Will The Best & Brightest Return To The Countryside?

There have been recent news stories about those coming and going and possibly returning to life in the countryside. 

A couple months ago, the New York Times had a major story about older folks returning to rural life after business careers elsewhere – “A Second Career, Happily in the Weeds”.  (Among others, it featured Debra Sloane, a former Cisco colleague.

Then this past weekend, in a kind of counterpoint, the Times’ Sunday Review section had an op-ed article about a woman who tried and gave up on living in the countryside – “Giving Up My Small-Town Fantasy”.   While she returned to the city, she also wrote that she moved to a small town because:

We were betting on the fact that we wouldn’t be alone in fleeing the big city for a small town. Urban living has become unthinkably expensive for many middle-class creative types. A 2010 study from the Journal of Economic Geography found a trifecta of reasons some rural areas have grown instead of shrunk: the creative class, entrepreneurial activity and outdoor amenities. In 2012, a University of Minnesota research fellow called the influx of 30-to-40-somethings into rural Minnesota towns a “brain gain” — flipping the conventional wisdom on the exodus from the boonies to the big city.

To further the idea that the traditional brain drain from rural areas is changing, the well-respected Daily Yonder had a feature article last month summarizing research on “The Rural Student Brain Gain”.  As they note:

The common wisdom is that rural America’s “best and brightest” want to leave home. New research shows these students are no more likely to want to leave than their counterparts. And when they do go, they have a stronger desire to return.

There is no doubt that many young people who can leave will do so – which more likely means the brightest who can get into major universities.  To some extent, all young people want to see the world beyond where they grew up. 

Almost a hundred years ago, Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis wrote what became a very popular song as many young men went off to Europe in World War I.

How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm
After they’ve seen Paree’
How ya gonna keep ‘em away from Broadway
Jazzin around and paintin’ the town

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By the way, this is not just a rural question.  A generation ago or so, parents in New York City were asking the same question – would the young return after seeing California?  Feeding this concern, for instance, was an article in the New York Times on October 1, 1980 about so many New Yorkers living in Los Angeles that two of the big high schools in Brooklyn held alumni reunions there.

So while we don’t want the young to feel they are being kept captive, the question is will they return to their countryside origins or something like it?

To answer that question, there are others that need to be answered first. 

In a post-industrial, global, Internet-connected economy, can young people still feel they are part of the larger world? Can they have as many opportunities for fulfillment and success back home as in the “big city”?

The answer is yes, the potential is there.  But the young are still leaving because too few rural communities have done the things they need to do in order to open up those opportunities for their brightest young people.  These lagging leaders haven’t built up the broadband necessary to connect both young and old to the world, nor have they helped people understand what they can do with that broadband connection, nor have they focused on the larger issues of developing a community anyone would want to live in if they had a choice in the matter.

And those who have given up hope for their rural communities because they know people there can never earn the megabucks found on Wall Street?  They should be informed by other research, including a fascinating, classic study by Professor Gundars Rudzitis of the University of Idaho, in his article in Rural Development Perspectives, “Amenities Increasingly Draw People to the Rural West”:

More people are moving to rural areas for reasons that have nothing to do with employment.  … the rural West is one of the fastest growing regions in the United States. …  Surveys in the 1970’s began to show that, if given a choice, people prefer to live in small towns and even in rural areas.

Amenities such as environmental quality and pace of life were becoming important in explaining why people move. The apparent sudden preference of people for rural life shocked many academics and planners because rural areas were thought to be at a major disadvantage compared with urban areas. 

These findings also were a surprise because they conflicted with the major assumptions of migration theory, or why people move. Simply put, people were thought to move because they wanted to increase or maximize their incomes. … This approach, however, failed to explain why people moved out of cities into places like the rural West.

…  People who migrate to high-amenity counties are often assumed to be retirees, as the growth and development of States like Arizona and Florida bears out. In our survey, however, only 10 percent of the new migrants were over 65 years of age. Instead, migrants were more likely to be young, highly educated professionals.

