An Intelligent Community Framework

Improved productivity and growth can basically come from two sources:

1. You make more stuff, or
2. You make stuff better.

The first option falls into the commodity trap.  To overly simplify, there’s probably somebody somewhere on this big wide world that can make what you make, and do it cheaper.

The second option is to work smarter, as well as harder.  I’ve been fortunate to be able to participate in the Blandin Foundation’s Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities project, and we’re working on working smarter.

The “Intelligent Communities” part of the project originates in the work of Robert Bell at the Intelligent Community Forum.  The ICF is a non-profit think tank that studies “prosperity, stability and cultural meaning in a world where jobs, investment and knowledge increasingly depend on advances in communications” primarily through an annual awards program.

Although the ICF is based in New York City (cue the Pace salsa guys: New York City?!?) the project organizers believe the Intelligent Community approach has some lessons we can learn from in rural Minnesota.  Mr. Bell came out and spent a couple days with MIRC communities and the Blandin Broadband Conference (#mnbb2010) to talk about Intelligent Communities and stories he’s heard from around the world.  (His response to the Pace salsa guys:  If you are connected, you are in the middle of everywhere.  It doesn’t matter.)

Intelligent Community Indicators

First, consider the Broadband Economy.  If you question the idea that broadband is an essential utility in the 21st century, I’ve already lost you.  As Mr. Bell quipped, broadband is like oxygen.  You don’t miss it until you try to do anything without it.

Then, we have to plug our Knowledge Workers into the global Broadband Economy.  “A knowledge workforce is a labor force that creates economic value through the acquisition, processing and use of information.”

The thing is, not everybody is a Knowledge Worker (yet).  Digital Inclusion efforts help bring along everybody in a community.

Lest we forget the main idea is creating better communities for the future, Intelligent Communities remember that broadband is simply a tool to incubate Innovation, whether public, private or anywhere in between.  Try thinking of the work of economic development as ‘economic gardening‘ instead of ‘hunting and gathering’. Grow what you’ve got instead of focusing on business recruitment.

Then, finally, ICF highlights Marketing and Advocacy.  I’m still debating this last point.  Too many communities waste too much time marketing pipe dreams of the next big thing.  But I can see the point of telling stories, of advocating “a new vision of the community from within.”  Our own critics are usually the most harsh and we’ll go nowhere fast if we don’t believe in ourselves.

Is the Intelligent Community framework a game-changer for rural communities?  Are we suddenly going to see Silicon Prairie take root in Greater Minnesota?  Well, no, of course not.  There’s little truly new in this world and we’ve all seen these ideas before.  That said, the context is valid for rural communities; it’s somewhere to start.

The value I see in the Intelligent Community framework is the relationship of several essential elements for 21st century communities that want to live to see the 22nd century.

  • 100 years ago it was about paved roads and electricity.  Today its about broadband connectivity.
  • 100 years ago it was about the one-room school house.  Today it’s about the explicit link between education and income.
  • 100 years ago it was about the co-operative movement vitalizing rural economies.  Today it’s about including all members of our diverse communities.
  • 100 years ago it was about the industrial revolution.  Today it’s about the information revolution.
  • 100 years ago it was about the Saturday Evening Post.  Today it’s about Social Media—if they don’t know where you are, they probably won’t know where to find you.

So ignore the broadband economy at your own peril.  What has your community done to be an Intelligent Community today?


Edit 20.10.2010:

Read Robert Bell’s thoughts on the Blandin Broadband Conference and the MIRC project.

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