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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.

Dusting off the Rust Belt

September 26, 2013 By


Could you identify the Renaissance if you were living in it?  Or if it arrived in your home town?  We love to tag our era, no matter how inaccurate.  Here we are in “The Digital Age.”  (Not long ago, it was “The Space Age.)  Since the dawn of “The Nuclear Age,” we have lived in an “Age of Anxiety,” a phrase made familiar by a great Leonard Bernstein composition.  At its inception the Intelligent Community Forum coined its own phrase, “The Broadband Economy,” to give a blanket description to a global technological phenomenon.   

We name eras to give order to the unpredictable quarks of time.  I joked with my history professors, as I do now with audiences that the Renaissance began predictably.  People went to bed on the third Sunday of October 1502 and woke-up to learn that the Late Middle Ages were over.  What happened next?  Politicians promised that there would be no new taxes and an enterprising artist in Florence began making t-shirts that read, “Kiss Me, I Started the Renaissance.”

It did not happen that way.  The overlap and linkage between one period and the next ensures that causes will always be blurred. However, we DO know that there was a flourishing and a rebirth of culture. Communities became canvases of a new type.  The printing press and other technologies and discoveries accelerated the introduction and distribution of ideas.  Learning – especially a rediscovery of old truths (the Greek Classics) was now central to forces pushing societies forward.  Observation, the essence of the scientific method, was similarly introduced.  The period that followed enlightened wider segments of the population.  The seeds of democracy emerged in Europe and in North America and finally reached all shores.  Science infused itself in daily life mandating collaboration.  We saw a period of progress led by learning, technology and the emergence of “open source government.”  

Sound familiar?

The cliché states that “history does not repeat/but that it rhymes from time to time.”  I would argue against that.  I believe it does repeat because there are universal truths. The challenge for every era is to give a new voice to these old truths.  To refresh community narratives so that they help us recover our best attributes and sustain us for at least three generations.

This lands me in one of the unlikely symbols of the new renaissance, the American state of Ohio.  Why Ohio?  I have been asked this question since we chose to locate our first North American Institute for the Study of the Intelligent Community on the campus of Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio.

There are three reasons: OneCommunity, Dublin and Columbus.  

During the end of a miserable dark age in Cleveland, when nearly one in every three adults fell into the still sadness of poverty, a nonprofit called OneCommunity deployed a community-based broadband network to facilitate what is now the foundation of a new knowledge economy.  At our Institute’s symposium in October, you will hear Lev Gonick, the group’s founder speak about how the network became the new railroad.  So much so, that by 2005, Intel had named the region one of its there “Worldwide Digital Communities.”  In 2008, we named Lev’s partner, Scot Rourke, our Visionary of the Year.  The re-energizing of the troubled region is unstoppable.  Today, OneCommunity’s network extends 2,000 miles and it has introduced innovative ecosystems like its Fiberhood project to encourage entrepreneurship.  

Further to the south, Dublin, Ohio, known for its Memorial Golf tournament, played on a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, demonstrates that size truly does not matter.  With a mere 42,000 souls, the community, which rests on the edge of 15th largest metropolitan area in the nation, the state capital Columbus, creates more jobs than it has people to fill them.  “Rest” is the last thing Dublin does.  It too started with a broadband network which led to the region’s first new hospital in decades and sustains and girds more Fortune 500 companies per capita than any other place in the USA.  Dublin’s Deputy City Manager led the economic development and that is why Dana McDaniel was given the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award by the Intelligent Community Forum. Dublin has the luxury of saying to companies that do not have the potential necessary to fulfill its vision of an Intelligent Community, “thanks for your interest, but we have no room.” 

There is room in nearby Columbus.  In fact, the two communities share room in places like the TechColumbus incubator.  They share the resources of the largest private research institute in the world, Battelle, and certainly benefit from being near and connected to the Ohio Supercomputer and America’s top-ranked metropolitan library.  While there is no art of a Michelangelo type, culture and the pursuit of excellence are robustly expressed in the competitive and rigorous expression of American football.  Non-sports fans persistently underestimate the positive role of athletics on cultures and behavior.  It was important to the ancient Greeks and is no different today, although shoulder pads, masks and helmets seem to be better!

The bottom line is that these two communities lead the state’s recovery and, with Northeast Ohio, have layered a knowledge economy atop an industrial powerhouse that many gave up for dead.  Brookings demographer William Frey reported that Columbus is one of a handful of cities that has reversed the brain drain so prevalent in the post-Industrial Age.  It produced 29,000 jobs in a two-year span.

What you find today in Ohio are Intelligent Communities and an Institute for the study of them.  There is a lot going on there.  The rust and the dusk of a dark period for this part of the world appear to me to be vanishing.  A rebirth is underway.  It does not happen overnight, nor does it come without pain.  The first Renaissance lasted 300 years.  We cannot wait so long now.   If you can find rust in Ohio’s clichéd “rust belt,” please send me an email.

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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.