These studies and stories about people moving from city to country and back make clear that these decisions are more complicated than the headlines indicate.  And broadband connectivity will upset these patterns even more. 

Indeed, this new picture of what is going on may tell us why the best and brightest of the countryside might want to return after they’ve seen Paris (or New York or San Francisco).

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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Technology Gets More Personal?

This is the last of my end of summer highlights of interesting tech news.  Aside from being interesting, perhaps they also illustrate how technology is getting more personal now.

  • The creative, Munich-based augmented reality company, Metaio, showed off a way it can turn any surface into an augmented reality touchscreen.  The company notes that this is their:

vision of the near future for wearable computing user interfaces. By fusing information from an infrared and standard camera, nearly any surface can be transformed into a touch screen.

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  • Also from Germany, the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits announced a few days ago an app for Google Glass that analyzes what its camera sees and assesses the emotional state of the person in front of the Glass wearer.  It even takes a guess at the person’s age.  It’s an extension of their previous work, offered as SHORE technology.  There’s a video demonstrating this at http://youtu.be/Suc5B79qjfE

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  • As part of its RISE basketball tour in China, Nike unveiled the LED basketball court to train athletes.  This new facility in Shanghai, called the House of Mamba, has motion sensors capturing the actions of the players and LED displays providing direction on the floor.  There’s a picture below, but to see it at work, you should watch the video at http://youtu.be/u2YhDQtncK8

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  • In another example of the blending of the virtual and physical in urban environments, there’s Soofa's urban hub.  As they describe it:

a solar-powered bench that provides you with free outdoor charging and location-based information like air quality and noise levels by uploading environmental sensor data to soofa.co. The smart urban furniture was developed by Changing Environments, a MIT Media Lab spin-off.

  • Toshiba Corporation announced that it will add a new dimension to its healthcare business by starting production of pesticide-free, long-life vegetables in a closed-type plant factory that operates under almost aseptic conditions … and will start shipping lettuce, baby leaf greens, spinach, mizuna and other vegetables in the second quarter of FY2014.  http://www.toshiba.co.jp/about/press/2014_05/pr1501.htm

That’s it for reports from around the globe.  Next week back to analysis and questions about where we’re headed.

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/96538933986/technology-gets-more-personal]

New Energy?

This is the second of my August posts that review some interesting and unusual tech news items about various subjects I’ve blogged about before. 

Recently, there have been frequent announcements about developments in new and alternative, yet sustainable, energy. 

Among other developments in more efficient batteries than the traditional lithium ion battery, there is the Ryden battery, whose producer says it is both environmentally sustainable (carbon, not rare earths), supports an electric car with 300 mile range and charges 20 times faster than lithium ion batteries.  Their May announcement adds:

“Power Japan Plus today launched a new battery technology – the Ryden dual carbon battery. … The Ryden battery makes use of a completely unique chemistry, with both the anode and the cathode made of carbon. … [It is the] first ever high performance battery that meets consumer lifecycle demand, rated for more than 3,000 charge/discharge cycles.”

There’s a video explaining this more at http://youtu.be/mWPgnbRYNRM

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And Modern Farmer magazine had a story this month about the use of store-bought spinach as fuel for cars.  But before kids tell mom that spinach is too valuable to be used as food, read on:

In a recent study, an international team of chemists and physicists have taken the first “snapshots” of photosynthesis in action—the process plants use to convert light into chemical energy. … In experiments recently documented in Nature, the scientists shield spinach leaves they buy at the market in a cool, protected room where a sun-like laser activates photosynthesis. …

Using lasers, X-rays, and some spinach, the team has created the first-ever images of the water-splitting process that leads to plant energy. …  Once scientists get a handle on exactly how photosynthesis happens, they’ll recreate it using other technology to create what’s called an “artificial leaf” which could convert solar rays into cheap, renewable fuel.

