November 4, 2013 By Robert Bell
The community in question is Walla Walla in the US state of Washington, which is located in the northwest corner of the 48 contiguous states. On October 21, ICF named Walla Walla to its Smart21 and, last week, I was there conducting an ICF Master Class for a group of government, education, business and institutional leaders to help them advance the broadband revolution in W2, as the city is affectionately known. My host was David Woolson, president of the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Walla Walla means “many waters” in the language of the Native Americans who first settled in this meeting place of rivers. Natural abundance created agricultural prosperity and a strategic location made Walla Walla a 19th Century shipping hub – until it was bypassed by the trans-continental railroad and its prominence was gradually eclipsed by the coastal city of Seattle. Today, however, Walla Walla still grows wheat that is sought after in Asia, produces fruit sold across the US, and has seen explosive growth in wine-making, from a handful of vineyards to 160 registered locations today. Tourists and retirees seeking fine wines and natural beauty have given birth to a thriving culinary and arts scene, providing residents and businesses with an outstanding quality of life.
Sounds pretty nice – so why change? The city is home to a university and community college, but it provides too few jobs worthy of the talents of their graduates. Agriculture does not employ many people and tourism does not create a stable year-round economy. As a result, the population has not grown for decades. And if you are not growing in the economy of the 21st Century, you are gradually losing ground. W2 needs to change for the sake of citizens being born today and citizens yet to come.
The Chamber of Commerce is leading an effort to leverage Walla Walla’s existing strengths to create broadband-powered growth. In 2012, thanks to a broadband stimulus grant, the nonprofit Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet) completed expansion of its fiber backbone into the Walla Walla Valley. The city is now working with carriers, institutions and businesses on ways to roll out local connectivity to fill gaps and deliver significant bandwidth where needed.
The Chamber established a film office that has already attracted TV and film shoots and is working to attract a full-time production unit for TV, film or Web content as the anchor of a digital media and gaming cluster. Based on the success of winemaking, it is driving the creation of a Plough2Plate program to help small local food producers with marketing, branding and distribution. And it has begun to integrate the Hispanic business community – in a city where 25% of the population is now Latin American – into the mainstream to boost the growth of both Latino and Anglo businesses.
Still, absent a crisis, it is hard to get a community to change. Judging by the Master Class, though, W2 has one big advantage. I have rarely met people more willing to engage, to seize on new ideas and challenge old ones. Champions like these can be powerful agents for changing things even when things seem to be going so well.
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.