Is being a smart city enough? What about being a truly intelligent community?
Robert Bell lays out the case for intelligent communities--cities like Austin that go beyond the application of ICT for greater efficiency to using technology to improve education levels and train up their workforce for the knowledge-based digital economy.
"Smart" and "intelligent" are supposed to mean the same thing. When it comes to urban areas, however, the meanings diverge. They may be moving on parallel tracks but they are different trains headed to distinct destinations.
On one hand, smart cities are big news in urban planning. These initiatives turn to technology for the solution to their problems, from traffic congestion to leakage from water mains, public safety to parking tickets. They use information and communications technology (ICT) to do more with less. For example the European Union has a smart cities initiative focused on energy efficient and low carbon technologies with goals that stretch to 2020. And in 2008 construction began on Abu Dhabi's Masdar City, a $22 billion project that is designed to produce zero emissions or waste while becoming the core of a cleantech cluster in the Emirates.
In such smart city projects, in one end goes a lot of specialised ICT — sensors, actuators and servers run by sophisticated software developed and installed by brainy engineers. Out the other end comes better, faster and cheaper performance. Once-murky and inefficient processes become more efficient, visible and measurable. Turnaround gets faster and more reliable. Costs fall permanently and fewer people are needed to run things. In many cases, environmental impact is reduced.
Intelligent communities, on the other hand, generate more economic energy. The goal is not simply to create new process efficiencies, but new ICT-based industries and jobs.
Intelligent communities, on the other hand, generate more economic energy. The goal is not simply to create new process efficiencies, but new ICT-based industries and jobs. Without these new tax-revenue-creating industries and jobs, the math around smart city efficiencies simply doesn't add up. A shrinking tax base can't pay for more high tech infrastructure projects, no matter how smart or efficient. By focusing on wealth creation and prosperity, intelligent communities use ICT-driven initiatives as springboards to give more people the chance to participate in the world's knowledge-based digital economy, instead of being overtaken or made redundant by inexorable progress.
Creating opportunity in Austin
While smart cities focus on technology, intelligent communities focus on the people and how they might put that technology to work. The smartness comes as a by-product of transformation — necessary steps on the path to something that makes a much greater difference in the lives of residents in the community.
In Austin, Texas, the dot-com bust of 2000 saw unemployment surge from an enviable 2% in 1999 to a worrying 6.7% in 2004. In response, the City of Austin partnered with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce to develop its first comprehensive economic development strategy. The plan, called Opportunity Austin, aimed to put the region on the road to economic recovery after the loss of thousands of high-wage ICT jobs. Its 2004 goal was to create 72,000 new jobs and add $2.9 billion to the regional payroll by 2009.
Among many successful Austin initiatives, the city government's Emerging Technology Program is linked to powerful regional assets like the University of Texas at Austin's internationally recognised computer science and technology faculties. The programme built partnerships among the chamber of commerce, local incubators and skills development organisations to connect entrepreneurs to talent, advice, resources and funding. Opportunity Austin exceeded the city's wildest expectations. Instead of creating 72,000 jobs, it clocked 124,000 jobs by 2009, and added $5.7 billion to regional payrolls, nearly double its $2.9-billion goal.
The success of the first five-year plan led to Opportunity Austin 2.0, which seeks to create 117,000 more new jobs and add $10.8 billion to the region's payrolls by 2015. The city is well on the way. Between 2009 and 2012, the years following the USA's great recession, Austin had already added 27,000 jobs.
While many of Austin's job creating initiatives stemmed from a global influx of talent into Austin's world-class colleges and universities, many homegrown youth in Austin lived in a completely different economy, largely cut off from opportunity by poor educational attainment, low expectations and a culture that did not encourage upward mobility. As an intelligent community that realises prosperity must be broad-based and equitable for all its citizens, Austin attacked this issue with a Matriculation Task Force and funded a programme called "20,010 by 2010" to increase the metropolitan area's university enrolment by 20,010 more students through 2010. It took slightly longer than expected to reach that goal, but by October of 2011, it was attained.
Many homegrown youth in Austin lived in a completely different economy, largely cut off from opportunity by poor educational attainment ... Austin attacked this issue with a Matriculation Task Force and funded a program called "20,010 by 2010" to increase the metropolitan area's university enrolment.
Because the Austin Chamber estimates that 75% of jobs becoming available in central Texas through 2018 will require higher education, it set a new goal to increase higher education enrolment to 100,000 from its homegrown population by 2015.
Out of this ICT-driven intelligent community prosperity, Austin has built up a rich educational infrastructure and creative and cultural assets including the South by Southwest Music Festival and Film & Interactive Conference, which together inject over $100 million into the economy every year.
The Intelligent Community Forum documented Austin's achievements and those of our other 2012 Top7 Intelligent Communities in a new book entitled, Seizing our Destiny. The theme that runs through the book is that being an Intelligent Community is about using ICT to leverage a better future for your town, city or region, so that it can have more and do more of the things that make life rewarding. Being an intelligent community is about seizing a new and greater destiny.