Finally, for situations that don’t require mobile power, there’s a new kind of wind turbine unveiled a couple of months ago by some Dutch engineers.  Unlike the blades we see in wind farms, this turbine uses a screw-pump design, originally conceived of by the ancient Archimedes – which is also the name of the firm that makes this product.

For under US $6,000, the company says its Liam Urban Wind Turbine is as much as three times more efficient than traditional wind energy, perhaps the most efficient wind turbine yet.  And it does all this without the also traditional whining noise.  It kind of looks like a big pinwheel.

There’s a good video — recorded from a drone — of one of these in operating at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5t77JwkjUY

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© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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Expanding Communications?

In something of an annual August tradition, I’ll review some interesting tech news items about various subjects I’ve blogged about before.  This will be the first of a couple of posts and will focus on some of the developments that are expanding bandwidth both in capacity and in coverage.

Considering basic physics, there are theoretical limits to how much data can be sent over the air.  That has led many people, myself included, to think that wireless data would not be sufficient for the video and other high bandwidth applications that people have come to expect.  But the wireless phone companies have successfully increased their capacity for users over the last few years. 

And various technologists are developing even greater speeds for electronic communications.

A couple months ago, the Chinese company, Huawei has announced that it demonstrated in a lab, Wi-Fi with a 10 Gbps data transfer rate.   See

http://www.huawei.com/ilink/en/about-huawei/newsroom/press-release/HW_341651

And a few weeks ago, scientists at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU Fotonik) reached speeds of 43 terabits per second with a single laser, which beat the previous world-record of 26 terabits per second set at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany).  See more at http://www.dtu.dk/english/News/2014/07/Verdensrekord-i-dataoverfoersel-paa-danske-haender-igen

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They describe the significance of this achievement this way:

“The worldwide competition in data speed is contributing to developing the technology intended to accommodate the immense growth of data traffic on the internet, which is estimated to be growing by 40–50 per cent annually.

“What is more, emissions linked to the total energy consumption of the internet as a whole currently correspond to more than two per cent of the global man-made carbon emissions—which puts the internet on a par with the transport industry (aircraft, shipping etc.).

“However, these other industries are not growing by 40 per cent a year. It is therefore essential to identify solutions for the internet that make significant reductions in energy consumption while simultaneously expanding the bandwidth.

“This is precisely what the DTU team has demonstrated with its latest world record. DTU researchers have previously helped achieve the highest combined data transmission speed in the world—an incredible 1 petabit per second—although this involved using hundreds of lasers.”

While the speed limit of communications is dramatically expanding, there are, of course, many people in the world that still need basic broadband – even in rural areas of developed nations or anywhere that has been struck by a natural disaster which destroys the established communications network.  One of the ideas that I’ve suggested to them is the use of weather balloons and similar, flexible “instant” towers that go up much faster and cost considerably less than building traditional radio towers.

There was a twist to this idea in an announcement from the National Science Foundation a few weeks ago (http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=132161&org=NSF ):

“Yan Wan from the University of North Texas exhibited unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) she developed that are capable of providing wireless communications to storm-ravaged areas where telephone access is out.

“Typical wireless communications have a range limit of only a hundred meters, or about the length of a football field. However, using technology Wan and her colleagues developed, Wan was able to extend the Wi-Fi reach of drones to five kilometers, or a little more than three miles.”

The implications of this ever expanding communications capability are only beginning to be explored.  As an example, the NSF also noted:

“One day, Wan’s research will enable drone-to-drone and flight-to-flight communications, improving air traffic safety, coordination and efficiency.”

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© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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Repeat Of Urbanization?

I’ve mentioned before that the common journalistic meme about how half the world is living in cities now is a reflection of the industrialization of China, India, etc., rather than a huge movement to urban areas in already industrialized nations.  (That massive movement to cities already occurred in more advanced economy during their era of industrialization.)

On several trips to China, going back to 1998, I frequently heard that half the building cranes in the world were busy in construction there.

