Intelligent Communities Global Blog Series, Taichung Sets the Stage (Perspective from Louis Zacharilla, Co-Founder of the Intelligent Communities Forum)
The Taiwan city of Taichung was in the spotlight twice this year. Not bad for a place few had heard of in most parts of the Western world – at least until the Academy Awards broadcast in February. During that event, Asian-born director Ang Lee, after being named the recipient of four Oscars for his film Life of Pi, thanked Taichung in his acceptance speech for its technical prowess. Those bragging rights were celebrated. Four months later the city had something else to claim. In June, the city’s Secretary-General (the equivalent of City Manager in the United States), Ms Ching-Chih Liao, stood on the stage at Steiner Film Studios in New York to accept the Intelligent Community of the Year award on behalf of Taichung’s 2.7 million citizens and its charismatic mayor, Jason Hu. An international jury and a research company had ranked this city higher (by a few hundredths of a point) than the six other communities that had been invited to New York for their impressive achievement as innovative, job-creating places which used technology to enable growth.
Madame Liao noted the hard work that her community has done to balance its rural and urban economies, and the role that both broadband and the cloud play to support an infrastructure upon which innovation and technology companies thrive and add value in a place once known as “The Mechanical Kingdom.”
To understand why Taichung went so far in the awards program, it is important to understand that it first grasped the basic importance of the layer of physical infrastructure (telecommunications) and how it would next lead to its ability to exceed at ICF’s other five criteria, including innovation and a knowledge workforce poised to grow its middle-class.
The voters (we do not call them “The Academy,” as they do in Hollywood) noted that the community has an ongoing, broadly supported effort to create jobs. Its job-creation process is based on collaboration among universities, businesses and local and national governments. I like Taichung because it has taken much of the current thinking about the New Urbanism, and the best ways to leverage communications infrastructure, and has put it into practice. It may appear somewhat mechanical in its approach, but it is not. It is a real place with a thriving culture. It is home to 17 colleges and universities and seven major technology parks, one of which generated 8,000 new jobs. Another, in the works, will create upwards of 40,000 as part of technology corridor. The backbone of its economy is made up of 1,500 small-to-midsize precision manufacturers, who share access to an enterprise resource planning system.
But is this truly what it takes to become a Top7 Intelligent Community or, eventually, the Intelligent Community of the Year? It is always the question that I am asked and it is an important one.
The answer is “no.”
Twenty-four hours after Taichung’s victory dance, I was on a plane headed for Brisbane, Australia to explain to a range of groups at the national Digital Productivity Conference exactly what it does take. While on my way to Brisbane the world had a chance to begin to contrast Taichung’s example with one underway directly across the Taiwan Strait in China. The Chinese government announced, to great media fanfare, that it was going to move 250 million souls from the rural or non-urban areas of the country into cities. These places, according to the New York Times, are being thrown together in massive numbers. It raised the question, “Is this an inevitable trend, and the way to make Intelligent Communities for the future? Or is it a model that can only be viable, if it is viable, in the world’s most populous nation and second largest economy?”
That answer is up for grabs, but we believe that without what we call a “rural imperative,” designed to bring the rural and urban into a balance, both sides of a community suffer. Two of the most important aspects of a rural imperative are the sustainability of culture and the ability to “mine” that culture as if it were a raw material. In both cases, broadband has a role to play. In Stratford, Canada, a community of 32,000, the city has found a balance between its agricultural region and its all-important cultural jewel, the North American Shakespeare festival. Technology is used for both. In the countryside it manages the production of milk cows and in the city it ensures that the Festival, which generates CAN$139 million each year, is put on a digital platform for export and offers visitors a pleasant balance between the “countryside” and the life inside a small city, which feels much larger because of its culture, its culinary school and its symphony orchestra (yes, a city of 32,000 has its own symphony orchestra!)
It is not China’s luxury to have small populations. However, China has a land mass of 9.6 million square meters (smaller than America’s and Canada’s) but still large. Where it seems to have failed is in its ability to create a relevant rural imperative. It has assumed the industrial model of Taiwan, but with much less success on a per capita basis. Do communities ignore culture and quality of life at their own peril?
In Australia, the nation is building a broadband infrastructure, called the National Broadband Network, at a price of AUS$43 billion. It is a lot of money. But it senses the importance of having both rural and urban Intelligent Communities poised to compete, and is willing to invest to catch-up. Its rural communities and smaller cities are mobilizing around the first layer of infrastructure. The nation is poised to produce (it hopes), a future Intelligent Community of the Year. This is also the case in the Ontario Province of Canada, where I finished my post-ICF Summit journey. In Brantford, Canada the city’s young mayor had organized groups of people to evaluate the city’s potential to become an Intelligent Community of the Year based five criteria, beginning with broadband. After the luncheon where I spoke, groups performed a community self-assessment test and had discussions to see how long it would take to eventually get to the stage in New York, where they could do what Taichung’s Madame Liao did in early June and claim to be the world’s most intelligent place.
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