Last week, I was in Ridgeland, Mississippi, a suburban city of 25,000 outside of Jackson. It is the second city in the state to adopt high speed broadband Internet in response to the challenge by the regional communications company, C-Spire. For most of the day, I met with city aldermen and other public officials to discuss the various ways that broadband provides the foundation for economic development, learning, healthcare, even quality of life and tourism.
C-Spire also has its headquarters in Ridgeland, so you’d think that adoption would be widespread. But the pattern of adoption in Ridgeland is similar to elsewhere. It often is picked up by the more educated and affluent section of the town and slower to be adopted by others – including those who would most benefit from expanded opportunity.
It was very encouraging to see the public officials focusing on broadband. With the local public leadership strongly behind this effort to position Ridgeland for the 21st century, the likelihood that all will benefit will be much greater than in other cities I’ve seen where the local leaders do not seem to understand.
Public officials are critical in creating a 21st century intelligent community because they have the necessary political skills. While nothing is ever easy in public affairs, it is relatively easier to build a highway – the organizations and companies, who are the usual participants in civic discussions, grew up with older infrastructure investments.
Broadband-based community building is new and may deliver benefits after the leaders of those organizations have retired.
So, public leaders need to widen the circle of people involved in envisioning the future of their communities. For an intelligent community initiative to succeed, it needs to include the newer, growing parts of the economy – entrepreneurs, young people, tech businesses, artists, freelancers of all kinds, as well as the many others whose earnings depend on their knowledge.
Ridgeland also fits into another pattern I’ve observed over the last couple of years – in cities as far apart and different culturally from it as New Westminster in British Columbia, Canada and Dublin, Ohio and Yonkers, New York.
Older, small cities in what is now a suburban ring are often the places where the most interesting adoption of technology is occurring. These cities are the most far-sighted and devote the most effort to planning their futures.
And it’s not just a matter of having money. Some are relatively affluent, but these cities are generally in the mid-range of income or even below the mid-range.
Much more than other places, they act as if they are in startup mode – and their leaders are, in a sense, public entrepreneurs. Of course, like startups in the private sector, a few will fail in their efforts, many will achieve reasonable, if not spectacular, success and a few will achieve legendary status.
By contrast, big cities often seem to sit on their laurels. Besides, with big established interests and big bureaucracies, they are very hard to change and to achieve dramatic transformation.
Unfortunately, not all small cities are jumping on the opportunities presented by a globally connected world. Too many smaller cities have suffered too long from the loss of their industrial base and population. They have yet to overcome their despondency about the present, never mind their fear of a worse future.
They should look to these similar-sized “startup” cities as examples to emulate.
© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved