August 22, 2011 By Robert Bell
Cities are getting a lot of attention these days. They have been ever since 2008, when the United Nations estimated that half of the world’s people live in cities. Three of the world’s biggest technology companies – IBM, Cisco and Siemens – now have divisions focused on creating smarter cities, cities that are smart-plus connected and on sustainable urban development. Thinkers like Richard Florida write about the Creative Class, who tend to live, you guessed it, in cities. Even the cluster approach to economic development created by Michael Porter in the Nineties presupposes a level of density most likely to be found in urban areas.
At ICF, we are glad that so many companies and thought leaders are focused on the future of urban areas. But here’s a question. What about the 50% of people who do not live in cities? Even if the UN is right in estimating that cities will hold two-thirds of the world’s people by 2050 – what about the rest?
From work with rural communities in the past year, I can tell you one thing about them. The people who live there don’t want to live in cities. They like it just fine where they are. They are proud of the places they live and work. They would just like more economic opportunity to flow their way, so that they and their children can continue to live there and enjoy the quality of life, the traditions and the sense of belonging typical of smaller places.
And if there is one thing that today’s Broadband Economy should make possible, it is to provide greater economic opportunity for rural areas. Plenty of businesses still depend heavily on physical transportation of materials and goods but a growing percentage do not, because consumers and companies have adopted information and communications technology (ICT) at such a blinding speed. In other words, broadband should level the playing field between urban and rural areas. As the Gershwin song says, however, it ain’t necessarily so.
Rural areas have issues of their own. They tend, for example, to have lower education levels. One group of communities I am working with, in the American Midwest, has a much lower percentage of residents with university-level education than the US average. But the percentage of residents with community or technical school training vastly outpaces the rest of America. That was the skill level needed by industries of the past, when manual work paid a living wage, but it will not be the skill level needed in the Broadband Economy. Fortunately, broadband provides a new means to deliver world-class education if we can figure out how to do it right.
When it comes to innovation, how are rural areas going to create clusters of innovative companies in similar industries when their overall population density is low? The likely answer is to think regionally. A single rural community may be too small to bring innovators in a single industry together, but a region of many communities, networked by broadband and linked by relationships between governments and institutions, could achieve the necessary scale.
It will not be easy. Rural communities have not organized themselves this way before. Cities have, for thousands of years. It is why people came together in cities and still do: to buy and sell, to defend themselves, to amass wealth. For the first time in history, rural areas have the same opportunity. But seizing it will take serious innovation in the way rural communities live and work, educate and govern – and perhaps most of all in the way they think about their place in the world.
The authors that UN report did not publish it to celebrate some kind of victory. They were issuing a warning. Making a city work well is hard. Poverty is now growing faster in urban than in rural areas. One billion people lived in overcrowded, polluted and dangerous urban slums in 2008. They came there and keep coming there to escape lack of opportunity in the countryside. If we are really aiming to become a smarter planet, which sounds like a good idea to me, that lack of opportunity is a problem waiting to be solved.
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.