So a review of a recent book (“Supreme City”) in the New York Times caught my eye with this opening fact:

"Between 1922 and 1930, a new building went up in New York City every 51 minutes, according to Donald L. Miller. Most of the truly spectacular structures — like the Chrysler Building, with its aspirational steel spire — emerged in Midtown, previously a region of open rail yards and shabby industry. Beginning with the reconstruction of Park Avenue in the early 1920s, Midtown became a destination neighborhood for the city’s ultrarich …

Pictures make the point as well.  First, here’s midtown Manhattan around Grand Central Terminal before the growth spurt.

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Here’s midtown Manhattan more recently:

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And another bit of historical comparison tells the same story.  In the 1900 census, the newly created New York City (of all five boroughs) had a population of 3.4 million.  By 1930, it had 6.9 million people — more than doubling the population.

While these trends today are having dramatic effects in Asia and elsewhere in the world, they would seem to be a duplication of previous patterns of industrialization.  For me, the more interesting question is how people will move around as the post-industrial, Internet-infused, knowledge economy develops.

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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The Experience Economy In The Public Sector?

B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, the authors of a groundbreaking article in the Harvard Business Review in 1998, followed up in 1999 with their influential book – “The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business A Stage”.  (The book was later updated with a 2011 edition.)

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The original article and book were widely credited with establishing the field of customer experience management and the idea that a successful business relationship involves more than just delivering the goods or services promised. 

As the summary of the original article says:

“In this article, co-authors B. Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore … preview the likely characteristics of the experience economy and the kinds of changes it will force companies to make. First there was agriculture, then manufactured goods, and eventually services. Each change represented a step up in economic value — a way for producers to distinguish their products from increasingly undifferentiated competitive offerings. Now, as services are in their turn becoming commoditized, companies are looking for the next higher value in an economic offering. Leading-edge companies are finding that it lies in staging experiences.

“An experience occurs when a company uses services as the stage — and goods as props — for engaging individuals in a way that creates a memorable event. And while experiences have always been at the heart of the entertainment business, any company stages an experience when it engages customers in a personal, memorable way.”

These memorable moments stick with people and cause them to comment favorably to others.  To help them remember, many companies even provide souvenirs – another form of experience.  When business people think of souvenirs, it is not necessarily something elaborate.  For example, what one business would hand out as a simple receipt a smarter, more experience-oriented business would provide as an elaborate document, perhaps even on thicker parchment-like paper.

The books go into great detail and elaborate these ideas beyond the simple summary I’ve provided here.  It’s worth the time to read.

And the kind of thinking presented by Pine and Gilmore has had a big impact in the business world.  Many of the modern heroes of the economy, such as the late Steve Jobs of Apple, were known for the way they built their success on customer experiences.

Yet, the ideas in the Experience Economy have had only a small impact on the public sector and few pubic officials are sensitive to the experience their constituents are having.  This is somewhat surprising for several reasons.

First, as a matter of electoral survival, incumbent office holders want the residents of their community (i.e., the voters) to have favorable memories of the experience of being a citizen.  Indeed, professional campaign consultants have heard stories of public officials who “did everything right” – these politicians did what the public wanted – but were rejected anyway because people were unhappy with the experience of being a citizen in that jurisdiction.

In the broadest sense, this is about making a difference in the lives of citizens – something that drew many officials to public service in the first place.

Second, in a world where people have increasing choices about where they might live or travel to, the experience of being in a city or state will have a big impact on the economy there.  If it’s a positive, memorable experience, more people will want to be there and the economy will grow – as will funding for the government.  If not, bad experiences will lead to worse experiences for those trying to lead a community with declining population and declining revenues.

Although great experiences are not everyday events even in the business world, it is not necessarily that difficult to create these experiences.  Think about the typical interaction between a citizen and the government.  What would it take to turn that into a positive, memorable experience?  Not a lot of money; just an increased sensitivity to the experience from the citizen’s side. 

