Building the Smart Communities of Tomorrow
By John M. Eger, San Diego Union-Tribune, Sunday, October 26, 1997
In a space of five years, the great global network of computer networks called the Internet has blossomed from an arcane tool used by academics and government researchers into a worldwide mass communications medium, now poised to become the leading carrier of all communications and financial transactions affecting life and work in the 21st Century.
The Internets so-called World Wide Web has been even more spectacular. With 30 million-plus users worldwide, growing at 15 percent per month, it is being integrated into the marketing, information, and communications strategies of nearly every major corporation, educational institution, political and charitable organization, community, and government agency in the United States. Other nations are not too far behind.
No previous advance -- not the telephone, the television set, cable television, the VCR, the facsimile machine, nor the cellular telephone -- has penetrated public consciousness and secured such widespread public adoption this quickly.
Where is this all leading? Predictions range from electronic "virtual communities" in which people interact socially with like-minded Internet users around the globe, to fully networked homes in which electronic devices and other appliances whir to life on the homeowner's spoken command. From Bill Gates and pop-scholars, like Megatrends John Naisbitt, futuristic and business leaders alike paint a future that looks a lot like science fiction -- except that it's fast becoming reality.
In recent years, it has become fashionable to refer to the domain in which Internet-based communications occur as "cyberspace" -- an abstract "communications space" that exists both everywhere and nowhere. But until flesh-and-blood human beings can be digitized into electronic pulses in the same way in which computer scientists have transformed data and images, the denizens of cyberspace will have to live IRL ("in real life") in some sort of real, physical space - a physical environment that will continue to dominate and constrain our future lives in the same way that our homes, neighborhoods, and communities do so today.
The Rise of Smart Communities
Already, communities and nations around the globe -- often without being consciously aware of it -- are starting to sketch out the first drafts of the "cyberplaces" of the 21st century. Singapore has launched its IT2000 initiative, also known as the Intelligent Island Plan. Japan is building an electronic future called Technopolis, or Teletopia. France, as early as 1976, initiated a plan called Telematique, an aggressive effort to place personal computers on every desktop and in every home in the country. And in the United States, the Clinton Administration is pursuing a vigorous National Information Initiative, or NII, one of whose early goals is to link every school and every school child to the Internet by the year 2000.
Many communities in the United States -- and indeed worldwide -- have undertaken similar initiatives. Stockholm, Seattle, and Sacramento, for instance, have constructed large-scale public-access networks that residents can use to obtain information about government activities, community events, and critical social services like disaster preparedness, child abuse prevention, and literacy education. The university town of Blacksburg, Virginia, has transformed itself into an electronic village, in which the majority of the town's businesses and residents are connected to the local data network. And cities like San Diego, as part of its "City of the Future" project, are building even more sophisticated electronic infrastructures that, one day soon, will allow a wide variety of local government, business, and institutional transactions.
Recognizing that electronic networks like these will play an increasingly important role in a municipality's economic competitiveness, the State of California early last year launched a statewide "Smart Communities" program, which has been managed since its inception by the International Center for Communications at San Diego State University. The program defines a "smart community" as "a geographical area ranging in size from a neighborhood to a multi-county region whose residents, organizations, and governing institutions are using information technology to transform their region in significant, even fundamental ways."
California's Smart Community programs fundamental premise was that smart communities were not, at their core, exercises in the deployment and use of technology, but in the promotion of economic development, job growth, and an increased quality of life. In other words, technological propagation in smart communities wasn't an end in itself, but only a means to a larger end with clear and compelling community benefit.
Technology, Culture, and Place
One of the main reasons we suspected that information networks could have a profoundly transformative effect on people, businesses, and communities was that every other major technology advance that has shrunk space and time also has remade society in fundamental and important ways.
Transportation, over the millennia has done more than perhaps any other technological advance to bring the world's people closer together. But telecommunications developments, including telephones and their more modern kin, accentuated the trends inaugurated by transportation advances in three slightly different, but very important ways. First, by allowing for rapid communication between distant sites, they made it possible for business and social relationships to flourish over long distances, permitting workers and investment capital to migrate to the most desirable locations and those with the highest economic return. Second, they extended the reach of these economic, social, and other relationships far beyond national borders, creating what was truly a global economy. And third, and perhaps most significantly, they made possible for the first time the nearly instantaneous transmission of information, collapsing both space and time in a way that no other previous technological advance had done.
The Internet, the World Wide Web, and their successors are likely to produce consequences that are as great or greater than anything we have seen so far -- and that are apt to be equally unexpected. If we are to maximize the positive contributions of these new technologies while minimizing their negative ones, we must begin to appreciate now how these technologies are likely to affect our people, our culture, and our perceptions of place in the years to come.
The Architecture of the Smart Community
There are a few general trends worth noting. The first is the growing ubiquitousness of telecommunications networks. Because it is based largely on the existing telephone system, the Internet today spans the globe, with its tentacles reaching into more than 130 countries and connecting, in one form or another, an estimated 30 million to 50 million people. This expansion shows no signs of letting up. Indeed, as the Internet migrates from its almost purely copper-based telephone platform to cable, satellite, and digital cellular systems, the methods of connecting to the Internet will proliferate, access costs will decline, and the number of users will skyrocket.
The second general trend in the development of the Internet is the rapid expansion in bandwidth. In its original incarnation (which lasted for more than two decades), the Internet was primarily a low-volume text-based medium, and so required little transmission capacity. The emergence of the World Wide Web, with its heavy use of graphics, photographs, and animation, changed this equation dramatically, and even top-of-the-line modem technologies -- the 28.8 and 33.6 kbps modems -- quickly proved inadequate to the task of transporting these billions of bits of graphical information, causing many parts of the Internet to react like a two-lane freeway suddenly jammed with a hundred- or thousand-fold increase in the number of vehicles.
