June 11, 2014 By Louis Zacharilla
I saw something that I have never, ever seen during an ICF awards announcement: I saw people from a new Intelligent Community of the Year crying on the stage. Congratulations to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on its success Thursday night, as well as for its successes on the 364 days and nights before then. Toronto has become our new standard bearer and articulates what is possible in our cities and towns. I can tell from your emotional outbursts, Toronto, that this really means something to you. All of your citizens should be happy today, and I am sure most are.
June 4, 2014 By John Jung
How many times have you been elated when the lights of a busy boulevard were actually in sync, guiding you from one side of the city to the other in record time? Or how about the first time you were able to enter your home from the outdoor heat and humidity and it was refreshingly cool, just as you set it from your office on your smartphone before heading home? As a municipal asset manager, your analytics of the utility system saved the city millions of dollars and the use of solar and wind turbines have put you on the road to a sustainable future. Simply put, as a smart city, things work better. Smart cities create efficiencies, but also confidence and reputational capital as a city that delivers. That is great news for the city’s economic development chief. He is taking his city’s competitive advantages on the road and promoting his city as unique and differentiated from other competitors.
May 21, 2014 By Louis Zacharilla
By now you have met or heard about our 2014 Visionary of the Year, Suneet Singh Tuli. You may have heard about him before from sources such as Forbes Magazine, or the dozens of other awards and media coverage of him and his company, Datawind. Suneet has not been shy about promoting his vision to bring “the other three billion” across the digital divide. The world has not been shy about embracing him. We are going to be like the world on June 5, as he addresses our Awards Dinner.
Suneet is our Visionary of the Year because like those before him his work is ensuring that “The Middle of Nowhere,” as people sadly and too often call their hometown or region, becomes Somewhere. And Somewhere Big and Somewhere in a Hurry. Suneet’s Aakash II/UbiSlat tablet, the world’s cheapest computer currently in mass production, is designed to make real the promise of eliminating The Middle of Nowhere. To do it, though, Intelligent Communities must continue to rise up.
Suneet has been working to justify three simple claims that I make everywhere that I go. The first is that the potential to live anywhere you wish, no matter where that place is, has finally become within the realm of the possible. Once there, and with the right level of connectivity, you can then participate in the global economy. This is the “Broadband Economy” that we often speak about. These two possibilities are the real game-changers for the rural sectors, small towns and cities which struggle to enter the new century.
Certainly for the parts of India where Suneet is having his first wave of success, the claim is not only a “game-changer,” but a life-saver. It is a matter of survival because the real key to survival for the three billion people for whom he has devised the killer device is education. And right now, education in India, with the exception of the over-hyped tech meccas like New Delhi, is literally a joke. If you don’t believe me Google, “India Teacher Funny” and cry your heart out.
Like national governments, the global educational infrastructure is dysfunctional at best. IT is the Middle of Nowhere. And most national governments seem clueless mainly because they look for a single solution when a billion solutions must be tried. Evidence this by looking at Ireland, where the political demand for austerity resulted in an E85 million propping-up of its sour banks, while communities were forced to undergo humiliating cuts to healthcare and education. As you would expect, educated, talented Irish people, like their peers in India, said simply, “Government funny,” and moved away. Does it suggest that national governments are unable to solve the very complex problems that local leaders and entrepreneurs like Suneet Singh seem able and keen to tackle? As they do, they enable the third claim I make, which is that the size of a community no longer matters. The size of their ideas, the new source of economic energy however, counts plenty.
As Suneet so poignantly noted in his address at the ICF Institute in October, his device immediately localizes education by bringing the world to the browsers. His strategy for India (and anywhere else) is simple: “To end mediocrity in education by accessing the Internet.” If you watch the video from his address, you will see a slide that will pummel you if you live far from a city. It reinforces what you may already believe, which is that the further away you are, the greater the deterioration in the quality of your education and in the quality of your teacher. This is the sad case in India. It has little to do with parental aspiration or the reliably disappointing lack of performance by national leaders. It has everything to do with lack of access, lousy roads and crime which makes it intolerable for a good teacher who wants to stay home to teach, to do so.
“No one wants this kind of education. But that’s what they have to accept,” Suneet said. Yet he is optimistic because he has seen the light and it is as simple as a hole in the wall. Professor Sugata Mitra’s famous Hole in the Wall Experiments in India demonstrated that children taking a standard math test in New Delhi would score on average 68%. The further he tested students who lived furthest from the city, however, the worse the performance. The quality of education deteriorated in direct proportion from its distance to the city. At 250 kilometers outside of New Delhi, the same test generated results in the low teens. 70% of the people of India live in places where there are no paved roads, which means the government has paved its own way to ignorance.
The professor than proved Suneet’s proposition. His office was near a slum. Just outside his office was a wall that separated it from his air-conditioned office. Mitra put a high-speed computer in the wall, connected it to the Internet, and watched to see who might use it. To his delight, curious children were immediately attracted to the new device. When they asked if they could touch it, Mitra said, "It is on your side of the wall. The rules say whatever is on your side, you can touch.” And touch it they did.
May 7, 2014 By Robert Bell
Twenty years ago, the Walla Walla High School hired a consultant named Dennis DeBroeck to install computers and a network in the school. They wound up hiring him full-time – not to manage IT but to teach it in vocational education classes for students who were not expected to go to university.
When he started his first class, there were no computers for the students to work with. But Dennis had built his own small businesses, so he did not wait for the bureaucracy to deliver but borrowed, built and scrounged to provide. He started with a course in basic computer science but soon grew dissatisfied with teaching theory to young people who needed and wanted to get elbow deep into something they could care about.
Computer science soon evolved into hands-on digital media: modeling of objects, animals and people in three dimensions, texturizing the models to make them realistic, animating them and building simulations and games around them. He negotiated cheap licensing deals with the major providers of digital animation and game software and kept expanding his offerings. He built his own network, because the school’s could not possibly support his students’ needs, and assembled terabytes of server storage.
Today, Mr. DeBroeck teaches an exhausting schedule of one-hour classes for a total of 148 students. His technology budget - $500 last year – has shrunk to zero. But he has the air of a happy man. His students work hard, with more experienced students helping others over the hurdles. You can raise your hand to ask Mr. DeBroeck a question, but his standard answer is to tell you to check the online manuals and figure it out. Some kids struggle more than others, but they all learn the lesson most fundamental to success: in the end, you are your own best teacher.
His method appears to work. His past graduates work in senior positions through the entertainment industry, and his more recent grads are leaving town for media arts programs at prestigious universities, arriving there with many times the hard-core production experience of most incoming freshmen.
Walla Walla, a 2014 Smart21 Community of 30,000 people in the southeast corner of Washington State, is now trying to figure out how to forge a creative economy that can generate local opportunities for all this talent. ICF is helping with strategy and capacity-building through our Community Accelerator program. A development economist named Chris Mefford is creating a business plan for an incubator to help young people from DeBroeck’s program and the city’s award-winning community college to start and grow their own businesses. Broadband providers are collaborating on strengthening the digital infrastructure of the town. The Chamber of Commerce is working to interest a digital entertainment company to locate a studio in the city, where an outstanding quality of life is a major benefit.
It is still early days – but they are doing all the things it takes to build a digital economy on top of their successful agricultural one. I believe in patterns. The patterns I see in Walla Walla are those of an Intelligent Community getting ready for take-off.
They also have one more thing going for them. They have Mr. DeBroeck.
He teaches technology, sure. Many of his students are the kids that nobody expects to finish high school. Whatever their talents and potential, they learn something far more important from him than digital media. It is printed right on a sticker that he hands out to every new student. “Do right,” it says. “do your best” and “show people you care.”
April 29, 2014 By Louis Zacharilla
Since 1999 I have been working for the Intelligent Community movement to pass the point of asking whether broadband is “important” and turn to a more holistic discussion about what has always been, for me, the most interesting aspect of my work. That is, to use the tools of the “Broadband Economy” to unleash a revived global economy. I believe this is only done through a re-energized community, which is the only place where enough innovation can take place for a real transformation to begin. That is ICF’s proposition. To use broadband seamlessly, without the techno babble, and to organize communities in ways that make them canvases for economic and social innovations.
As I completed my Top7 site visits this Spring, done in a year when our theme was “Community as Canvas,” I realized that the longed-for threshold is being crossed. What I found consistently among the Top7 that I visited, despite vast differences in economic might, politics and scale, was that broadband is viewed as a vital tool for connecting culture to the economy, and for allowing ambitious social and economic goals to be pursued. In the case of Kingston, Canada, for example it has the ambition to become Canada’s Most Sustainable City. Only a broadband network will provide the type of infrastructure to unleash its growing incubation and commercialization of applied sciences in the area of GreenTech.
For the vast majority of our Intelligent Communities, especially the Top7 who have been invited to New York in June, a “broadband and the light switch analogy” apply. While the linear-minded marvel over technology and its devices for their own sake, the poetry is in what they enable. A geek drools over a device or an assurance that “you will have a fast broadband connection.” But isn’t that like marveling over the way the lights come on in a room when the wall switch is flicked? While it is marvelous, and should be appreciated, no one spends a hell of a lot time discussing electricity. What is more important is what happens under those lights in that room. Kingston has a goal and broadband is the train they ride to get there, not the destination itself.
The light has gone on for the Top7, who are using broadband to reach higher goals, many of them with an eye toward the future. They take a page from Google CEO Larry Page who, when asked what most companies get wrong replied, “The future. They do not look at it often enough.”
Some of the goals of the Top7 that continue to interest me the most are those which reinforce culture and universal values, and push them at the future. Culture is increasingly aligned with economic output. In Arlington, Virginia, Cultural Affairs has been moved from Parks and Recreation to the Economic Development Department, where there is an ongoing mashing, all of it policy-based, to link entrepreneurship to art and culture. Arlington has among its creative and commercial arts community a wonderful little customized sound design company called Human Factor. Among its “hits” were its production of the sound design and effects for the (USA’s) History Channel television series, “The Bible.” It is a fun company with a serious name that I am going to use when I describe why we need to get past broadband and more deeply into our other criteria.
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 www.intelligentcommunity.org.
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.
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.
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.