When Strategic Thinking Needs A Refresh

This year I created a new, week-long, all-day course at Columbia University on Strategy and Analytics. The course focuses on how to think about strategy both for the organization as a whole as well as the analytics team. It also shows the ways that analytics can help determine the best strategy and assess how well that strategy is succeeding.

In designing the course, it was apparent that much of the established literature in strategy is based on ideas developed decades ago. Michael Porter, for example, is still the source of much thinking and teaching about strategy and competition.

Perhaps a dollop of Christensen’s disruptive innovation might be added into the mix, although that idea is not any longer new. Worse, the concept has become so popularly diluted that too often every change is mistakenly treated as disruptive.

Even the somewhat alternative perspective described in the book “Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant” is now more than ten years old.

Of the well-established business “gurus”, perhaps only Gary Hamel has adjusted his perspective in this century – see, for example, this presentation.

But the world has changed. Certainly, the growth of huge Internet-based companies has highlighted strategies that do not necessarily come out of the older ideas.

So, who are the new strategists worthy of inclusion in a graduate course in 2018?

The students were exposed to the work of fellow faculty at Columbia University, especially Leonard Sherman’s “If You’re in a Dogfight, Become a Cat! – Strategies for Long-Term Growth” and Rita Gunther McGrath’s “The End Of Competitive Advantage: How To Keep Your Strategy Moving As Fast As Your Business”.

But in this post, the emphasis in on strategic lessons drawn from this century’s business experience with the Internet, including multi-sided platforms and digital content traps. For that there is “Matchmakers – the new economics of multisided platforms” by David S Evans and Richard Schmalensee. And also Bharat Anand’s “The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change”.

For Porter and other earlier thinkers, the focus was mostly on the other players that they were competing against (or decided not to compete against). For Anand, the role of the customer and the network of customers becomes more central in determining strategy. For Evans and Schmalensee, getting a network of customers to succeed is not simple and requires a different kind of strategic framework than industrial competition.

Why emphasize these two books? It might seem that these books only focus on digital businesses, not the traditional manufacturers, retailers and service companies that previous strategists worked at.

But many now argue that all businesses are digital, just to varying degrees. For the last few year we’ve seen the repeated headline that “every business is now a digital business” (or some minor variation) from Forbes, Accenture, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, among others you may not have heard of. And about a year ago, we read that “Ford abruptly replaces CEO to target digital transformation”.

Consider then the case of GE, one of the USA’s great industrial giants, which offers a good illustration of the situation facing many companies. A couple of years ago, it expressed its desire to “Become a Digital Industrial Company”. Last week, Steve Lohr of the New York Times reported that “G.E. Makes a Sharp ‘Pivot’ on Digital” because of its difficulty making the transition to digital and especially making the transition a marketing success.

At least in part, the company’s lack of success could be blamed on its failure to fully embrace the intellectual shift from older strategic frameworks to the more digital 21st century strategy that thinkers like Anand, Evans and Schmalensee describe.

© 2018 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Are Any Small Towns Flourishing?

We hear and read how the very largest cities are growing, attractive places for millennials and just about anyone who is not of retirement age. The story is that the big cities have had almost all the economic gains of the last decade or so, while the economic life has been sucked out of small towns and rural areas.

The images above are what seem to be in many minds today — the vibrant big city versus the dying countryside.

Yet, we are in a digital age when everyone is connected to everyone else on the globe, thanks to the Internet. Why hasn’t this theory of economic potential from the Internet been true for the countryside?

Well, it turns out that it is true. Those rural areas that do in fact have widespread access to the Internet are flourishing. These towns with broadband are exemplary, but unfortunately not the majority of towns.

Professor Roberto Gallardo of Purdue’s Purdue Center for Regional Development has dug deep into the data about broadband and growth. The results have recently been published in an article that Robert Bell and I helped write. You can see it below.

So, the implication of the image above is half right — this is a life-or-death issue for many small towns. The hopeful note is that those with broadband and the wisdom to use it for quality of life will not die in this century.

© 2018 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved


[This article is republished from the Daily Yonder , a non-profit media organization that specializes in rural trends and thus filling the vacuum of news coverage about the countryside.]

When It Comes to Broadband, Millennials Vote with Their Feet

By Roberto Gallardo — Robert Bell — Norman Jacknis

April 11, 2018

When they live in remote rural areas, millennials are more likely to reside in a county that has better digital access. The findings could indicate that the digital economy is helping decentralize the economy, not just clustering economic change in the cities that are already the largest.

Sources: USDA; Pew Research; US Census Bureau; Purdue Center for Regional Development This graph shows that the number of Millennials and Gen Xers living in the nation’s most rural counties is on the increase in counties with a low “digital divide index.” The graph splits the population in “noncore” (or rural) counties into three different generations. Then, within each generation, the graph looks at population change based on the Digital Divide Index. The index measures the digital divide using two sets of criteria, one that looks at the availability and adoption of broadband and another set that looks at socio-economic factors such as income and education levels that affect broadband use. Counties are split into five groups or quintiles based on the digital divide index, with group №1 (orange) having the most access and №5 (green) having the lowest.

Cities are the future and the countryside is doomed, as far as population growth, jobs, culture and lifestyle are concerned. Right?

Certainly, that is the mainstream view expressed by analysts at organizations such as Brookings. This type of analysis says the “clustering” of business that occurred during the industrial age will only accelerate as the digital economy takes hold. This argument says digital economies will only deepen and accelerate the competitive advantage that cities have always had in modern times.

But other pundits and researchers argue that the digital age will result in “decentralization” and a more level playing field between urban and rural. Digital technologies are insensitive to location and distance and potentially offer workers a much greater range of opportunities than ever before.

The real question is whether a rural decline is inevitable or if the digital economy has characteristics that are already starting to write a different story for rural America. We have recently completed research that suggests it is.

Millennial Trends

While metro areas still capture the majority of new jobs and population gains, there is some anecdotal evidence pointing in a different direction. Consider a CBS article that notes how, due to high housing costs, horrible traffic, and terrible work-life balances, Bend, Oregon, is seeing an influx of teleworkers from Silicon Valley. The New York Times has reported on the sudden influx of escapees from the Valley that is transforming Reno, Nevada — for good or ill, it is not yet clear.

Likewise, a Fortune article argued that “millennials are about to leave cities in droves” and the Telegraph mentioned “there is a great exodus going on from cities” in addition to Time magazine reporting that the millennial population of certain U.S. cities has peaked.

Why millennials? Well, dubbed the first digital-native generation, their migration patterns could indicate the beginning of a digital age-related decentralization.

An Age-Based Look at Population Patterns

In search of insight, we looked at population change among the three generations that make up the entire country’s workforce: millennials, generation X, and baby boomers.

First, we defined each generation. Table 1 shows the age ranges of each generation according to the Pew Research Center, both in 2010 and 2016, as well as the age categories used to measure each generation. While not an exact match, categories are consistent across years and geographies.

In addition to looking at generations, we used the Office of Management core-based typology to control by county type (metropolitan, small city [micropolitan], and rural [noncore]). To factor in the influence of digital access affects local economies, we used the Digital Divide Index. The DDI, developed by the Purdue Center for Regional Development, ranges from zero to 100. The higher the score, the higher the digital divide. There are two components to the Digital Divide Index: 1) broadband infrastructure/adoption and 2) socioeconomic characteristics known to affect technology adoption.

Looking at overall trends, it does look like the digital age is not having a decentralization effect. To the contrary, according to data from the economic modeling service Emsi, the U.S. added 19.4 million jobs between 2010 and 2016. Of these, 94.6 percent were located in metropolitan counties compared to only 1.6 percent in rural counties.

Population growth tells a similar story. Virtually the entire growth in U.S. population of 14.4 million between 2010 and 2016 occurred in metropolitan counties, according to the Census Bureau. The graph below (Figure 1) shows the total population change overall and by generation and county type. As expected, the number of baby boomers (far right side of the graph) is falling across all county types while millennials and generation x (middle two sets of bars) are growing only in metro counties.

But there is a different story. When looking at only rural counties (what the OMB classification system calls “noncore”) divided into five equal groups or quintiles based on their digital divide (1 = lowest divide while 5 = highest divide), the figure at the very top of this article shows that rural counties experienced an increase in millennials where the digital divide was lowest. (The millennial population grew by 2.3 percent in rural counties where the digital divide was the lowest.) Important to note is that this same pattern occurs in metropolitan and small city counties as well.

Impact on the “Really Rural” County

“Urban” and “rural” can be tricky terms when it comes to demographics. The Census Bureau reports that 80% of the population lives in urban areas. Seventy-five percent of those “urban” areas, however, are actually small towns with populations of under 20,000. They are often geographically large, with a population density that falls off rapidly once you leave the center of town.

