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Searching for the centre of the digital universe PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Brunnen   
Wednesday, 26 June 2013 06:18

(Communications Management Association (CMA) conference – London 18th June 2013)

CMA LogoThe CMA has a rich history of talking technology and their annual conference was no exception.   Following Lord Currie’s perceptive opening keynote address a panel assembled to envisage the policy changes needed to enable rapid growth in FTTH and 4G mobile. 

But I have a history of not saying what I am supposed to say.  Expected to talk about ‘Networks enabling opportunities’ I chose to speak of ‘Opportunities enabling networks’ – a viewpoint with demand origins some distance from the prevailing supply-side view of infrastructure policy.

These last few years I have been extraordinarily fortunate to travel extensively across other parts of Europe and in the USA with my colleague Marit Hendriks.  We have studied the fabric of digital economies in Sweden, understood connected communities in The Netherlands, engaged with eHealth experts in Barcelona, listened to network ‘experts’ gathered in Milan, in Munich and in Geneva.   In the USA we have visited Chattanooga (their first ‘Gigabit city’) and most recently, addressed the Intelligent Community Forum’s annual summit of Mayors and city leaders in New York.  There we were exposed to the fine details of progressive and informed societies in Taiwan, in Oulu in Finland, Tallin Estonia, Columbus Ohio, Toronto and Stratford in Canada.

And in the course of these travels one thing became clear for those seeking to be recognised amongst world leaders in Intelligent Communities.   The centre of their digital universe is rarely an incumbent phone company or a technology supplier.

We learned many things about how these ‘intelligent communities’ have seized their destiny.  We learned also of the brutally honest process of facing up to the state they were in and then finding a way forward.

Their successes did not happen by accident.  Their successes were not triggered by enthusiastic advocates of this or that choice of networking technologies.  Nor were they dependent on the eyesight of an incumbent Telco, or their regulators.  Their success did not hinge on the lure of broadband subsidies from national or regional governments.  True – they can now all boast of brilliantly future-proofed Internet connectivity but that was not where they started.  The CIO from the Mayor’s office in Chatanooga in Eastern Tennessee does not talk of bits and Bytes. He speaks of ‘the meaning of life’ – by which he means a deep understanding of the real objectives of all his departmental colleagues, the people he serves.

The Silos of State

The fabric of the digital economyWe are all familiar with the great Silos of State.  Nationally we departmentalise them.  These verticals represent Energy, Education, Health, Environment, local government, Social Services, Transport, Industry and so on – across the entire gamut of the UK economy.

All of them are served by infrastructure utilities – roads, rail, water, drainage, energy and, of course, communications.  Sometimes the infrastructure is not adequate and it gets fixed because it needs to be fixed.

In the UK we hear a lot about the need for local initiative - whether it’s from Lord Heseltine’s report or Local Enterprise Partnerships or calls for smarter cities.  But if you are looking solely through the prism of technology – aiming, say, for super-connected cities – you are missing the point.

In the places that have been recognised as being among the top 7 intelligent communities, the nearest things to technology that their mayors and civic leaders talk about are in the five layers above the access network.  These layers we call the applied digital infrastructure. 

Open Data – they do not talk of high performance computing, Big Data or Cloud Services.  They speak first of the power of data journalism, the revelations that flow from mapping societies’ strengths and weaknesses, and they speak of transparency in both government and enterprise. 

Expertise – these leaders are not focused on ICT or teaching children to code.  They speak instead of Education as a whole and the scope for generating new areas of research – at all levels across all faculties – and have local plans to meet local needs.

Innovation – they are not desperate for the access networks to be provided so that, maybe, perhaps, they might trigger innovation.  They speak instead of collaborative community leadership enabling their capacity for innovation through the proactive sharing of ideas and resources.

Inclusion – they are not much fussed about those who are as yet still not online.  They speak first about Enterprise – employees, employees and students – and efficient public services.  They speak of the engagement with the digital economy that naturally happens at work with learning that filters through to citizens at large.

Advocacy – they do not worry about lobbying national government for a greater share of funding.  They speak instead of engendering immense local pride and the ways they can differentiate their communities – attracting inward investment, bolstering homegrown talent and making their place culturally attractive.  And in doing that they reassure national politicians who are generally overly cautious about handing down power and responsibility to local communities.

National and Local viewpoints

These ‘smart’ communities may be urban or rural – but their energy stems from these locally felt needs.  These needs and opportunities drive great communities to make sure their infrastructure is fit for purpose – regardless of what some mega-phone company is shouting about.

In exactly the same way that the USA can at last abandon years of resistance to climate change theorists now that missing a major global market would look like the lost opportunity of the decade, so it is in the UK. 

The underlying urge to catch up on the Super-Connected Cities scene derives not from any expert enthusiasm for fibre but from that penny dropping moment when ‘UK Trade & Industry’ finally recognized that the global market for intelligent city systems will be around £400bn by 2020 – and to qualify in the export market credibility stakes there’s a lot of catching up to do.  The USA can already boast of 135 municipal FTTP networks and the communications regulator, FCC, is pushing for more Gigabit cities in this race to develop new skills for new markets – even if that demands investment by new entrants from other silos like Energy.

Nationally these policy flips are rare – the windows of opportunity generally hinge on astute leverage of some major crisis.  The opportunities are seen more at a local level – well below the radar of central administrations. Local solutions may not at first look as though they have the broad shoulders and scale of national aspirants but that arrogant and dismissive attitude underestimates the unconstrained wild-fire spread of digital successes. 

The centre of the digital universe is not found in some distant supplier with ambitions for global domination.  It is down to local communities – local government and enterprises and umpteen other agencies in between – to demand more, to impose their own local connectivity and performance targets, to create imaginative and innovative programmes and find their own way forward. 

Their alternative is drifting backwards or being submerged by the great transformational tide of the digital economy.


Readers interested in 'Smart Cities' may also find useful links in our report from the ICF global summit 'Shaken and Stirred' and the NextGen paper 'Economic Revitalisation'

The Intelligent Cities conference in Leeds on June 19th also revealed great insights with presentations from Paul Hadley (BIS) on the Information Economy strategy and from Rohit Talwar, the aclaimed futurologist from FastFutures.  Presentations from this event are now available.

Note the date - the 2-day NextGen 13 conference is scheduled for October 14th/15th at Wembley, North London.


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