Innovation Grows Where You’re Not Looking

When people talk about innovative places, they often refer to Silicon Valley or New York or some other urban megalopolis.  By contrast, most of us have a sense that rural areas around the world face overwhelming problems.  Some of us – hopefully the readers of this blog – also know there’s great future potential in those areas.

And that potential is being realized in a few corners of the world that might surprise you.  Consider the countryside in the southern part of the Netherlands – the small city of Eersel and the other towns and farms nearby.  

You may even have an image of the place from Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings of potato farmers 130 years ago.  (He lived in the nearby town of Nuenen.) 

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It’s a different place today.  Not different in the way much of the world has gone – with modern cities replacing what had been primitive countryside – but rather a modern countryside.  

Taking me on a tour of this region two weeks ago was Mr. Kees Rovers, a long-time supporter of the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), a noted telecommunications entrepreneur and speaker on the impact of the Internet.  Years ago he was a leader in bringing a high speed fiber network to Nuenen.  Now he’s working on bringing fiber networks to the nearby town of Eersel.

Perhaps partly, but not only, due to the presence of Philips research labs in the city of Eindhoven, Wikipedia has noted:

“The province of Noord-Brabant [which contains the areas I’m describing] is one of the most innovative regions of the European Union.  This is shown by the extensive amount of new research patents by Eurostat.”

The support of innovators and pride about local innovation by the leaders of the community, like Eersel Mayor Anja Thijs-Rademakers, contributes to this local culture of innovation.  The Mayor, along with Mr. Harrie Timmermans (City Manager/Alderman), and Mrs. Liesbeth Sjouw (Alderman), joined Mr. Rovers and myself in visits to three good examples of innovation in the countryside.  

First, we saw the van der Aa family farm, which has invested in robotics – robots for milking the cows and robots to clear the barn of the manure the cows produce in great quantity.  Think of a bigger, smarter, more necessary version of the Roomba, like the one in this picture.

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Then we visited Vencomatic, which was created by a local entrepreneur but is now a global business, still based in the countryside.  In addition to pioneering animal-friendly technology for the poultry industry, their headquarters won the award as “Europe’s most sustainable commercial building”.

The final stop was at Jacob Van Den Borne’s potato farm in Reusel.  He described his use of four drones, numerous sensors deep in the ground, analytics and scientific experiments to increase quality and production on the land.  You can see his two minute video in Dutch about precision agriculture, with English captions at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlS8nVaI698

This is a picture of a potato farmer that Van Gogh could never have imagined.

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Of course, what’s missing in this picture of innovation – and ultimately limits the growth of that innovation and its spirit – is broadband beyond the more densely populated villages.  That’s why Rovers and the City of Eersel are deploying broadband away from the town center, using the motto “Close The Gap”.   (Mr. Rovers is also the Founder/Director of the NGO of the same name.)

It’s also something that Van Den Borne knows, so he has organized a co-operative to build out broadband in the countryside that doesn’t have connectivity yet.  Then he can take his innovations to a whole new level.

Whether it’s just an unusually strong regional culture of innovation or the historical necessity of being creative in rural areas where you can’t just pay someone down the block to solve your problems, this region of the world sets a good example for many other rural areas.  That, in part, is what motivates us to continue ICF’s efforts to build a new connected countryside everywhere.  

[Note: you can see a local report about my trip and more pictures at http://www.eersel.nl/internet/nieuwsberichten_41633/item/werkbezoek-norman-jacknis_68294.html .  If you don’t read Dutch, Google has a pretty good translation.]

© 2015 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/117688410990/innovation-grows-where-youre-not-looking]

Is Open Data Good Enough?

Last week, on April 16th, the Knowledge Society Forum of the Eurocities group held its Beyond Data event in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.  The members of the KSF consists out of more than 50 policy makers focused on Open Data, from Europe.  They were joined by many other open data experts and advocates.

I led off with the keynote presentation.  The theme was simple: we need to go beyond merely opening (i.e., releasing) public data and there are a variety of new technologies that will make the Open Data movement more useful to the general public.

Since I was speaking in my role as Senior Fellow of the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), I drew a parallel between that work and the current status of Open Data.  I pointed out that ICF has emphasized that an “intelligent city” is much more than a “smart city” with technology controlling its infrastructure.  What makes a community intelligent is if and how it uses that technology foundation to improve the experience of living there.