On the other hand, some rural counties are adjacent to metro areas and may benefit disproportionately from their location or even be considered metropolitan due to their commuting patterns. Because of this, we turned to another typology developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service that groups counties into nine types ranging from large metro areas to medium size counties adjacent to metro areas to small counties not adjacent to metro areas.

Figure 3 (below) shows counties considered completely rural or with an urban population of less than 2,500, not adjacent to a metro area. Among these counties, about 420 in total, those with the lowest digital divide experienced a 13.5 percent increase in millennials between 2010 and 2016. In other words, in the nation’s “most rural” counties, the millennial population increased significantly when those counties had better broadband access.

Sources: USDA; Pew Research; US Census Bureau; Purdue Center for Regional Development. This graph shows population change by generation and “DDI” quintile in the nation’s most rural counties (rural counties that are farthest from metropolitan areas). In rural counties with the best digital access (a low digital divide index), the number of Millennials and Gen Xers increased.

The New Connected Countryside: A Work in Progress

To conclude, if you just look at overall numbers, our population seems to be behaving just like they did in the industrial age — moving to cities where jobs and people are concentrated. Rural areas that lag in broadband connectivity and digital literacy will continue to suffer from these old trends.

However, the digital age is young. Its full effects are still to be felt. Remember it took several decades for electricity or the automobile to revolutionize society. Besides, areas outside metro areas lag in broadband connectivity and digital literacy, limiting their potential to leverage the technology to affect their quality of life, potentially reversing migration trends.

Whether or not decentralization will take place remains to be seen. What is clear though is that (while other factors are having an impact, as well) any community attempting to retain or attract millennials need to address their digital divide, both in terms of broadband access and adoption/use.

In other words, our data analysis suggests that if a rural area has widely available and adopted broadband, it can start to successfully attract or retain millennials.

Roberto Gallardo is assistant director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and a senior fellow at the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum. Norman Jacknis is a senior fellow at the Intelligent Community Forum and on the faculty of Columbia University.

A Guide Book For Newcomers To The Connected Countryside

In the 19th century, there was a movement to reject the then developing modern industrial society and live in nature as isolated individuals.
Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” provides a bit of the flavor of that world view.

That’s clearly not our world. In the past several years, a massive global migration to cities has been part of the conventional wisdom and has been frequently cited in various media.

But less noticed, although as important, is the exodus by young professionals from cities to the countryside. In various workshops, presentations and blog posts, I’ve pointed out that while many rural areas are dying, others are flourishing.

These newcomers to the countryside are not going there to reject our technological world. Instead, the 21st century world and its advanced communications capabilities are what make it possible for them to live in a place where they prefer the quality of life. They are living in the countryside, but very much a part of the world.

A Stateline article, “Returning to the Exurbs: Rural Counties Are Fastest Growing”, highlights the relevant comments of Professor Joel Garreau, comparing this to the earlier exurbs of three decades ago:

“workers no longer need to be confined to one place. Professionals with certain skills could work and live where they wanted—and the world would come to them in the guise of a brown UPS truck … today’s urban exiles aren’t looking for a lengthy commute from the far suburbs to a downtown office. … They’re looking to completely eradicate the notion of commuting to work and toiling from 9 to 5.”

Moreover, this is a phenomenon in many technologically advanced nations, as noted four years ago in William van den Broek’s article, “Toward a digital urban exodus”.

One of the sites on the internet that documents the successes, challenges and hardships of these new residents is the Urban Exodus. It was created by one of them – Alissa Hessler, who moved from the high-tech center of Seattle to rural Maine several years ago. On the website, there are already stories of about 50 couples and individuals who made the move.

Recently, Hessler wrote what amounts to a thoughtful, practical and well-illustrated guide book based on what she has learned from her own and others’ experiences – “Ditch The City and Go Country: How to Master the Art of Rural Life From a Former City Dweller.”

This is required reading if you’re considering such a move full time, or even living in the countryside for 2, 3, 4 days a week.

If you’re a confirmed city dweller, it is still an interesting read. Especially the last two chapters on “earning a living” and “enjoying the good life” in the countryside can more sharply define the impact of technology and trends today than the cities that still are partly living off the inherited capital of the 20th century industrial age.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Surprises And Insights As Intelligent Community Leaders Meet Again

Returning to New York City, the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) held its Annual Summit last week. Many of the ICF’s 160+ communities from around the world were represented, in addition to speakers and guests from this year’s Top7:

Although two years ago, the Intelligent Community of the Year was Columbus, Ohio, it’s noteworthy that this year no American city or community made it to the Top7. (This year, Rochester, New York, was the only American city even in the Smart21.)

image

In addition to the contest, which attracts much interest, the Summit is also a place where people meet and present ideas on how to best use information and communications technologies as a foundation for creating better communities and quality of life.

It’s in the workshops and presentations from speakers who do not represent contestants that often the most interesting insights arise. This post will highlight some of those more unexpected moments.

1.      First, there’s the Digital Government Society (DGS) of academic specialists in e-government, the Internet and citizen engagement. DGS also held its 18th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research, dg.o 2017, last week. Its theme was “Innovations and Transformations in Government”.

image

Since ICF had a couple hundred government innovators in attendance and DGS is particularly interested in dialogue between academic researchers and practitioners, it was only natural that the two groups took a day last week to have a joint conference. This kind of interaction about areas of common interest was valuable for both groups. They even participated together in prioritizing the challenges facing the communities they lead or have studied.

2.     As part of the program, there were some presentations by companies with their own perspective on intelligent communities. Perhaps the most unusual example was Nathaniel Dick of Hair O’Right International Corp., which is an extremely eco-friendly beauty products company, best known for its caffeine shampoo.  It won’t surprise you that Mr. Dick is a very earnest, entrepreneurial American. What may surprise you is that he and Hair O’Right are based in Taiwan.

image

3.     While there has been much talk about government opening up its data to the public over the last several years, there haven’t been all that many really interesting applications – and perhaps too many cases where open data is used merely for “gotcha” purposes against office holders. But Yale Fox of RentLogic demonstrated a very useful application of open data, helping renters learn some of the hidden aspects of the apartments they are considering.

Starting with the nation’s biggest rental market, New York City, they pulled together a variety of public documents about the apartment buildings. Now all a potential renter needs to do is enter the address and this information will be available.  Wouldn’t you like to know about anything from a mold problem to frequent turnover of ownership before you moved in?

image

4.     Rob McCann, CEO of ClearCable and one of Canada’s thought leaders on broadband, provided a down to earth review of the current state of broadband deployment and how to address the demand for its expansion.  He noted Five Hidden Network Truths: “The Network is Oversubscribed (so manage it); The Network is Not Symmetrical (accept the best you can); Consumption CAGR exceeds 50% (so prepare for growth); More Peers are better than Bigger Peers; Operating costs are key, not just build costs”.

To get the point across, he also showed an old, but funny, video about Internet congestion.

5.     One of the new communities to join the summit was the relatively new area of Binh Duong, Vietnam (population more than a million).  Dr. Viet-Long Nguyen, Director of their Smart City Office, even gave a keynote presentation

6.     We’ve all heard much about the Internet of Things, the various sensors and devices that are supposed to change urban life – and, unfortunately, the sum of what too many people consider to be smart cities. By contrast, Mary Lee Kennedy, my fellow board member from the Metropolitan New York Library Council led a panel on “The Internet of People”. With panelists with their own perspectives – Mozilla Leadership Network, Pew Research, the Urban Libraries Council, New York Hall of Science – the focus was on the people who are not yet benefiting from everything else we were hearing about that day at MIST, Harlem’s own tech center. (You can read her more detailed post here.)

Overall, the impression a visitor to the summit is left with is that many places you wouldn’t have thought of are rapidly developing their technology potential and, more important, its value for their residents.

Next year, we expect to learn more and be surprised a few times more as the ICF Summit will be held in London and other parts of England.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved @NormanJacknis

The Bumpy Transition To Video Meetings

As internet bandwidth gets better, we’re seeing more people communicate by videoconference. Facetime and Skype are now quite common ways for family members and friends to see each other when they are physically separated. Video conferencing has been around for a while in big multi-national corporations.

More slowly, we’re also seeing the adoption of videoconferencing for meetings of public bodies.  There are various reasons for the slow adoption.

  • Public agencies are unfortunately often populated by the less technically savvy part of the overall population or whose members are just more comfortable with physical than virtual face-to-face communication.
  • Or their members may have had a bad experience with video conferencing a few years ago, when neither the software nor the bandwidth was sufficient to become invisible and not interfere with free-flowing conversation. (Of course, there are still examples of bad videoconferences even now. I mention video products I’ve used successfully below.)
  • Public bodies are also subject to various open meeting laws and rules, which haven’t always caught up with changes in technology.

But things are changing, so I went on a search of the video conferencing practices of government bodies. Here’s some of what I found.

