Robert Bell: Government must spend wisely for intelligent communities to innovate and thrive

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), a think tank that studies and promotes the best practices of the world's intelligent communities, as they look to adapt to the demands and seize the opportunities presented by information and communications technology. ITProPortal caught up with him to find out more about intelligent communities and the wider role of the ICF.

What is the Intelligent Community Forum and what does it do?

The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) is a non-profit think tank focused on job creation and economic development in the broadband economy, which impacts local communities around the world. The ICF has become an international movement that has attracted the attention of global political and technology leaders, community activists, thinkers, media observers and academic institutions that study the ICF and its communities. The ICF Foundation consists of 119 cities and regions that have been designated as 'intelligent communities' and which participate in an ongoing global dialogue to strengthen local economies. The ICF also established the first Institute for the Study of the Intelligent Community at Walsh University in Ohio, USA. Discussions are underway to open more institutes in the future.

How would you describe an 'intelligent community' and what are the key attributes that the ICF has found to justify the label?

You are probably more familiar with the term 'smart city'. We like to say that not every smart city is intelligent, but every one of the intelligent communities we have studied is certainly smart. Creating a smart city means driving ICT into the infrastructure and operations of a city to make it run faster, better and cheaper for the benefit of citizens. It's a fine idea, but hardly a new one. We have been making facilities do that since the earliest days of factory automation. Bringing decades of this experience to cities – and taking advantage of the dizzying fall in the cost of sensors, processors, storage and communications – is a worthy goal.

Intelligent communities tend to be rich in the same software, systems and services that define the smart city, but they approach development of them from the other end. They use ICT not just to gain efficiency or reduce costs, but also to create new competitive advantages for the local economy, to solve big, hairy social problems and to extend and enrich the value of local culture. Instead of trying to do more with less, the goal is to do more with more: to generate more economic energy in the form of new employment from new employers; to use ICT to break down social and cultural barriers that hold back part of the population, so that they can participate in the knowledge-based digital economy; to turn local culture into a product for the global economy, and to preserve treasured languages, histories and ways of life that give life meaning. ICT, properly applied, can't help but create efficiency, so intelligent communities also get better, faster and cheaper performance. But that is a side effect of far more meaningful change.

Earlier this year the ICF announced the opening of the nominations for the 2014 Intelligent Community of the Year award, and published a whitepaper to explore the theme of the award. In what ways can a community's culture be seen as an economic driver?

Culture is an economic driver but also a driver of transformation and sometimes an obstacle to necessary change. We decided to focus on it this year because it is an inevitable part of every intelligent community's effort to change its destiny. When communities make skilful use of their cultural assets to promote positive change, they see better returns on their investment of time and resources. When those trying to change the community put themselves into direct opposition with local attitudes and heritage, they often run into a brick wall.

The economic value of culture is easy to measure in ticket receipts, hotel room nights, restaurant meals and spending on creative products. One of our intelligent communities, the Eindhoven region of the Netherlands, asked a local university to evaluate the economic impact of being a European cultural capital. The study showed that past cultural capitals invested an average of €38 million [£32 million], while the total economic impact was more than €70 million [£59 million] from visitor spending. Front-runners, such as Liverpool, managed to gain €1 billion [£844 million] in total economic impact from a €200 million [£169 million] public and private investment. But then, not every city is the birthplace of the Beatles.

At NextGen 13 in London this year, you'll be speaking on the topic of how UK cities will compete in a world of intelligent communities. In your opinion, where is the UK's place on the intelligence ladder and what should the main focus be for local leaders?

Several UK cities are among the 119 intelligent communities we have identified worldwide, including Manchester, Sunderland and Birmingham. Each has challenges that come from its industrial legacy, and each is aggressively creating an economy for the broadband era while working to equip its people with the skills, knowledge and attitudes to succeed in it. All have provided valuable data that the ICF has turned into best practices, which we share with other cities around the world.

When I compare the UK cities to other parts of the world, however, the one thing that leaps out is the extreme centralisation of governmental money and power in Britain. In places where local councils collect more taxes from their citizens and have more autonomy about spending that money, the combination of authority and accountability can produce bolder action, greater innovation and faster progress. It is not an easy problem to solve, since it goes right down to the structural fundamentals of government. But, if I was given a magic wand and permission to wave it, that is what I would change first.

In your ICF book 'Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century', you address how government and businesses can work together to foster innovation and drive local economic growth. What are the main lessons you draw from this?

In the 21st Century, innovation produces most of the economic value by creating new processes, products, services, distribution channels and sources of supply. After studying intelligent communities for 15 years, we have found that the key to sustained and successful innovation is partnership among businesses, local governments and institutions such as universities, technical schools, hospitals and charities. The innovation created by this combination, often called the 'Innovation Triangle' or the 'Triple Helix', tends to build the local economy, instead of rewarding distant shareholders. That's important. It justifies the hard work that goes into creating the collaboration among parties with different needs, who speak different languages. It produces the economic energy that powers everything else, making that community a great place to work, live and raise future generations.

Robert Bell will be speaking at this year's two-day NextGen 13 conference at Wembley. The event takes place between 14-15 October and ITProPortal will be in attendance. To register now, head over to the NextGen 13 website.

Bottom image credit: Flickr (Manchesterfire)