In San Diego, the media giant Time Warner already has begun to install modem connecting devices which vastly increase the speed of Internet traffic within its service area, and providers in other cities are expected to quickly follow suit. Other technologies make possible transmission speeds of 50 times that of current modems, with further advances -- some revolutionary -- likely to occur in the near future and offer us unlimited capabilities.
None of this means that all of the world's five billion people will be hooked up to the Internet by the end of 1997. What it does mean is that the potential for connecting to the Internet will be essentially unlimited -- and that, for an increasing share of the Internet-ready population, users will be able to send and receive not just text and simple graphics, but broadcast-quality video, audio, advanced computer graphics, and virtual reality. And they will be able to do so, not with the long waits that are common over the World Wide Web today, but nearly instantaneously.
The third and perhaps most important trend in the development of the Internet is the proliferation of access points. Heretofore, logging on to the Internet has required a fairly sophisticated computer, costing in the neighborhood of $2,000 or more, which has priced the Internet out of the range of a large share of low- and middle-income families in the United States, not to mention the vast majority of the rest of the world's population. This high cost of access has combined with the relative inconvenience of using a computer -- sitting before a computer, unlike a television set, is hardly the most relaxing experience -- to restrict the Internet largely to the technologically oriented, well-to-do minority. This is one of the main reasons why many communities like San Diego, have undertaken aggressive public access initiatives to install computers and kiosks at community centers, public libraries, and other public sites in order to make it possible for people who don't own a computer to use the Internet.
But this situation also is changing. Already, several companies, including Sony and Phillips, have introduced devices that allow people to log on to and browse the Internet directly from their television sets, and the number of such devices is likely to multiply over the next two years, particularly as cable television companies become more involved in the Internet-access business. Similarly, other companies are beginning to distribute videoconferencing equipment that will allow people to make videophone calls over the Internet, to and from their television sets.
As a result of developments like these, we are quickly reaching a point at which the world will be interconnected by a next-generation Internet that allows for instantaneous transmission of text, photographs, and broadcast-quality audio, video, and virtual reality, not to expensive computers nor any other new technological device, but to the ordinary television sets that are now in place in hundreds of millions of living rooms worldwide.
The Changing Geopolitical Context
These technological changes are taking place at the same time that the world's geopolitical landscape is being radically redefined. No longer dependent upon national governments for policy ideas and information, no longer content to be bound by the one-size-fits-all pronouncements of national legislators, local leaders are taking social and economic matters into their own hands, pursuing policies that will promote job creation, economic growth, and an improved quality of life within their region regardless of the policies enacted at the national level.
This "reverse flow of sovereignty," in which local governments are assuming more responsibility than ever before for their residents' well-being, has come about at a time when information and markets of all types are becoming increasingly globalized. News, currency, and economic and political intelligence -- not to mention products and services -- no longer can be contained within national borders, but flow, often instantaneously, to all corners of the globe, making it difficult or even impossible for national governments to influence political or economic conditions over which, not long ago, they held unquestioned control. The result is a geopolitical paradox in which the nation-state, too large and distant to solve the problems of localities, has become too small to solve the borderless problems of the world.
Locally based companies that once competed with firms only in their own area code, for instance, now must battle companies throughout the world for their customers' loyalty and dollars; local governments that once had to compete for high-value residents against only nearby municipalities and the amenities they could muster now must struggle to attract such residents in a world where a growing number of people can live nearly anywhere they want and still have access to the same jobs, the same income, and the same products and services to which they have grown accustomed.
To meet these challenges, many far-sighted localities have begun to transform themselves from fractured, often highly contentious regions in which a thousand interests compete for larger shares of a shrinking pie into something more akin to the city-states of old than to the archetypical municipalities of modern-day political science texts.
Those that are succeeding, like Smart Valley and San Diego possess a number of common features. One characteristic is collaboration among different functional sectors (government, business, academia, non-profit organizations, and others), and among different jurisdictions within a given geographical region. These "collaboratories" are fast becoming the new model for successful urban organization in the global age, and the only local political arrangement likely to make it possible for besieged municipalities to survive in the increasingly intense global competition that lies ahead.
This point, admittedly a subtle one, is often lost in discussions of building smart communities, and even in the implementation of many of the smart community projects themselves. But it couldn't be more important.
The Technological Mandate for Smart Communities
It is here that telecommunications and information technology -- the force behind localities' current geopolitical and economic predicament -- also can be their salvation. More so than any previous technological innovation, this development will erase the barriers of time and space that physical geography has long imposed, giving a municipality's residents and businesses round-the-clock access to information that can enhance their lives, their prosperity, and their well-being.
These are just some of the many possible ingredients of the technologically driven smart communities of the coming century, and they are the basis on which communities around the globe are likely to compete for high-value residents, jobs, and businesses in the years ahead. They also are apt to be one of the most powerful ways in which financially strapped localities will be able to reduce the cost and burden of government while simultaneously increasing the quality and level of government services.
This new competitive environment, however, will not come about automatically. Communities must develop a coherent and compelling vision that makes it clear how the new information networks are going to promote job growth, economic development, and improved quality of life within the community; and communicate that vision broadly. This is the key element that is missing from so many smart community plans today, and yet it is the most essential: for unless a community knows precisely where it is headed and how it hopes to get there, it is unlikely to reach its destination, to its detriment and all of us who are stakeholders in this new but uncertain future
John M. Eger, Van Deerlin Professor of Communications at SDSU, is President and Chief Executive Officer of the World Foundation for Smart Communities.