Since the latter part of last year, the City Council of Austin, Texas, has allowed the public to speak at their meetings via video so that citizens aren’t forced to come downtown for this opportunity.

image

A bigger step is virtual attendance at meetings of the members themselves.

This is important especially when distances are large or obtaining a quorum is hard to achieve. It may be unusual for a city council or a state legislature to fail to have a quorum, but there are tens of thousands of other public bodies who can’t get their business done because not enough members can show up. This affects school boards and libraries and water districts and state advisory boards, etc. (By the way, the problem isn’t new – the first session of the US Congress was delayed for some time while members arrived very slowly.)

Video conferencing that would enable members to participate remotely would seem to be a natural solution. But as in all other aspects of the public sector, things aren’t so simple and policies seem to be the first obstacle to overcome.

Over the last few years, the Wyoming’s State Legislature has developed its video policy, which still seems be somewhere in the middle between those without full confidence and those who want to use it. Approvals are needed for committee use of video, as the policy states: “With prior consent of the committee chair, a video conference may be held for legislators unable to attend a meeting at the official meeting location.”  More generally, “An entire committee can meet via video conference at the direction of the chairman.”

Since 2013, the State of Missouri has allowed those elected to public bodies (mostly local) to vote and participate by video. But the Missouri Municipal League felt it necessary to a model policy for videoconferencing. It particularly emphasizes such guidance as: “a member’s use of video conference attendance should occur only sparingly.”

Following a change in the Illinois Open Meetings laws, the Schaumburg Library in 2009 adopted an official policy on this subject. They require a quorum of members at the physical meeting, not counting members participating via electronic means. Once that quorum is established, the remote participants have full rights although their votes are recorded as being remote. The policy also lists the acceptable reasons for wanting to participate remotely – employment, board business, illness, or family emergency.

In Texas, school boards also can use videoconferencing, but with somewhat similar requirements for a quorum. Whereas, public bodies in Pennsylvania can count remote participants as part of the quorum.

The State of Florida has empowered condo boards, which are a major form of local governance there, to use video. The State allows board members to be counted as present and vote remotely via video conferencing.

In New York State, which has some of the strictest open meeting laws, the State has allowed members to participate in meetings by video, but not phone conference calls. The idea is that, as in a traditional physical meeting, everyone has to be able to see all members’ reactions at all times.

In addition, New York State looks on video participation as a remote extension of the physical meeting, so public bodies using video must list all locations in its public notices – both the main physical meeting as well as any location where a member is using video. Presumably, someone in a hotel in, say, Florida or France, would have to allow any interested citizens to come into their room and also see what’s going on.

I’m on a number of public boards and they have different policies. Some boards are reluctant to use video at all. Another board has just had a completely virtual meeting that worked very well using Fuze and will be repeating this at least twice a year. I’ve also used Zoom successfully for meetings with large numbers of people.

Like most adoption of technology, transitions are not smooth and the old and the new exist together. In the streets of cities a hundred years ago, there were accidents between automobiles (then still relatively new) and horses pulling carriages.

Why should we expect video conferencing to be different?

image

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/158159631752/the-bumpy-transition-to-video-meetings]

A Picture Of The Last Year

It’s the end of the year and I won’t be posting anything new until 2017.

To close out this year, I thought I might create a word cloud from all of the posts over the last twelve months and here it is:

Happy Holidays and, no matter how this year was for you, I wish you a better one in 2017!

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Doing More Than Just Remembering The Forgotten America

Much has been written about how the results of this year’s Presidential election reflected the feeling on the part of people who live in rural areas and small towns that they have been overlooked and that the severe problems in those areas have not received sufficient attention by public and business leaders.

This Washington Post story, sub-headed “How an electorate fed up with the elite propelled Donald Trump to victory”, is a good example.

image

Although we frequently hear that 80% of Americans live in cities now, that still means there are 60,000,000 Americans in the countryside – not an insignificant number as we saw last month.

Even the news stories that feature broad economic trends don’t highlight the uneven nature of those trends in these areas. For example, the decline in manufacturing employment was a standard talking point on the recent campaign trail. But many observers seem to have forgotten that many bigger manufacturing plants had long since departed cities for the countryside. So when manufacturing employment declined, it hit the countryside more deeply, even while that pain was less visible.

So, sadly, the feeling in rural America of being forgotten is not unfounded.

To make matters worse, in too many small cities and rural areas, many people speak negatively of the prospects for the area. This helps create a downward spiral by persuading the brightest young people to leave.

image

As sociologists, Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, wrote in their 2009 book, “Hollowing Out The Middle:

“The biggest question facing anyone who grows up in a small town is whether he or she should leave or stay. A little further down the road, those who make the initial decision to leave, usually after graduating high school, must decide whether to return to the cozy familiarity of their hometown or to continue building lives elsewhere. The fact that this small-town rite of passage should be so intimately bound up with the very future of the Heartland allows us to see how the hollowing-out phenomenon plays out in the lives and decisions of young people, and how their pathways are shaped by the communities and people who surround them as they grow up.”

“The Heartland’s most valuable export is not crops or hogs but its educated young people.”

For the last couple of years, I’ve been working with the Intelligent Community Forum helping these communities to take advantage of new opportunities open to them in a new century in which close physical proximity of millions of people is not necessarily the only strategy for economic success.

I’ve written before about how technology enables rural residents to take advantage of the kind of resources that you used to be almost exclusively available to residents of big cities — global economic connections, education and culture, even world-class health care — while maintaining the quality of life that draws them or keeps them in the countryside.

With all this on my mind a few weeks ago, I was asked by the Aspen Institute to keynote a community dialog in Sutter County (Yuba City), California. This was part of my participation in the small working group advising Aspen’s project on the future of libraries.

image

Although Sutter County is not, by any means, among the most devastated of rural communities, it is still concerned about its future. My observation was that they had some strong assets that are otherwise underappreciated in the conventional economic development perspective.

First, I was impressed by the local leadership, which seemed to have its act together. Leaders who have vision and an understanding of where the world is going are essential for community development.

Second, they have a diverse population, with a variety of experiences including an understanding of entrepreneurial success. Like some other flourishing small cities around the country, Yuba City also has its immigrant groups. It is, for example, known all over North America and India for its long-established Sikh community, which draws tens of thousands of people to the city each year – and can be a connection to the global economy.

Third, they have a library that is prepared to play its role as the central institution of the knowledge economy and help the residents of Sutter County take advantage of new opportunities that I see in a new connected countryside. Much of the Aspen workshop/dialog was focused on the steps the library can take to make this a reality.

It will be interesting to see how well Sutter County achieves its vision and what other communities can learn from it.

And, perhaps for a short time, the situation in the countryside will get a little attention among public officials and the media. But even being remembered, once in a while, really isn’t much of a program.

While Sutter County and places like it across the country are trying to assure their future, it would be easier if national policy recognized and helped them respond to the socio-economic-technological challenges and opportunities facing them. More than merely reducing the sense of being forgotten, it could help accelerate a renaissance in the countryside.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/154180196592/doing-more-than-just-remembering-the-forgotten]

Will Higher Education Repeat The History Of Theaters? [Updated]

Four years ago, I wrote a blog post on this subject when massive open online
courses (MOOCs) were beginning to be the hot item of discussion. Not
surprisingly, some disillusionment followed the hype as people realized there
was a low completion rate for these courses and services, like Udemy, felt it
was necessary to do some course correction.

image

Some of the disillusionment came
from the expectation that this form of education would be just an electronic
version of what has gone on in traditional classrooms for hundreds of years.

I call that “horseless carriage”
thinking – when people don’t realize that there’s a new thing, a car, which is
like what was in the past, but is sufficiently different that it’s not just a
carriage powered by something other than a horse. If you thought “horseless
carriage”, you wouldn’t have anticipated the growth of suburbia and all the
other changes wrought by automobile ownership.

Anyway, despite the disappearance of
MOOCs from the hype-o-sphere of the general news media, the number of MOOCs
continues to grow.

image

It’s not just that the number of
courses has increased, but MOOC enrollment surpassed 35 million in 2015.

As for the course completion issues,
Harvard Business Review put this in context by
pointing out that:

“The critics are right that most
people who start a MOOC don’t finish: just 4% of Coursera users who watch at
least one course lecture go on to complete the course and receive a credential.
However, given the large number of users involved, the absolute reach of MOOCs
is still significant. For instance, more than one million people have completed
a Coursera course since its inception in 2012, with over 2.1 million course
completions as of April 2015.”

It is also interesting that
educators are disproportionately the users of these courses. Daniel Thomas
Seaton and colleagues reported:

“Surveys of 11 MITx courses on edX
in spring 2014 found that one in four (28.0 percent) respondents identified as
past or present teachers. … Although they represent only 4.5 percent of the
nearly 250,000 enrollees, responding teachers generated 22.4 percent of all
discussion forum comments.”