And public officials might also find that their staff, rather than resisting the changing to make the workplace more fun and memorable, would become more motivated.

I’d like to continue this conversation by elaborating on how the ideas of the Experience Economy can be applied in the public sector.  Let me know if you want to see this and, of course, please share any examples you have of memorable public sector experiences.

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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Video On Technology, People & Rural Prosperity

Explanation in previous post.

Presentation On Technology, People & Rural Prosperity

Previously, I mentioned that I gave the opening keynote presentation at the final annual conference on Rural Prosperity in Canada, held at Queen’s University of Kingston, Ontario. 

Jeffrey Dixon, Associate Director of the Monieson Centre which has run the project, was very kind in his feedback:

Norm Jacknis provided an inspiring presentation at our 6th annual rural economic development conference. He helped a group of community leaders, business people, policymakers and researchers consider new opportunities for rural prosperity and to think creatively about how they can use technology to transform their economies.

A video of the presentation, including questions and discussion, is now available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7PmYBxcqgA&index=3&list=PLc4qJ1UgXeFHWsWwtzQm5TvfeNuDvfRad and also as the Tumblr post just after this. I went into a fairly deep explanation of the trends occurring in the economy and technology — and why and how these trends open up new opportunities for small towns and rural areas.  It’s about an hour long video, although the actual presentation starts about two minutes into the video and ends about forty minutes later.  (Sit back and relax – I tried to make it as entertaining as possible.)

You can see the printed handout at http://business.queensu.ca/centres/monieson/events/Economic_Revitalization_2014/Presentations/2014%20conference%20presentations/Norm%20Jacknis.pdf   Of course, if you only read the handout, you’ll miss the videos and also what I say about each slide since I don’t really read them.

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Also, in conjunction with the conference, the university staff issued a series of research papers that you can read in the Journal of Rural and Community Development at http://www.jrcd.ca/viewissue.php?id=20

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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Three Books And A Webinar

I’ve been asked about books I’ve written part of or have a relationship to.  Since we’re in the relative quiet time of summer, I’m using this post to respond.

First, before this year, I wrote a chapter on “A New Kind Of Public Square For Urban America: How Sub-National Government Will Be Impacted In A Hybrid Physical-Virtual World Of Ubiquitous Communications”.  It appears in Transforming American Governance: Rebooting the Public Square (Transformational Trends in Governance and Democracy) .

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More recently published, in March 2014, was the compilation of essays, titled Smart Cities for a Bright Sustainable Future - A Global Perspective .  The chapter I wrote focuses on “Beyond Smarter City Infrastructure – The New Urban Experience”.

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As Senior Fellow at the Intelligent Community Forum, I’m also pleased to see the three co-founders of ICF write a new book in April 2014, titled Brain Gain: How innovative cities create job growth in an age of disruption .  You can learn more about the book and the ideas in it at www.BrainGainBook.com .

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Obviously, these books have a focus on big urban centers.  But they have implications for smaller communities as well.  For a flavor of that, you might want to register for Public Sector Digest’s webinar on “Small Communities, Intelligent Communities”.  It will be held today, July 23, 2014 from 1:00 PM EDT to 2:00 PM EDT.

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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Online Collaboration Upending Old Ways?

This post is about some of the more interesting and unusual news items that provide continuing evidence of the way that online collaboration is upending old ways of doing things in several domains. 

In the past, we’ve depended upon social and behavioral scientists, news media, and other authoritative figures to assess our collective emotional state.  Now there’s the WeFeel project of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).  As CSIRO describes it:

We Feel is a project that explores whether social media—specifically Twitter—can provide an accurate, real-time signal of the world’s emotional state. 

Hundreds of millions of tweets are posted every day. … We Feel is about tapping that signal to better understand the prevalence and drivers of emotions. We hope it can uncover, for example, where people are most at risk of depression and how the mood and emotions of an area/region fluctuate over time. It could also help understand questions such as how strongly our emotions depend on social, economic and environmental factors such as the weather, time of day, day of the week, news of a major disaster or a downturn in the economy.

