On 7 June the mayors, administrative officers, CIOs and other officials from seven cities waited impatiently in a room in New York to learn which of them would be named the intelligent community of the year. They hailed from Europe, Asia and North America, and were joined in anticipation by other attendees of the Intelligent Community Forum’s (ICF) annual summit. After a speech by BlackBerry co-founder Michael Lazaridis, the announcement was finally made. The leader among seven remarkable communities was Taichung, a port city that is home to 2.7 million citizens in Taiwan.
The seven finalists, called the "Top7 Intelligent Communities of the Year", are a wide-ranging group. They include large places (Toronto, Canada; and Taoyuan County also in Taiwan), mid-size municipalities (Columbus, Ohio; Oulu, Finland; and Tallinn, Estonia) and the city of Stratford, Ontario — population 32,000.
What makes a leader?
Why did Taichung stand out among its peers? One factor was powerful collaboration on job creation among universities, business and government, with staggering results. The city is home to 17 colleges and universities and to seven major technology parks, just one of which generated 8,000 new jobs. The backbone of the economy is made up of 1,500 small-to-mid-size precision manufacturers, who share access to an enterprise resource planning system developed in collaboration with universities and the city. Offering capabilities that none of them could individually afford, it has sharply increased their operating efficiency.
Another factor was skill in managing the digital divide. When the city and county of Taichung merged in 2010, it created a huge metropolis uniting completely different economies — a seaport city where 70% of employees work in services, and a rural county where 50% work in industry and where agriculture is a significant source of income. The city and telecom companies partnered to create thousands of wireless hotspots, fibre-based broadband and 4G WiMAX now reaching more than 90% of the population. Taiwan has the world’s highest density of convenience stores, and Taichung has used this network to deploy e-government services throughout its territory.
Taichung has also transformed a somewhat gritty urban environment — nicknamed the Mechanical Kingdom — into a place known for culture, from food to the arts. Not just a “nice to have” feature, culture adds to the quality of life that attracts Taiwan’s most innovative individuals and companies. Ang Lee’s Life of Pi was filmed in Taichung, a coup for the city’s film industry.
Not everything Taichung touches, however, turns to gold. ICF’s analysts identified two concerns that may foreshadow problems ahead. For all the strength of its universities, the city has a smaller percentage of residents enrolled in higher or vocational education than four of its top seven peers. This reflects a city where there is still strong demand for relatively unskilled factory labour. That’s fine for the moment but Taiwan is increasingly competing with lower-cost countries for low-skilled work, and its future lies in knowledge-based industries.
The other concern is the dominant role played by Taichung’s flamboyant and very successful mayor, Jason Hu. ICF’s co-founder who visited the city called him a “rock star”. It appears that Hu is the driving force behind most of Taichung’s achievements, a model that is frequently seen in Asian intelligent communities. Hu recently underwent cardiac surgery, however, and there is inevitably a question about the fate of his many programmes and strategies when he is no longer in office.
Rounding out the top seven
ICF’s award programme gathers information on how successful communities turn the tools of the broadband economy to their advantage to generate local economic value. They offer case studies in developing knowledge-based economies and share strategies for accelerating innovation among businesses and government.
Candidates for the award are judged on an in-depth questionnaire, evaluated by an independent research firm, and a site inspection. An international jury then casts its vote. All of that data, available online at www.intelligentcommunity.org, flowed into the decision to name Taichung as intelligent community of the year.
The awards, however, are not a winner-takes-all matter. All of the 2013 top seven communities offer vitally important lessons on the path to economic growth and social and cultural richness in the 21st century.
Stratford was challenged as many are around the world with reliance on a few industries, a rural location and lack of scale. It responded by attracting a satellite campus of a leading university, developing a high-speed network and building academic-business partnerships — including one with its well-regarded Shakespeare festival — to grow and attract leading-edge ICT companies.
Tallinn took the risk to invest in ICT at a time when every dollar was at a premium. The investment paid off with several multinational companies choosing to make a home in Tallinn, each wanting to take part in the culture of innovation that was developing in Estonia, and each directly or indirectly helping to build the infrastructure needed for an enriched community.
Taichung joins a select group of intelligent communities of the year that includes Riverside, California; Stockholm, Sweden; Suwon, South Korea and Eindhoven in the Netherlands. And as one of 119 intelligent communities named by ICF, it assumes the responsibility of providing an economic development model for communities large and small around the globe.