As I wrote last time, one reasonable
analogy to the problems facing higher education is to compare it to the
challenge faced by theaters in the 19th century. During that period, every city
of any consequence had one or more theaters that were the venue for actors,
singers and other live performers.

image

Then along came recorded music,
later the movies and ultimately television. Those technological innovations
made it possible to deliver performances from the best actors and singers
without requiring them to be physically present. In addition, the revenue that
this form of recorded entertainment could generate was much greater than that
of any local live theater. Movie and record companies used that extra revenue
to provide “production values” and elaborate staging that wasn’t
possible in the local live theater.

The result: most of those live stage
theaters disappeared or became movie theaters (or car parks, like this one in
Seattle).

image

Now, technology makes it possible to
deliver on a large scale at least that part of a college education that
consists of watching a professor deliver lectures in front of a classroom.
Again, it is unlikely that the local university or college will be able to
match this global delivery or the “production values” that could
enhance these online courses.

Of course, we still have Broadway
plus a few successful regional theaters. So too there will be Harvard, MIT,
Princeton, Stanford and the like. But most colleges may find it increasingly
difficult to justify their continued existence using the current approach.

We’re already seeing the pattern set
by theaters replicated in higher education among the providers of MOOCs. Online
Course Reports described the pattern this way:

“Twenty percent of massive open
online courses offered by U.S. News and World Report’s Top 100 National
Universities are offered by the Top 5 universities on that list. Over half
(i.e., 56%) of MOOCs offered by those National Universities are offered by
schools in the Top 20. Almost 90 percent (i.e., 87.6%) of all MOOCs available
are offered by schools within the Top 50.”

“Course offerings per institution
drop off exponentially at a rate of -700% after those Top 50: that’s an average
of 21 MOOCs per university in the Top 50 decaying to an average of 3 MOOCs per
university in the bottom 50. Comparing these averages, we see a massively
unequal distribution of massive open online courses toward some of the most
expensive, highly valued, and heftily-endowed universities in the world.”

Although the market for MOOCs is not
quite the same as the market for traditional higher education, it is hard to
imagine that enrollment in less “highly valued” institutions will not be
affected by the alternatives now open to others. This is especially likely to
occur as those institutions provide credentials that used to be available only
by paying high fees to attend college on campus.

As in my post of four years ago, I’d
note that one of the major obstacles to these changes being more widespread is
the fact that that colleges have had the combined role of both delivering an
education to their students and certifying that their students mastered that
education (i.e., they provide college degrees as credentials).

But things are changing even on that
front. As Class Central has reported

“One of the big trends last year
[2015] was MOOC providers creating their own credentials: Udacity’s Nanodegrees,
Coursera’s Specializations and edX’s Xseries.
For Coursera and Udacity, these credentials have become a main source of
revenue”

Similarly, Georgia
Tech
has online Master’s degrees in fields like computer science, aerospace engineering and operations research.  As an example, the
online computer science website proclaims:

“With [the online degree in] CS, you
can join computing professionals from more than 80 countries who are earning
their M.S. on their own time, in their own homes, and for a total cost of about
$7,000.”

Employers who used to shy away from
candidates with online degrees from for-profit organizations, like Phoenix,
might look differently on an online degree from a Georgia Tech or a Coursera
credential from a course provided by Princeton.

Overall, the way that MOOCs and
other innovations in higher education are growing and changing is a rising
threat to many not-so-prestigious, yet expensive, private institutions.  

And it is only a matter of time
before uninformed (or even well-informed) public officials begin to question
the traditional model of higher education. Public institutions in states where
the government has dampened its enthusiasm for higher education spending, like Arizona
State
, have in response taken the lead in online offerings even for
undergraduates – offering an online bachelors for about $12,000 a year. Of
course, many public colleges have not yet reacted this way.

Community colleges, which also
receive public funding but serve student populations that may not yet have the
talents and temperaments for online learning, may escape immediate impact of
these changes. But again, the question is “for how long?”

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights
Reserved

http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/151401475437/will-higher-education-repeat-the-history-of

The Internet Of A Hundred Years Ago

In many of my presentations, I have pointed out that the Internet is still very much in its early stages. There are tremendous gaps in the availability of high speed, low latency Internet everywhere. It will only be at some point in the future that we could truly expect to have a visual conversation with almost anyone, almost anywhere on the globe.

Beyond expanding connectivity, there are other factors standing in the way of ubiquitous high quality visual communications.

First, the software – the interface that users have to deal with – is quite awkward. There are still too many instances where software, like Skype, just doesn’t work well or freezes or otherwise discourages people from everyday use.

Second, more important, the mindset or culture of users seems not to have changed yet to readily accommodate visual conversations over the Internet everywhere. You surely know someone who just doesn’t want to communicate this way. There used to be many people who thought the telephone shouldn’t replace face-to-face meetings and trying to do so was rude and/or too expensive.

Indeed, I use a rough parallel that we are today with the Internet about where we were with the telephone at the end of the 1920s. That was more than fifty years after the telephone had been invented. Of course, we’re not even fifty years into the life of the Internet.

Although the parallel between phone network and Internet is fairly obvious, it is enlightening or amusing to see history repeat itself. Here is a 1916 advertisement that hails how the telephone is “annihilating both time and space” – what we’ve also heard in more recent years about the Internet.

image

While there were many articles written at the time about the impact of telephones on society, the economy and life, even in the 1920s (or 30s or 40s or 50s …), telephone usage was not taken for granted. Among other things, long distance calling was not widely considered something most people would do.

image

Mobile telephony was discussed but not really in existence yet.

image

There was even a product that anticipated today’s Twitter and similar feeds – or maybe it was just a concept for a product, since vaporware was around even a hundred years ago.

image

The chart below shows the pattern of historical adoption of telephones in the US from 1876 until 1981.

image

From the perspective of 1981, never mind 2016, the first fifty years of telephony were the early age.

And since 1981? We’ve seen mobile phones overtake land lines in worldwide usage and become much more than devices for just talking to people.

So imagine what the next 100 years of Internet development will bring.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/150726984612/the-internet-of-a-hundred-years-ago]

[note this is an updated version of an earlier post in the beginning of 2014]

A Fundamental Decision Making Flaw in Public Officials

As we face another Presidential election and think about the
candidates operating in the well-known bubble of the White House, I
thought it worth updating and reposting a piece from four years ago, a month before the last election.

The question I asked: Are our public leaders flawed because they were selected as public leaders?

Just a few weeks ago, an article
in Fortune reminded me of this question and the phenomenon that answers
the question.  Its author, Rita Gunther McGrath, noted that:

“In
almost every disaster, you find the leaders based their decision-making
on assumptions…  A fundamental flaw in most governmental policy-making
is that those making the deals and decisions think they are operating
with facts.  The reality is that they are operating instead with
assumptions, many deeply held, about what causes what to happen.  A
policy is really a statement of assumed causality, and the law of
unintended consequences is ever-present.”

image

The downside of a chief executive’s view of reality – i.e.,
assumptions – is made worse by the typical over-confidence such
positions encourage.

The popular title and sub-title of the paper
by Professor Kelly E. See of NYU and three other academic researchers
on organizational behavior, which I originally cited, make the point:
“The Decision-Making Flaw in Powerful People: Overflowing with
confidence, many leaders turn away from good advice.”

Some of their key findings:

“This
paper finds a link between having a sense of power and having a
propensity to give short shrift to a crucial part of the decision-making
process: listening to advice.  Power increases confidence which can
lead to an excessive belief in one’s own judgment and ultimately to
flawed decisions.  …

"In addition to confirming the previous
experiments’ finding that more powerful people were less likely to take
advice and were more likely to have high confidence in their answers,
this final experiment showed that high-power participants were less
accurate in their answers than low-power participants.”

A related paper by a different group of researchers, led by USC Professor Nathanael J. Fast adds some nuance to this finding:

“Experiencing
power leads to overconfident decision-making.  The findings, through
both mediation and moderation, also highlight the central role that the
sense of power plays in producing these decision-making tendencies.

“First,
sense of power, but not mood, mediated the link between power and
overconfidence.  Second, the link between power and overconfidence was
severed when access to power was not salient to the powerful and when
the powerful were made to feel personally incompetent in their domain of
power.

“These findings indicate that only when objective power
leads people to feel subjectively powerful does it produce overconfident
decision-making.”

Unfortunately, the last finding doesn’t much
change the fundamental situation for Presidents, who are extraordinarily
powerful, except maybe when they deal with scientific issues that are
not part of their self-image – and, even then, the position lends
greater credence to their views than may be warranted.

Professor See and colleagues provided some advice about overcoming this problem:

"For
one thing, organizations could formally include advice gathering at the
earliest stages of the decision-making process, before powerful
individuals have a chance to form their own opinions.  Encouraging
leaders to refrain from commenting on decisions publicly could also keep
them from feeling wedded to a particular point of view.”

