movie will be dead by Saturday."

That's the broadband economy at work.  It is the ability of millions of customers to rate their experience of a purchase instantly and move markets overnight.  It is the opportunity for a small-town manufacturer to sell goods to customers on the far side of the planet - and for multinationals to move manufacturing anywhere they find the best mix of talent, cost and access to markets.  It is the story of the swine flu circling the world a dozen times before we even had meaningful facts about how dangerous it was or was not.  It is the power to export local culture, knowledge and experience for profit - and to have children in your schools encounter first-hand the culture, knowledge and experience of distant lands.  Whether we like it or not, the broadband economy puts pressure on us all to "make good movies."  In the broadband economy, success goes not to those who know how to play for time but to those who know that twelve hours is all the time they have. 

Leave a comment

The Habit of Change

July 15, 2009 By Robert Bell

Listen to the podcast

Shortly after dawn, on a lonesome rural highway, a guy stops at a roadside restaurant for some breakfast.  Seated at the counter he finds an old-timer, stooped, grizzled, wearing a flannel shirt and battered cap.  They fall into conversation about times good and bad, past and present.  After finishing his meal and paying the check, the guy says to the old-timer, "You must have seen a lot of changes in your life.  A whole lot of changes."

"Yep," says the old-timer.  "Been against every damn one of 'em, too."

Not so Intelligent Communities.  You could say that they are in the business of change.  Intelligent Communities deploy broadband and deepen education and training.  They fight digital exclusion and encourage entrepreneurship.  But the foundation for this work is a talent for creating and managing change month after month, year after year.  Edwards Deming, the guru of "total quality management," called it continuous improvement.  Intelligent Communities never stand still, any more than you would stop your car in the middle of a highway, rural or otherwise.  Sooner or later, you are going to get run over.

Yet deep down inside, we all hate change, no matter how many gurus have told us to continuously improve.  We seem to be hard-wired that way.  From the revolving seasons to the total recycling of our skin cells every few weeks, we are immersed in change every moment, but we never fail to be surprised by it.   When you were a child and went to visit that aunt or uncle you only saw once a year, what did they always say?  "I can't believe how much you've grown!"  Really?  You were expecting maybe that I would shrink?  Okay.

The fundamental skill - and fundamental mystery - of the Intelligent Community is change.  How do they motivate change-averse human beings to move from the comfort of what we know to the discomfort and risk of something new?  I want to write more about this, using examples from the Intelligent Community archives.  But for now, here's something I learned from being a volunteer.

From athletic and social clubs to hobbyists circles, volunteer groups are amazing places.  On an organizational level, they are all carrot and no stick.  Nobody can fire you for not doing a good job.  You are a member by your own volition and you can withdraw that volition at any time.  They appear to be governed by rules but the real governing authority is the culture of the group.  That's why they tend to be pretty change-averse.  Leaders can call for change but they have no means to enforce their will.  As the old joke goes about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb: "Only one.  But the light bulb has to really want to change."

I belong to a volunteer group and, two years ago, I set out to change how a failing committee worked.  I reorganized the workload into four categories and asked someone to take charge of each one.  I made it a requirement that they recruit others into the committee to help with their particular job.  And then, month after month, we met.  Each meeting seemed to be the same as the meeting before.  We talked about what the people in charge of each category had done - or not done - since the last meeting.  We talked about what should be done next.  We seemed to go over and over the same questions and answers.  What were the goals?  What should we be doing?  How should we measure success?   At times, I was convinced we were getting nowhere.  But we liked each other, we had fun at the meetings, and it somehow felt worthwhile to keep going.

I had no idea at the time, but something important was happening.  Together, we were practicing a new way of thinking about the work.  We were building new habits.  And in the process, each of the people I had asked to be responsible gradually took ownership of their job.  They began having the ideas.  They set their own goals, introduced new projects and figured out what worked.  It took about a year to really see the results, but by then, people were talking about how effective our committee was compared to others and how much fun we seemed to be having.

The lesson for me was that, before you can change the world, you have to change yourself.  If a group you lead is going to be a change agent in your community, you need to start by building the habits of change within the group.  You need to allow time for that to happen.  You need to go over and over the same fundamental questions to create a shared understanding, and to let the people in that group become the owners of its mission.  Only then will effective change begin to happen.  Some of the old-timers still may not like it.  But their grandchildren?  They'll learn to love it.  

