August 27, 2013 By Louis Zacharilla
“...Of your soul I make you captain. Most blessed among men. Move on. You will never hear from me again.” – Dante, The Divine Comedy
The Finger Lakes Region, New York State (USA) - As the Summer begins to slowly give way to smells of Autumn in this part of North America, where native tribes once believed a Great Creator had pressed his hands into the earth and created eight of the most placid lakes on the continent, I am back in my hometown. This is a place where the four seasons and nature mark transitions which pace the rhythms of life and, as such, its local economy. Quarterly earnings reported here are tomatoes on the vine and soon, more seriously, wheat and apples. They have a smell that only can come when the plants are located a few steps away. The garlic and basil, eggplants and eggs all attract the eye of the region’s growing class of chefs. The vegetables and fruits in the Finger Lakes would play well in Paris, New York or Stockholm. They played like a Verdi opera once, long ago, in the kitchens of female immigrants from Reggio Calabria and Bari who settled there as their husbands found work.
That music stopped and today neither the old railroad or the new one, broadband, is much top-of-mind. Aging demographics and decidedly non-entrepreneurial attitudes still prevail. While teenagers pore over their phones, they are not smartphones. iPads are rare. This is not to say there are none, or that people with ambition and hope have fled. It is not so. In fact, some say, more and more people are taking up here than in times past. Not more than in those times after the railroad stopped needing Italian and Irish immigrants to build and then maintain the first ‘superhighway,” or when Hickock and Jackson & Perkins, and dozens and dozens of other private sector employers skipped out for better, cheaper and certainly faster climates.
But something good may be happening. One can feel it. A peppermint festival draws large crowds. It reminds people that there was once an entrepreneurial spirit here. It may subtly reinforce for them too that sentiment is no substitute for what really occurred during real “peppermint days,” when 90% of the land in the county was devoted to peppermint harvesting and the mint oil brought to nearby factories emerged into a dominant global industry. Today peppermint is leveraged for cultural dollars. Culture is capital. Advocacy is also appearing. A reporter from the Finger Lakes Times came to my mother’s front porch and interviewed me about my work. Her editors knew that the “local boy” had left home long ago and not returned. Now they want to bring the fruits of his work back to a familiar place. Home. Like the next door neighbors, the reporter was curious to know what the “rest of the world” is up to. The trait of insularity, which is suspect of anything made too far south of Route 14 or too West of 31, much less Taichung, Stratford and Stockholm, is giving way to a type of rural cosmopolitanism that only the Internet and the urge to recapture the rhythm of the seasons can deliver.
But wounds from missing the first salvos of the “Broadband Economy” are obvious. An otherwise sunny and hot July was punctuated by the hard-edges that jut out when a place is not future-proof. My mother, a robust 89, was hospitalized with a medical emergency. Her stay in the local hospital revealed to me, painfully, what the people in Intelligent Communities from Dublin, Ohio (which has a paperless hospital) to Taichung know well. Broadband networks and healthcare are as interlocked as the farmer and his peppermint were long ago. The communications system in the hospital was so bad that my mother, admitted for diverticulitis, was served foods with seeds for two days because no electronic charts communicated to the dietary department that they were a no-no. Simple stuff can kill you. In this case, mercifully, it did not. Otherwise, a lot of those Calabrian recipes would have vanished to Heaven. But people move to places that are connected in all ways. Connectivity equals rural health. This is the rural imperative.
In an upcoming blog and in an article for Mayors & Cities, my colleagues John Jung and Robert Bell, will write about the power of broadband when it is harnessed to innovation. Both make compelling cases for municipal networks and detail examples of successes, and the type of deal-making architecture that aligned need, pricing and social goals. What is essential now is that the pie be taken from the sky on this stuff, and put on the table. As Robert said in a recent interview on Gigabit Nation, “We are not talking about whether or not broadband is valuable. We are talking about who is going to pay for it.”
We know the price when the railroad and the boy leave town, never to return. Fortunately, both are inclined to return. As this warm season of rest and trial ends, let us harvest more fiber and return the villages to those who love them.
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.