Whether
or not you might find this research conforms to your own experience, the
last point — gathering in lots of information before public leaders
decide — is a reasonable and feasible suggestion to improve decision
making in many cases.  Today, the Internet and the collaborative
discussion tools it offers can make this happen fairly easily.

The
question is whether the next President will put in place that kind of open platform
for advice or wrongly trust the assumptions that she/he brought into the Oval
Office.

image

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights
Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/149079286814/a-fundamental-decision-making-flaw-in-public]

Community Colleges & The Deep Changes That Challenge Them

Colleges have long established the roles of those with superior,
perhaps absolute, knowledge (the teachers) and those who have much less
knowledge (the students).

But as a trustee of a community
college, I realize how often the leaders of these institutions – the
boards, the staff and faculty – are, or ought to be, learners as well.  
Especially these days, we do not have certain and broad wisdom about
what we can do well.

This was, at least, my frame of mind going
into a recent board “retreat” focusing on the college’s strategy.  
Because of my other work, I was asked to provide the lunch keynote
presentation about the changes that are happening and will happen around
us that can affect the future of colleges.

The trends are out
there to be seen, but the implications for traditional institutions are
still open to question.  Although I’ve spent much of my career in
technology, unlike various Silicon Valley folks who seem to think they
have the answers too, I really have more questions, which is ultimately
what I wanted my fellow board members to think about.  In any case,
there’s no way to get the leaders of those institutions to make changes
by lecturing to them.

image

Here are the trends I described and the questions they provoked.

Virtual Presence Everywhere

With
large numbers of people face down looking at their screens, some people
mistake texting, email and social media for real dialogue.  But
scientific research indicates otherwise – text communication is
limited.  As the saying “seeing is believing” indicates, the non-textual
part of our conversations is critical and that’s not yet part of most
everyday Internet communications.

The digital world is now at a
stage equivalent to where the telephone system was in 1920.  This is one
reason I think that online courses are still limited, since many of
them are essentially just broadcast TV (on the web) combined with text
communications.  It’s not really a virtual classroom.

But the
visual aspect is growing substantially, with FaceTime, Skype and other
ways beyond even videoconferencing to create a virtual presence
anywhere.  We’re even seeing demonstrations of conversations held using
mixed reality technology.

Google and Skype, among others, have
also made good progress in enabling us to communicate in different
languages – adding yet another dimension to being able to be a virtual
presence anywhere.

This oncoming capability to have visual
dialogues will intensify all the other the trends — although we are
still only in the early stages of its use.

So the first question I asked is:

How can we use these virtual presence technologies?  

As
an example, many of our students are on very tight budgets and often
are working jobs to survive, in addition to going to college.  Yet we
ask them to travel miles from where they live, often by slow public
transportation, to get to some main campus where their classes take
place.

But many community colleges have locations aside from their
main campus which could become nodes in a virtual classroom.  And
that’s not even including those students who could find other quiet, but
well connected, locations.  Then the student could appear virtually in
the classroom, be seen and heard and participate.  And the time and
money spent on travel could be devoted to study.

Ubiquitous Technology

Many
college leaders think of screens and keyboards when we talk of
technology.  I showed the many ways that technology and the net are now
everywhere and in many things.  Now any surface can be a keyboard, a
mouse or an interactive display.  Walls, floors, clothing, armbands,
fingernails, earrings, shoes, your eyes are all means of interacting
with the net.

Moreover, people interacting with technology is only
part of the story in a world where already more devices are connected
to the Internet than people – the “Internet of things”.

The natural question for colleges in response to this trend is to ask:

When
the Internet is everywhere accessible in many ways, will our college be
everywhere accessible in our region or even the world?

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Analytics & Big Data

I
combined these topics because as they all develop they are often
intertwined and as a combined trend they will have an impact on how
obtain and use knowledge.

The best of these efforts are invisible
to their users.  For example, speech recognition (like Siri) is an
example of machine intelligence.  There are personal translators,
software that makes art, writes stories, acts as a legal assistant, etc.

Then
there is the increased development and use of robots, leading to
concerns about massive future unemployment.  While it seems to me there
will still be much to do after the robots have mastered the kind of work
we’ve done in the past, there is no doubt that we should be asking
ourselves:

How can we use these technologies?  What is it that
our students need to learn in a future world of, at least, artificially
augmented human intelligence?

Changes In The Way People Will Make A Living

I
noted the dramatic shift in the last hundred years or more in the
nature of employment from most Americans earning a living by making
products or food to most Americans providing services and intangible
products.  Along with this has been a disaggregation of the way that
corporations work, since they too take advantage of technologies that
enable remote collaboration.  The latter trend is also associated with
an increase in freelance employment, now said to involve one-third of
the labor force and growing.

Most colleges still think about
preparing their students for traditional jobs in large companies –
especially community colleges which are concerned about the prospects
for their continuing education adult students and even degree students
who will not go on to four year colleges.  Yet a 9 to 5 job in the same
big company, from age 25 to 65, is being replaced by earning income from
several sources in a freelance economy.

The questions this raises for colleges are:

Will
our students be able to flourish in this new economy?  Are we preparing
them, indeed all of the residents of the areas we serve, for this new
work life?

The Need For Lifelong Learning

Lifelong
learning has been a popular catchphrase among public officials and
educators alike, although they have mostly implemented the idea in very
limited ways.

But the people outside of our institutions of
higher education realize that they need keep learning in order to make a
living in an economy based on knowledge.  This is not a matter of
taking a refresher course once every five years.  It’s a continuous
need.

image

That’s part of the reason for the popularity of the many
ways that the Internet offers people knowledge – college-like websites
(like Coursera and edX) and the many other websites that teach (from
Khan Academy to Lynda.com to YouTube to thousands of others).  The
development of citizen science sites, like Zooniverse and Geazle even offer people the opportunity to both gain and help create knowledge.

While
much of college, even community college, is focused on the segment of
the population younger than 23, all the people older than that need to
continue to learn.  These “older” people are finding the best and most
cost-effective means of lifelong learning because the traditional school
system is not geared to them.  Should that be the case?

Do/can community colleges offer something to these adults that meets their continuing needs?

As
I said at the end of my presentation, I only scratched the surface of
the trends that are coming our way.  For example, I didn’t even discuss
the development in bio-engineering.

The overall lesson for college
leaders is clear: in addition to our everyday work of keeping the
institution going, we need to start answering these questions.  We need
to develop our strategies to figure out what this all means for
colleges.

And, as part of a community of learners, community
colleges need to do research, to experiment and to analyze what works
and doesn’t work in a changing world.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/147697356006/community-colleges-the-deep-changes-that]

Power In The Network Age

A part of my research in graduate school included modeling a small,
but influential, network of individuals – the US Supreme Court.  I used
the mathematical models tools available.  I even represented the court’s
decisions in a Markov chain and computed characteristics like its
eigenvalue.

You can be excused if you’ve never heard about any of
this or even about Markov chains.  Nobody at the time was much
interested either.  But I suppose I should have stayed with it, with
books now being published on the impact of the Internet and network
analysis.

Consider the new book, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks.
It was written by Joshua Cooper Ramo, who is Vice Chairman and Co-CEO
of Kissinger Associates, and a member of the board of directors of
Starbucks and FedEx.

image

It emphasizes the importance of networks and
declaring that there is still a wide-open gap in the tools most of us
have for understanding these networks.

In an interview about the book, he set out his goal:

“We
live in an age where almost everything changes because of
connectivity…  The seventh sense is the idea that some people have an
instinct for how this works that’s better, sharper than the rest of us.
The book is designed to teach people how to think about connected
systems so that they can have the same kind of edge.  The people who see
what’s coming in financial markets or in politics have that edge.  It’s
important that the rest of us develop it, too.”

However, the book
is worth reading for what it is, not what he wants it to be.  It is
unusual in probing the subtleties — both positive and negative — of our
network age, not the usual breathless or self-promoting material.

Most
of the book describes the various ways that being connected can change
the characteristics and behavior of businesses, organizations,
governments – everything that we’ve inherited from the industrial era.

Much
has been made in various other reviews and discussions of this book
about its the scary descriptions of security issues and other dangers in
networks.  That wasn’t news to me and shouldn’t be news to most network
users who have been paying any attention.

Some people have
complained that the book is so wide ranging and repetitive it can be
frustrating to read.  Parts go into related space, where he worries
that it’s not just the network, but artificial intelligence that is
surpassing us in ways we don’t understand.  But this isn’t a blog of
literary criticism, so I’ll skip over that and go to the substance.

Considering
his day job at Kissinger Associates, I thought the most interesting
themes had to do with the interaction between the new global technology
network and the traditional institutions of government, business and
society.