Similarly, to make the open data movement relevant to citizens, we need to go beyond merely releasing public data.   Even Hackathons and the encouragement of app developers has its limits in part because developers in private companies will try to find some way to monetize their work, but not all useful public problems have profit potential.

To create this value means focusing on data of importance to people (not just what’s easy to deliver), undertaking data analytics, following up with actions that have real impact on policies and programs and especially, engaging citizen in every step of the open data initiative.

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I pointed out how future technology trends will improve every city’s use of its data in three ways:

1. Data collection, integration and quality

2. Visualization, anywhere it is needed

3. Analytics of the data to improve public policies and programs

For example, the inclusion of social data (like sentiment analysis) and the Internet of Things can be combined with data already collected by the government to paint a much richer picture of what is going on in a city.  In addition to drones, iBeacon, visual analyzers (like Placemeter), there are now also inexpensive, often open source, sensor devices that the public can purchase and use for more data collection.

Of course, all this data needs a different kind of management than businesses have used in the past.  So I pointed out NoSQL database management systems and Dat for real time data flow.  Some of the most interesting analytics is based on the merger of data from multiple sources, which poses additional difficulties that are beginning to be overcome through linked data and the new geospatial extension of the semantic web, GeoSPARQL.

If this data – and the results of its analysis – are to be useful, especially in real time, then data visualization needs to be everywhere.   That includes using augmented reality and even projecting results on surfaces, much like TransitScreen does.

And if all this data is to be useful, it must be analyzed so I discussed the key role of predictive analytics in going beyond merely releasing data.  But I emphasized the way that residents of a city can help in this task and cited the many people already involved in Zooniverse.  There are even tools to help people overcome their statistical immaturity, as you can see on Public Health Ontario.

Finally, the data can also be used by people to help envision – or re-envision – their cities through tools like Betaville.

Public officials have to go beyond merely congratulating themselves on being transparent by releasing data.  They need to take advantage of these technological developments and shift their focus to making the data useful to their residents – all in the overriding goal of improving the quality of life for their residents.  

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© 2015 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/117084058588/is-open-data-good-enough]

Connecticut Dialogue on Public Libraries

I’ve written before about the important work of the Aspen Institute’s project, “Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries.”  (I was a member of their Working Group and am still involved with the project.)

Yesterday, April 13, 2015, Aspen took the Dialogue on the road in a joint all-day meeting at the State Capitol in Connecticut, co-sponsored by the Connecticut State Library.  It was the first such statewide dialogue about the future of libraries.

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It brought together more than 100 elected officials, policymakers, business executives, leaders of civic organizations and those involved professionally and as trustees in libraries.  The diversity of participants was unusual – too often librarians just end up talking to themselves. 

The intent was two-fold:

“To identify strategic opportunities presented by the state’s public libraries in response to the educational, economic, social and technological transformations that are affecting individuals and communities across Connecticut.

“To explore how to leverage the assets of public libraries to build more knowledgeable, healthy and sustainable communities.

Two themes caught my attention during the day.  First, the necessity and value of library networks in a digital world.   Second, the library as a community asset, in building the community that surrounds it and as a platform for people to achieve their economic potential.

The former State Economic Development noted the role of libraries as something that will attract people to a community – in a situation where every community is competing for people.

There was a panel on a fundamental issue, but one that is seldom discussed —Library Alignment with State Priorities in Economic, Workforce and Community Development.  As Aspen noted:

“In addition to providing a platform for learning, public libraries are also hubs for community and workforce development, creativity and innovation.  They provide a variety of technologies, tools and resources; diverse spaces including maker-spaces, STEM learning labs, hacker spaces, innovations centers, co-working and collaboration spaces; and access to mentors and conversations among creative people. Public libraries are well positioned to work with government, businesses and community partners to design and deliver skill development opportunities and promote the development and use of advanced high-speed Internet connectivity.”

Governor Malloy gave the keynote address at lunch, offering the perspective of an elected chief executive:

“With information at the fingertips of everyone wherever they are, the ground is changing under libraries.

"Relevancy is a key issue for libraries.  A future role for libraries has to involve more than those people already involved with libraries. 