Leave a comment

Bringing the Kids Back Home

July 6, 2009 By Robert Bell

Listen to the podcast

This week, we opened nominations for our 2010 Intelligent Community Awards, and also released our latest white paper.  It's called The Education "Last Mile" - Closing the Gap From School to Work.  It might just as well have been called Keeping the Kids at Home.  The white paper explains the theme of our 2010 awards, devoted to what we call the educational last mile, and offers success stories from communities around the world.  Intelligent Communities not only strive to produce adults ready to work at all levels of a knowledge-based economy, from the loading dock to the research lab, but they also work to create a "pipeline" that guides people into local careers.  Because when the kids have to move away in search of opportunity, the community is the loser.

Return t0o Roots.jpg Unless they come home again.  In March of this year, I visited Bristol, Virginia, one of our 2009 Top Seven Intelligent Communities.  There I heard about a program called Return to Roots (RTR), managed by a nonprofit ( using money from the Virginia Tobacco Commission.  RTR reaches out to people who grew up in the area and connects them to regional companies with job openings.  Why should those people consider returning to their roots in the hill country of southwestern Virginia?  A decent career, sure, but just as important are an attractive lifestyle, a sense of community and "a place you can call home."

On a later visit to Top Seven community Moncton, New Brunswick, I found a less formal version of the same trend.  This is a community where, twenty years ago, bright young people had to leave for a job in one of Canada's big cities.  Now that Moncton is growing, employers are finding that some of their best job candidates are people moving back to Atlantic Canada after starting a career outside it.

These stories impressed me.  They demonstrate what makes Intelligent Communities intelligent.  Of course it is broadband and IT, the knowledge workforce, innovation and digital inclusion - the things that ICF measures in our award program.  But behind all that is the ability to see, in today's problem, tomorrow's opportunity.  As Bristol and Moncton continue to grow out of the bad old days, shortages of talent could become a roadblock.  That's the legacy of past economic decline: your talent left when opportunity dried up.   By persuading the people who moved away to return to their roots, they turn that problem on its head.  They say, "Sure, you moved away to find a career that was equal to your talents.  Good for you. But now we can offer you a career like that, right here at home.  And we need people with your kind of talent, initiative and ambition to make home a better place."

That's a powerful message.  Is it having an impact?  I'm going to ask the folks at Return to Roots and see what they say.  And if you have a return-to-roots story from your community, feel free to share it by commenting on our blog or dropping me an email at

Leave a comment

Featured Papers

Intelligent Communities

About the Intelligent Community Forum
The Intelligent Community Forum is a think tank that studies the economic and social development of the 21st Century community. Whether in industrialized or developing nations, communities are challenged to create prosperity, stability and cultural meaning in a world where jobs, investment and knowledge increasingly depend on advances in communications. For the 21st Century community, connectivity is a double-edge sword: threatening established ways of life on the one hand, and offering powerful new tools to build prosperous, inclusive and sustainable economies on the other. ICF seeks to share the best practices of the world's Intelligent Communities in adapting to the demands of the Broadband Economy, in order to help communities everywhere find sustainable renewal and growth. More information can be found at

Robert Bell
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.

John Jung
ICF co-founder John G. Jung originated the Intelligent Community concept and continues to serve as the Forum's leading visionary. Formerly President and CEO of the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance and Calgary Economic Development Authority, he is a registered professional urban planner, urban designer and economic developer. He leads regular international business missions to US, European, Asian, Indian and Australian cities, and originated the ICF Immersion Lab program. John is a regular speaker at universities and conferences and serves as an advisor to regional and national leaders on Intelligent Community development. The author of numerous articles in planning and economic development journals, he has received global and Toronto-based awards for his work in collaboration and strategic development and sits on numerous task forces and international advisory boards.

Louis Zacharilla
ICF co-founder Louis Zacharilla is the creator and presenter of the annual Smart21, Top Seven and Intelligent Community Awards and oversees ICF's media communications and development programs. He is a frequent keynote and motivational speaker and panelist, addressing audiences of tech, academic and community leaders around the world, and writes extensively for publications including American City & County, Continental Airline's in-flight magazine and Municipal World. His frequent appearances in the electronic media have included both television and radio in South Korea, China and Canada. He has served as an adjunct professor at Fordham University in New York and is a Guest Lecturer at Polytechnic University's Distinguished Speaker Series. He holds a Masters Degree from the University of Notre Dame.