Two themes, in particular, stand out:

  • Ramo
    notes that the transition from agricultural to industrial eras was
    accompanied by major wars, revolutions and destruction, along with
    rising wealth. He asks what similar events are likely to happen in the
    transition to a networked age.  Perhaps ISIS and this year’s disruptions
    in the American Presidential elections are only early warning signs of
    what’s to come.
  • He ends the book recalling Plato on the
    need for wisdom in rulers, after he has presented a picture of two
    inadequate sets of rulers – the engineers who control the network, but
    do not understand governance and human interactions and the traditional
    government leaders who don’t understand then network.

Although
we all seem to be connected, Ramo writes that the Internet is really
divided into various gated communities.  He states that “gatedness is
the corollary to connectedness” and this gatedness is a potential
problem.

At one point, he worries that you will have to be among
the rulers — presumably those with the seventh sense or at least those
controlling the gates — or the ruled.  He says the network gives people
more power against the gatekeepers than in traditional institutions, but
also notes that the average person may nevertheless need to be inside
the gate to lead a satisfactory life and make a living – so there’s
really no choice after all.

Aside from the problem he mentions, why is this important?

Well,
no matter their ideology and internal practices, in the past few
centuries, all governments are fundamentally in the business of
controlling a specific bordered territory — maintaining the physical
gates.  He posits that the Internet’s gatekeepers — Facebook, or Apple
iOS, etc. —are taking over that role in the cyberworld.  He says that
they are the powerful ones to watch out for in future wars between
networks and the state and between networks and other networks.

Many
others have considered the potential of a conflict between governments
and the Internet.  Last summer, for example, the Wilson Quarterly had an
article responding to this concern, “The Nation-State: Not Dead Yet”.

I’ve also written before on this subject – “The Internet versus The Nation-State?” and “Where’s Your Mind-Time Spent?

The
biggest weakness in the book and others of this kind is that the lack
of nuance in the discussion of networks.  The fact that there can be a
distribution of power and gates in networks doesn’t end the story.  
Partly the problem with these books is that the question of what nodes
(and entry points) of a network are most influential isn’t one that
can’t be answered merely in words.

image

Pictures help convey a bit more, and – going back to my graduate school research – mathematics helps even more.

So
as you read Ramo’s book and his concerns, you get the sense that his
view of the network is similar to this picture of Indiana University’s
Big Red network:

image

But perhaps the world outside of such tightly
controlled campuses is more like the collaborative network of Oak Ridge
National Lab:

image

Or something different.

And although a node’s
place in a network can show its potential influence, these graphs merely
show connections, not actual influence or power.  Unfortunately, the
publicly available analysis of influence over the billions of nodes and
endpoints of the Internet is still primitive.  Moreover, to his point,
it is also changing.

This book is a bit like Jefferson’s view of
the Louisiana Purchase before the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Jefferson
had a sense it was worth buying, but needed to send out scouts to find
out the details.  While they didn’t learn everything there was to learn
about the territory, much of what they did learn was changed over time
anyway.

That too will characterize our understanding of the network we explore each day.

image

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/147392818657/power-in-the-network-age]

The Internet Is Already Reinvigorating The Countryside

The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) held its annual summit last week in Columbus, Ohio.  As I’ve done in the last couple of years, I ran a workshop for small cities and rural areas.

image

Unlike
past years, this time I didn’t only focus on the potential that the
Internet provides for the countryside, but also showed the ways that
some – but not all – of those communities are already being
reinvigorated.  This post will provide a summary of my presentation
during the first half of the workshop.

In addition to the
usual background about ICF, I let people know of the establishment of a
new ICF Institute that is specifically devoted to the study of rural
communities.  It’s based at Mississippi State University and is led by
Professor Roberto Gallardo.

image

I quickly outlined the reasons why
changes in technology and the economy enable small towns and rural areas
to flourish again in this century:

  • Now and in the future, size and clusters count less than connections
  • Broadband enables economic growth in the way that proximity enabled urban economic growth in the industrial era
  • An
    ever increasing percentage of people can make a living by providing
    intangible products and services that can be delivered from anywhere to
    anywhere
  • A life-long 9 to 5 job in a big company is being pushed aside by the freelance economy
  • Visual communication will intensify the trends — although we are still only in the early stages of its use

But
I noted that only some small towns and rural areas have taken advantage
of these factors.  As a result, growth is very uneven in the
countryside as reported  by the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Then
I reviewed the kinds of community building services that the leaders,
in contrast to the laggards, are providing on top of their broadband and
technology foundation.

That was all prelude to the main topics of the day:

  • the
    development of a new urban exodus by digital millennials from high-tech
    cities into those parts of the countryside that provide both a better
    quality of life as well as Internet connectivity
  • the need for
    residents of the countryside to participate in the global economy and
    not limit their horizons to their local areas or even just their region

The new urban exodus to the countryside is a phenomenon that is not only in

the US, but has also occurred in France and the UK.  Nor is it like the migration to exurban homes of more than a decade ago.  As a Pew study has reported:

But
to call these rural hot spots “exurban,” Garreau said, is missing the
point.  As he sees it, today’s urban exiles aren’t looking for a lengthy
commute from the far suburbs to a downtown office.  They’re seasoned
professionals with big incomes who’ve grown tired of the urban rat race,
he said.  They’re looking to completely eradicate the notion of
commuting to work and toiling from 9 to 5.  Rich greenery and wide-open
vistas are a must.

For a better understanding of this phenomenon, I showed a few minutes from Alissa Hessler’s very compelling video explaining what her Urban Exodus website and life is like.

image

Then
I reviewed the evidence showing the greater growth path for those
participating in the global economy, even in rural areas.  However,
rural residents are at a competitive disadvantage compared to their city
cousins if they try to do this in isolation.

For that reason, I
emphasized the need for rural residents to achieve scale and influence
by working together in a kind of virtual metropolis
or global virtual
Chamber of Commerce where they can meet and, more important, find
business partners, services and even customers.  Partly, this can work
is because it is also built on the shared experience and perspective
that comes from living in the countryside.

If you or the residents
of your community are interested in joining in this virtual metropolis,
please contact me – njacknis at intelligent community dot org.

image

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/146306552640/the-internet-is-already-reinvigorating-the]

When Will Citizens Be Able To Track Requests To The Government?  Still?

In 2009, I wrote a blog titled:  “When Will Citizens Be Able To Track Requests To The Government?”

It’s time to see if much progress has been made, but first some background …

The
people that public officials call citizens or voters or residents are
not single-minded civic machines.  Most of the time, they are consumers
and workers outside of the public sector.  And so what happens outside
of the public sector affects their expectations of what should happen in
the public sector.

One of the more frequent parts of a
consumer’s life these days is being able to track things.  Here are just
a few of the many diverse examples, almost all of which have been
around for at least a few years: track your Domino’s pizza
order from the oven to your front door; track shipments, at all stages,
through FedEx or UPS or even USPS; track the path of a car that you
ordered via Uber; track an airline flight so you know when to leave for the airport to pick up a relative or friend.

Why
not enable citizens to track their government transactions in
mid-stream?  While suggestions of this kind are often proposed to
increase transparency of government, the tracking actually serves a much
simpler goal – to reduce frustration on the part of the citizen.

If
people can see where their request or application is, they will have a
lower sense of frustration and a greater sense of control.  If the
citizens could also get an estimate of how long it usually takes to go
through each step of an approval process, all the better.

image

In the public sector, this kind of tracking was very rare in 2009.  The standout was the UK, for example enabling residents to driving license applications.

Since
2009, we’ve seen some more ways to track requests and applications.  
This has been especially true of requests under various freedom of
information laws, such as the US Justice Department’s.  However, the
average citizen is not submitting FOIL requests – I suspect that most
come from media employees.

You can track your request for US government grants
– again something that the average citizen isn’t focused on.  The US
Internal Revenue Service IRS2go app lets you track the status of your
refund, which is likely to be of interest to a much larger number of
people.

While it is difficult for me to judge from this distance
how well it actually works, certainly one of the broadest and most
ambitious efforts to let residents track their requests is in India, not the US or Europe even.

image

Alas, in New York City, the government’s website tells you call 311 to track applications for Food Stamps.

In South Carolina, a “Multi-Agency Partnership Portal
provides a reasonably good way of applying for various health and
support programs.  Although the website refers to seeing the status of
the application, it’s not clear from the documentation how you’d do that.

Colorado’s version of the same kind of website, called PEAK, makes it very easy to track status.

image

Although Indiana also does this, its website seems much more complicated than Colorado’s.

Even
the City of San Francisco, which aims to be a technology leader, has
had its difficulties in enabling people to do the simple tracking of,
for example, building permits.  Its website refers back to a partial implementation two years ago, but no recent update.

