Innovator’s Journey: Moving Beyond a Smart City to an Intelligent Community

Robert Bell discusses how shifting your mindset about what innovation means can make a big impact.

ARTICLE | Aug 13, 2020
Robert Bell presentation

When we hear “innovation”, our thoughts may go straight to technology and what digital tools we can use to solve problems. But how can communities look beyond just technology and move from “smart” to “intelligent”? AFI recently talked with Robert Bell, co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum about how technology is important but shifting your mindset about what innovation means can make an even bigger impact.

AFI: We hear the term smart city thrown around a lot. How is an intelligent community different?

Robert Bell: The term smart city was invented by tech companies as a way to sell gear to cities, a perfectly respectable thing to do. But if you fast forward to now, smart cities are still about using technology to solve problems. Intelligent communities are about solving problems that matter.

In an intelligent community, you would start by engaging local universities, tech schools, entrepreneurs and established businesses to help you figure out how to do this innovation project. And then you would also engage the public to determine how and where that innovation should happen. It isn't about the next technology thing we can use to improve our efficiency by 5%. It's about people's lives.

AFI: At AFI, we're encouraging local governments to find ways to become anti-fragile, especially when rebuilding from a crisis. What tools or tactics related to intelligent communities can help governments be better than ever and go beyond resiliency?

Robert Bell: What we're talking about is a new approach to economic development. We've been doing it one way in cities for a very long time, and now there's a need to do it differently. Why? Because digital technology has come along.

Broadband has become an essential utility. Once you acknowledge that, then everything about the community and how you go about economic development has to change. It changes whether you're focused, for instance, on providing the people in your community with the education and skills to use that broadband asset to get really good jobs.

AFI: Do you have an example of an intelligent community and what they did to find or achieve that status?

Robert Bell: A city in California created new zoning and building code standard that requires any new building, or building being majorly renovated, to be broadband-ready. Then it became much less expensive to hook up broadband to that property. What's required is for municipalities to do something hard and to start thinking like a telephone or a communications company, and what that communications company wants is more revenue with as little risk as possible.

AFI: How does technology tie into attracting top talent? And are there any tools that cities could use to attract this top talent?

Robert Bell: Your top talent is going to have expectations. They're going to expect good connectivity at home for streaming entertainment and doing remote work. They're going to expect city services to be available online, so they don't go and stand in line for their next permit application. They're going to want ways to interact that doesn't involve going to a public meeting if they possibly can.

Of course, local government has been at that table the whole time helping to convene, bring people together, and push obstacles out of the way. That kind of activity is the heart of the Intelligent Community message, which says, "we're going to build our workforce and we're going to show them the local opportunities so that they will have a reason to stay here."

AFI: You hosted a session at TLG about the future of small to midsize cities. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that means?

Robert Bell: There's a statistic that came out of a 2018 Brookings Institution study that said that 2% of America's population lives in one of 53 metropolitan areas with a population of 1 million or more. And those 53 Metro areas produced 75% of all the job growth over the past 10 years. On the flip side, 200,000 small rural towns were studied and from 2010 to 2018 they experienced negative economic growth on average.

We've allowed this model of the city to become overwhelmingly dominant economically. We’ve even seen this in the oldest city, Varanasi in India 3,000 years ago - if you bring a bunch of people together and let them trade, they will build up income and wealth, and that income and wealth will get plowed into the infrastructure. That infrastructure will attract greater investment and start this nice upward cycle.

One of my favorite questions to ask mayors and members of council, particularly in relatively small places, is does your municipality have an innovation strategy? They will look at me like I’m crazy! They say, “I’m worried about things like potholes, providing child services and the COVID-19 pandemic right now, why should I be thinking about an innovation strategy?”

A Nobel prize-winning economist proved that innovation produces 80% of all the growth in our economy. So, if you're not thinking about how to make your place one where innovation is happening in the private and public sectors, you’re not going to achieve an increased economic growth rate.

The rules have changed because of the digital age. These are the new facts that we have to come to grips with if we're not already a superstar city where we've got magnetic power working for us. If we have to create our own magnetism, it can be done. It's not easy, but it can be done.


Want to hear even more about Robert Bell? Check out the Innovator's Journey podcast on Apple Podcasts or Google Play.

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