Another domain which has more obviously been dominated by experts is medicine.  While many hospitals and physicians are still working out their systems for electronic health records and billing in a changed insurance environment, patients are not waiting.  Nor are various businesses – as we are already seeing an onslaught of wearable devices to help people track health from both large established companies and startups.

Going beyond health tracking to health management and finding a way to bring in medical expertise when it’s really needed is the next step, although not a simple matter.  But uMotif is tackling the issue.  As they say:

Health systems across the world are under increasing pressure. The demands are rising, but resources often can’t keep pace. One way to help relieve the pressure is for people to engage more in their own health. Taking greater control, ownership and responsibility for keeping well.

[uMotif offers] Software for health self-management and shared decision making, supporting patients and clinicians; strengthening relationships; improving healthcare.

And then there’s the Longitude Prize, which was created in the 18th century by the British government.  The winner had to create a workable way to determine a ship’s longitude. 

In a sequel to that original prize, there is now in the UK a new Longitude Prize 2014.  But instead of an official body determining the topic, this being the 21st century, the Longitude Committee used crowdsourcing and asked the public to submit ideas. 

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The public’s choice of a new challenge?

“In order to tackle growing levels of antimicrobial resistance, the challenge set for the Longitude Prize is to create a cost-effective, accurate, rapid and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time.

Reading this, many observers might make the traditional assumption that the challenge aims to encourage heavy thinking by experts in biology, disease, DNA and the like.   But the Longitude Committee states right up front on their website:

Now that the antibiotics challenge has been chosen, we want everyone, from amateur scientists to the professional scientific community, to try and solve it. 

Nesta [the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts in the UK] and the Longitude Committee are finalising the criteria for how to win the £10 million prize, and from the autumn you will be able to submit your entries.

I’ve previously described the success that Zooniverse has had in amateur science, but the Longitude Committee has upped the ante considerably by offering such a large prize.  Good luck to all my readers!

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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New Worldwide Robot Adventures

It’s summer and time to catch up on some interesting tech news.  This post is about robots going beyond their use in warehouses, factories or even as personal assistants – indeed, it’s about robots outdoors.

On the farm, in Australia, there’s the robotic LadyBird which

“was designed and built specifically for the vegetable industry with the aim of creating a ground robot with supporting intelligent software and the capability to conduct autonomous farm surveillance, mapping, classification, and detection for a variety of different vegetables.”

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You can find out more at http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newscategoryid=2&newsstoryid=13686, which also lets you know that its developer, University of Sydney robotics Professor Salah Sukkarieh, was named last month as the “Researcher of the Year” by the Australian Vegetable Industry association.

From robots working hard in the fields, let’s go to robots having some fun on the road — HitchBot, which is the invention of two Canadian computer scientists.  HitchBot plans to hitch rides across Canada this summer. 

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As HitchBot says on its website:

“I am hitchBOT — a robot from Port Credit, Ontario.

“This summer I will be traveling across Canada, from coast-to-coast. I am hoping to make new friends, have interesting conversations, and see new places along the way. As you may have guessed robots cannot get driver’s licenses yet, so I’ll be hitchhiking my entire way. I have been planning my trip with the help of my big family of researchers in Toronto. I will be making my way from the east coast to the west coast starting in July.

“As I love meeting people and hearing stories, I invite you to follow my journey and share your hitchhiking stories with me as well. If you see me by the side of the road, pick me up and help me make my way across the country!”

Going from the ground to the air, in the realm of semi-robotic flight, otherwise known as drones, there’s a new one that reminds me of Star Wars Flying Speeder Bike – without the pilot.  One article describes this new drone from Switzerland as:

“an autonomous drone in a fully immersive rollcage that keeps it protected from whatever it might fly into — in this case, trees, but the robust safety of the thing means it might soon be perfectly applicable for combing disaster areas or any other tight spaces.”