Even worse, one of the examples from 2009 was from the District of Columbia, where you could the track the status of building permit applications.  If you try that now, you’ll get this backtracking message:

“DCRA
has removed its permit status check page also known as Online Building
Permit Application Tracking (OBPAT) application from its website.

"DCRA
recognizes that some constituents are disappointed about this
decision.  In short, DCRA found that-the information was too often
unreliable and resulted in misinformation to constituents.  This is
totally unacceptable, DCRA is hopeful that the site will eventually be
restored, but the data issues must be resolved before it is.  DCRA is
committed to transparency, but transparency is helpful when accurate
information is available.  It is DCRA’s goal to have truthful, accurate
communication from staff, and the public access sites need to reflect
that as well.”

Clearly, there are still many situations where people want to track their interaction with the government and cannot.

(Of
course, the ultimate goal, in so far as possible, is to complete those
transactions instantaneously online, like the fishing license app that Michigan makes available.  Then the tracking problem disappears, but that’s a subject for a future blog post.)

So the answer to the question?

In
the last seven years, there has only been a little progress here and
there in some areas of government, but not the massive change that
technology makes possible.  

Consider an analogy.  While
every government, for instance, expects that it needs a formal budget
document, most apparently don’t yet have an expectation that they need
to make it easy for people to find out the status of their requests for
common services.  In this Internet age that is no longer something new. It’s time to get moving on it.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/144503228624/when-will-citizens-be-able-to-track-requests-to]

Why Do We Still Have Tax Brackets?

We’ve just passed the tax deadline and reflecting on it I was vexed
again by this question: why do we still have these tables of brackets
that determine how much income tax we’re supposed to pay?

I can
understand there was a time, many decades ago, that the government
wanted to keep things simple so each person could easily determine the
tax rate that would apply.  And I know that the continued use of tax
brackets is not the biggest problem around.  However, tax brackets are
just another symptom of government’s failure to see the widespread
deployment of technology in the public and its failure to use basic
technology for simple improvements that are appropriate in this century.

Brackets
cause some problems.  Politicians who advocate a single flat tax rate
often start with the argument that their approach would be so simple
people could just send in a postcard.  Putting aside the merits or
demerits of a flat tax, for the moment, there is something retro about
telling people to use a postcard in 2016.

image

From 2000 to 2015, postcard usage dropped by more than two thirds, an
even greater drop than in first class envelope mail.  The Washington
Post even had a story last year with a headline that asked “Are postcards obsolete?

Where would we even find these postcards?  Would the IRS mail them to us?  🙂

Those
who argue for flat taxes or lower taxes in the higher brackets
implicitly say that people will work less if it means an obvious jump in
tax rates by shifting into a higher bracket.  There are also those who
advise people how to avoid this problem, as did a Forbes magazine article
last month which started out saying that

“the key tax challenge facing
retirees: being helplessly catapulted into rising tax brackets [because
our] tax code is progressive.”

Indeed, with the current set of progressive tax rates, your percentage of tax goes up as your income goes up.

image

But we no longer have to assume we live a world limited to paper-based tables.

There
is nothing in today’s world that requires the use of brackets in a
progressive tax system.  Indeed, a system based on a formula instead
would eliminate the negative impacts of bracket-avoiding behavior that
critics of progressive taxation point to.

There are a few possible
formulas that might work.  The most complex would be a logarithmic or
exponential curve, which a computer can nevertheless easily compute.  If
you want to make it even simpler, another formula would set the
percentage tax rate as a percentage of income.  (Remember school math?  
TaxRate = m * Income where m is some small fraction.)

No matter
the formula, computers can handle it.  The IRS could make a formula
available on line or over the phone — just enter your taxable income and
it will tell you what you owe.  It can be built into the calculator
function of cell phones.  There are tens of thousands of coders who
could finish this app in an afternoon.

Of course, the IRS says that it now offers an app, but it doesn’t take advantage of the computing power of the mobile device nor help you figure out the amount you owe.

image

While
we’re at the effort to bring government into the modern technological
era, let’s also consider where those taxes go.  Why do we still have
fixed budgets?

The budget reform of the 1920s was developed in a
world that did not have the ability to dynamically make calculations.  
So every year, government officials make their best guess on the
condition of the economy, the demand from an unknown number of
potentially needy citizens and other factors that determine the ebb and
flow of public finances.  Since the budget process is lengthy, they make
this guess well ahead of time so they could be trying to predict the
future more than 18 months ahead of time.

A rolling budget would
work better by automatically adjusting each month to the flow of revenue
and the demands on government programs — and all you need is a big
spreadsheet on a not-so-big computer.  However, the budget makers would
have to decide what their priorities are.  For example, for every
percentage of unemployment, we need to put aside $X billion dollars for
unemployment insurance payments.  It would take work to do this for each
of the promises the government makes — although maybe not as much work
as trying to guess the future.

(Of course, the real obstacle to a
rolling budget model is that policy makers would be forced to make more
explicit their priorities.)

I could go on, but you get the idea.
Buying billions of dollars of technology products is not enough.  
Government needs also to bring technology into its thinking and design.

image

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights
Reserved

[Note: this is an update of my blog
post in 2012]

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/143790789669/why-do-we-still-have-tax-brackets]

New Funding For Libraries

The Metropolitan New York Library Council was invited to take part today in a working conference of the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Libraries and Information Technology on the digital divide, broadband and especially library funding.  We — Nate Hill, Executive Director, and myself as Board president — took the opportunity to address the large and developing problem of how to fund libraries in this century.

We noted that these subjects are all part of a larger problem.  Libraries are delivering more and more digital content and services to larger numbers of people, especially those who are on the wrong side of the digital divide or who still need help navigating the digital economy.  These increased services require much higher bandwidth than most libraries can now offer, which puts an unfair and arbitrary cap on how well people can be served.

image

While the need for broadband in libraries and its value to the community is clear, what has been unclear and, at best, sporadic is the financing to make the broadband-based services possible.  When legislators only thought about libraries as just another one of the cultural resources for the state, library funding was limited to a piece of cultural funding.

Now that libraries offer a broader array of services and can offer even more in a digital broadband era, the funding should also be more diversified. 

• To the extent libraries support entrepreneurs and small business as both location for innovation and “corporate reference librarian”, a piece of the economic development budget should support libraries.• To the extent libraries support students, especially with homework help and after school resources, a piece of the very large education budget should support libraries.• To the extent libraries support workforce development and are the most cost-effective, often the only, way that adult learners can keep up their skills to be employable, a piece of the workforce development and public assistance budgets should support libraries.• To the extent libraries support public health education, a piece of the health budget should support libraries.

There are other examples, but the strategy is clear.  Library funding needs to come from a diverse set of sources, just as a good investor has a balanced portfolio and doesn’t have all the money in one stock.

Of course, in the longer run, public officials will recognize the role of the library as the central non-commercial institution of the knowledge age that we are entering.  As such, perhaps the permanent funding of libraries should be a very light tax on the commerce going to through the Internet to support the digital public services that are provided by libraries.

To some degree, the principle of basing support for library broadband on telecommunications revenues has been established with the Federal E-Rate program.  But the amounts are relatively small and the telecommunications base is traditional phone service, which is diminishing, not the Internet which is growing.

Whatever the source of funding may turn out to be, libraries need a consistent source of funding that grows with the demand for their services in this century.

image

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/140390575384/new-funding-for-libraries]

Broadband And An Open Internet

Six US Senators, mostly from small rural states, wrote recently to the FCC about the inconsistencies they found between its recent report on broadband progress and its Open Internet order that was issued last March.

The
FCC’s stated:

“We find that advanced telecommunications capability is
not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion…
… many Americans still lack access to advanced telecommunications
capability, especially in rural areas… the disparity between rural and
urban Americans persists”.

The Senators:

  • objected to the FCC’s view that broadband is not being deployed fast enough
  • expressed their “concern” that the FCC’s broadband benchmark (25 Mpbs download and 3 Mbps upload speeds) “discourages broadband providers from offering speeds at or above [that] benchmark.”
  • pointed out difference in broadband definitions between the Open Internet proposal and the broadband report
  • questioned why the Connect American fund only subsidizes rural broadband at speeds of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload.
image

This post is not primarily about the issue of net neutrality, as important as that is. Instead, hopefully I’m giving an objective, third party view of this debate about broadband from the perspective of the Intelligent Community Forum’s more than fifteen years of working with communities around the world and seeing what level and kind of broadband they need.

As might be expected, both sides of this dispute are somewhat off the mark.

Despite the progress that is being made in some parts of the USA by private companies or municipal agencies, the FCC’s statement that broadband is not being deployed in a timely fashion is essentially correct.

image

The Senators’ assertion that maintaining a 25/3 broadband benchmark discourage telecommunications companies and other Internet Service Providers from delivering more than this minimum benchmark does not make a lot of sense and is not supported by any evidence. Our observation is that, in areas where these companies feel under competitive threat, they manage to find the money to invest in upgrading speeds on their networks.