In addition to the traditional role of being a place for 6 year olds, libraries are "where you go to get information [and training] and to change your life.  It’s where you prepare for the next career you want or are forced to have.

Creating a new role for libraries, in the face of stagnant or declining local funds, requires more collaboration.   As an example, he pointed to Connecticut’s statewide purchases of e-books.  

During the afternoon, a subset of the leaders were invited for a roundtable discussion on next steps in implementing the ideas of the Aspen report.   (See the picture below.)

Amy Garmer, director of the program, concluded by promising that Aspen plans to continue these statewide efforts, which will involve some of us from the working group.  Maureen Sullivan, past President of the American Library Association, and I will be bringing these ideas next month to the New Hampshire Library Trustees annual meeting.  

If you want to bring this vision of the 21st century library to your state or region, please contact one of us.

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© 2015 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/116382595125/connecticut-dialogue-on-public-libraries]

A Post-Industrial City Built On Broadband

Situated in the center of Metro Vancouver, New Westminster, which was founded more than 150 years ago, is one of the oldest cities in Canada west of Ontario. Like many older cities, its industrial base was hit by hard times beginning in the 1970s.

Now, with the strong support of its newly elected Mayor and City Council, it has set its sights on a government-sponsored fiber network backbone for its future revitalization.   This is, in part, feasible because of its relatively small size, 7 square miles.  It also helps that the city has a publicly owned electric utility which will also run the broadband network.

With the network underway, the Mayor, most of the City Council, many members of the New Westminster’s Intelligent City Advisory Committee and other leaders met, for two days last week, to consider the city’s future in a broadband era and what they will be doing about it.  

The event started with my hour-long keynote, reviewing the trends in the economy, society and technology that any small city must consider as it plans for the future.  I told the participants that the Internet age is giving small cities, like theirs, a new chance to flourish and so I wanted them to think about these big questions:

  • How can a city of fewer than 70,000 stand out in a world of 7,000,000,000 people?
  • How can New Westminster build a high quality of life by intelligently responding to the trends that will affect all of us in the future?
  • How can the people there expand their thinking about their options?

My underlying theme was that broadband, while absolutely necessary, is insufficient by itself.   I showed many examples – even a few videos – from other intelligent communities around the world who have built on the foundation of a broadband network.

(A copy of the slides can be found at http://www.newwestcity.ca/database/files/library/New_Westminster_Keynote.pdf )

I especially emphasized lifelong learning in a knowledge economy, connecting residents to global economic opportunities and services and creating a culture of innovation.  I finished by pointing out how they could use their network to provide delightful new urban experiences for both residents and visitors, which in turn would also inspire people to be more creative.  

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The second day was devoted to further discussion about the contents of the keynote and a workshop in which the participants broke out into five groups, each on a different subject – education, health, economic development, government services and the network itself.  Each group debated the implications for that subject and came up with projects they will undertake to make use of the new network.

They developed a sophisticated and broad understanding of what they’re getting into with the broadband network.

They clearly understood that high speed Internet made it possible for their residents to overcome large geographic distances and connect to others anywhere on the globe.  But I suggested that, because New Westminster is a small city, they shouldn’t assume that it would be easy for everyone to participate by going downtown.  Even within the city, the Internet can make it easier for residents not to have to travel to participate in public discussions, to get government services, to collaborate on growing their businesses, etc.

I noticed that some people were trying to find an answer that would work for everyone, although the residents of the city had quite varied needs.  (This is somewhat related to another phenomenon you sometimes see in cities trying to figure out their broadband strategy – the search for the one “killer app.”)  So I pointed out to them that the Internet has, instead, renewed our awareness of the long tail – the need for and ability now to deliver many solutions and more personalized service to individual.  There is no longer a requirement for a mass production, one-size-fits-all approach.

At the end of the second day, Mayor Coté said that he realized being an intelligent community is so much more than just laying fiber.  Some of the more technologically savvy in the room offered their own examples and ideas, which is great because these efforts must be led from within the community and not depend on outside experts.

What is often encouraging to people like me is that many participants told me that they felt inspired – yes, that was the word they used – to take on the potential opportunities offered by their new broadband network.

I was also impressed by them.  New Westminster still has much work to do, but they clearly have their act together and have the leadership to get the job done. They will indeed re-create their city for a new century.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/115851214799/a-post-industrial-city-built-on-broadband]