It’s also worth pointing out that the speeds that are promised by ISPs are seldom delivered, as anyone who has used Speedtest or similar services can attest. This reality seems unrecognized by both the Senators and the FCC.

The focus of the FCC and the Senators on download speeds ignores the need for upload speeds, especially for those who want to use broadband for business, health care and education. In some respects, it is best to look at the combination of upload and download speeds. The FCC’s discussion about fairness to big content providers might have misled them into thinking mostly about delivery of content from a central source and not to consider the world we have, where people are both consumers and producers of content.

The Senators’ statement that they are unaware of any application needing 25 Mbps ignores the demands of even the near term future. Broadband projects, according to the telecommunications companies, are major investments — presumably made to meet the needs of more than the next six months.

There was a time perhaps a decade ago when people couldn’t figure out why they needed more than dial up speeds. Now they know and demand broadband. The FCC, the Senators and telecommunications companies all need to realize that even speeds that are above today will seem way too slow for the applications that are coming in a few years.

The Senators are correct that there is no good public policy reason to accept different broadband speeds for urban versus rural areas. Our work with rural areas, if anything, would lead us to believe that the reverse is true. Those in urban areas can still seek out a large number of customers and business partners the old fashioned way, in person. To succeed in the global economy today, those living in rural areas need higher speeds to connect with people far away.

Although the Senators brought together the FCC’s Open Internet policy and broadband assessment to criticize the FCC, there is an interplay between net neutrality (the FCC’s Open Internet) and broadband which goes beyond the FCC’s contradictory statements. Simply, if the bandwidth is sufficient, then there would be less reason to throttle any consumer or content provider — and thus less reason for concern about how Internet service providers could be hurt by Open Internet requirements.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/139911411379/broadband-and-an-open-internet]

A National Library Service

Readers of this blog are aware that libraries have continued to adapt
to our evolving digital era. Most provide electronic materials, teach
people about digital literacy, help overcome the digital divide by
making Wi-Fi and even devices freely available, etc.  Some even support platforms for self-publishing.

But
libraries have yet to collectively take advantage of the Internet as a
national (even global) network that connects them all. This is
especially true for reference librarians.

This is not really a new
idea. There are a few examples of collaboration within state borders,
such as Florida’s Ask A Librarian.

image

More than ten years ago, going
beyond one state to the whole nation, the Library of Congress helped
create the QuestionPoint service to provide

“libraries with access to a
growing collaborative network of reference librarians in the United
States and around the world. Library patrons can submit questions at any
time of the day or night through their library’s Web site. The
questions will be answered online by qualified library staff from the
patron’s own library or may be forwarded to a participating library
around the world.”

Although it’s now part of OCLC, QuestionPoint
certainly hasn’t grown in use as the Internet has grown in use. Indeed,
the movement for collaboration among libraries seems to have peaked
perhaps ten years ago. This is despite the fact that the demand for
these services has increased, while the tools to meet that demand have
become less expensive. The tools for collaboration – from social media
to videoconferencing – have vastly improved and become more common
recently.

In a world where everyone is drowning in a sea of
information, reference librarians have a unique and valuable role as
guides – the captains of the pilot boats on that sea. However, without
collaboration, every library would somehow have to have reference
librarians on staff who can quickly be expert on all matters. That’s
clearly impossible and no library can do the job adequately all alone.

But,
in its last report on employment, the American Library Association
reported that the USA has 70,000+ paid librarians and 150,000+ other
library staff. Imagine the impact if they worked together and
collaborated, each person specializing in some – but not all – subjects.
Each of these specialist reference librarians, networked together,
would be available to patrons everywhere in the country.

In this way, collaboration through the Internet would enable each library to:

  • Promote economies of scale, both becoming more cost-effective and more valuable
  • Broaden the library’s resource reach to better serve its local residents

Maureen
Sullivan, Past President of the American Library Association and my
colleague in the Aspen Institute’s working group on libraries, has
stated the situation clearly:

“With a nationally networked
platform, library and other leaders will also have more capacity to
think about the work they can do at the national level that so many
libraries have been so effective at doing at the state and local levels”

Jim
Neal, former head of the Columbia University Libraries, current member
of the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council and hopefully
the next President of the American Library Association, wrote four years
ago wrote an article whose message was clear “Advancing From Kumbaya to Radical Collaboration: Redefining the Future Research Library”. While his focus was on research libraries, his call for radical collaboration should be heard by all libraries.

With
that in mind, Ronna C. Memer of the San Jose (California) Public
Library, reflecting on her 25 years of librarianship, wrote in a 2011
issue of the Collaborative Librarianship journal:

“Although some
collaborative efforts have recently been curtailed due to rising costs,
it seems that more rather than less collaboration would be most
cost-effective to library systems in coming years. As distinctions
between types of library services (e.g. online vs. face-to-face)
diminish, so too do some distinctions between types of library systems
(e.g. academic vs. public) as well as between library systems and other
institutions such as museums. Libraries, their staff and their patrons
all benefit from creative sharing of library resources and services.”

Other
fields of endeavor have created national networks. For example, the
National Agricultural and Rural Development Policy (NARDeP) Center is a
“flexible national network of scientists and analysts ready to quickly
meet the needs of local, state, and federal policy makers.”

Certainly, all libraries – networked together – can do the same thing for the residents of their communities.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/139429516062/a-national-library-service]

The New Urban Exodus

During the last half of the last century, there was much concern
about people leaving cities. Several books explored the phenomenon,
including one titled “Urban Exodus”, a phrase that became almost a rallying cry for urbanists and urban planners.

Many of the cities – even the largest ones – lost population as people moved out to the suburbs and even further to ex-urbs.

Then
over the last decade or two, with a general decrease in crime and
the arrival of both immigrants and young people who grew up elsewhere,
many cities – although certainly not all – were re-populated and turned
around. We read many stories about how these new arrivals are bringing a
new vibrancy to urban areas. And we frequently hear about the various
predictions of the continuing urbanization of the world’s population.

Of course, rural life continues to have its attractive qualities for some people. So, about two years ago, I asked “Will The Best & Brightest Return To The Countryside?
That blog post even had a reference to a New York Times story about
older folks returning to rural life after business careers elsewhere – “A Second Career, Happily in the Weeds”.

A necessary youth movement among farmers has also developed. In western Canada, there is the Young Agrarians
whose motto is “growing the next generation of farmers and food lovers
in Canada”. On the other side of the continent, the Virtual Grange has
run young farmers conferences.

Even more recently, with the
diffusion of information and communications technology, there has
started a new urban exodus, with a more significant twist. This exodus
is not about the movement to the suburbs of middle class families, whose
breadwinners work for large corporations. Rather it is about creative
folks, artists, and others from cities, going past the suburbs, to live
in rural areas where they can practice their craft and/or become
farmers.

The magazine, Modern Farmer, was established to serve
this group of people – in its own special hipster way that would
otherwise be associated with parts of San Francisco or Brooklyn. In a
recent issue, the magazine contained an article “At Home with Jacob and Alissa Hessler of Urban Exodus”.

image

The appropriately named Urban Exodus website describes its founders and cohorts this way:

“The
new age of back to landers. Urban Exodus gives an intimate glimpse into
the spaces and lives of creative urbanites who chose to leave the
concrete jungle for greener pastures. In addition to the idyllic imagery
of rustic farmhouses, working studios and cabins nestled in the woods,
are interviews detailing their journey. These interviews highlight the
triumphs and the struggles they have experienced and the inspirations
they have found since choosing to live a life away from the urban
existences they once knew.“

It’s filled with stories about people like those pictured here:

image

Nor is this just a North American phenomenon. William van den Broek wrote about the same situation in France:

“Many
cities of the world are facing an unexpected phenomenon: urban exodus.
No longer constrained by a localized workspace, an increasing number of
freelancers are enjoying mobility, and ultimately leaving stressful and
polluted cities. After the rural exodus, following the industrial
revolution, are we now facing a digital urban exodus. Perhaps this
movement is now following the digital revolution?”

Any social
trend is complex, especially in the world today. So, for some people,
it’s not a matter of taking leave from the city, but living in both the
city and the country – a combination that technology also makes
possible.  I mentioned Brooklyn before as one of the centers of the
young creatives on the East Coast. Among those splitting their time in
city and country are young Brooklyn families who maintain residences
both in Brooklyn’s urban core and more than a hundred miles away in the
rural parts of the Hudson Valley and Catskills Mountains.

Unfortunately,
rural areas on the wrong side of the digital divide will not be very
inviting to this potential influx of sophisticated folks because those
areas lack the required connectivity to the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, with the creative and idealistic people behind it, this
new urban exodus is very much worth watching.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/139052799904/the-new-urban-exodus]