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Also from the end of last year, another drone was featured in a New Scientist article titled “Spider-drones weave high-rise structures out of cables”.  This one was also developed in Switzerland at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich.

As the article notes:

The drones could make building much easier, says roboticist Koushil Sreenath at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “You just program the structure you want, press play and when you come back your structure is done,” he says. “Our current construction is limited, but with aerial robots those limitations go away.”

And these are just a few of the examples of robotics changing how we will get things done outdoors around the globe.

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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Keeping Citizen Engagement Engaging

Starting at the national level with the Obama Administration’s open government initiative in 2009, there have been many attempts at crowdsourcing in various governments and public agencies.  

From his campaign, President Obama realized that we can now scale up collaboration and participation – and create a 21st century version of the old New England Town Meetings that, while not perfect, did a pretty good job of engaging residents.

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Unfortunately many of these efforts have been disappointing in various ways:

  • Fewer people participated than expected.
  • The forum was “hijacked by fringe groups” – this was one criticism of the early Obama open government efforts because decriminalizing Marijuana turned out to be one of the more popular proposals.  (But see my earlier post “Do Good Ideas Bubble Up From The Crowd?”)
  • The site went stale, with early excitement evaporating and participation going to zero.  As an example, see the Texas Red Tape Challenge.
  • Citizens were encouraged to participate and did so, only to find that their ideas were disregarded by public officials, which only increased the frustration among both citizen and officials.

Nevertheless, when they succeed, citizen engagements can satisfy several public purposes.  They are a great way to get help and new ideas, test proposals, understand priorities of voters and educate citizens about the complexities and realities of governing.  Moreover, in response to the general decline in respect for major public, nonprofit and private institutions, crowdsourcing is a way of earning back respect and trust — and convincing a skeptical public that public officials really care.  All of these benefits make it easier for public officials to govern better.

And the successes have provided important lessons.  Most important, like lots of other things, crowdsourcing requires some thought before implementation.  

You won’t get the best results if you take a “just build it and they will come” approach.  At the other extreme, you can bury any government initiative in “analysis paralysis”.   A reasonable balance is to plan how public officials will:

  • Set realistic expectations within their own organization as well as with the public;
  • Target the appropriate audience for the discussion;
  • Set up the topic/question in a clear, unbiased way;
  • Start the conversation with citizens;
  • Figure out how to manage the conversation and keep citizens engaged; and last but not least,  
  • End the engagement in a way that provides a positive experience for citizens and the government.

When these engagements actually engage citizens, they help redefine the relationship between public officials and the people they serve.  And they can provide a core of solid support from the public that any public official would desire – the kind of support that will carry officials through those bad times when they also make mistakes.

More later.

[photo credit: http://community.weber.edu/WeberReads/meeting_21922_md.gif]

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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The Internet versus The Nation-State?

I’ve been reading two books that haven’t usually been mentioned together.  The authors – one pair from and heavily influenced by the tech industry – and the other from the foreign policy establishment end up taking positions that are somewhat opposite to where they would be expected.

Together the two books lay out a debate as to whether the Internet will have only a surface effect on government or be part of a fundamental change.

Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, and Jared Cohen, former member of the US Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff wrote “The New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses, and Our Lives”.

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Despite its futuristic vision in parts, the book’s concept of government seems mostly to be stuck in the present, perhaps even the past.  The authors’ view is that the Internet is “just a tool” that will be used by the nation-state and citizens to interact in much the way they have done so in the past couple hundred years – since the idea of a nation-state began to form.  Their chapter on revolutions even has the dynamics of protest and revolution following old rules, with the Internet playing a supporting role.

But new tools are not always merely new means to old ends.  They change things in fundamental ways.  Consider the impact of tool making and tools on the evolution of the human species.  Or, remember the succinct statement about television a couple decades ago by Marshall McLuhan: “the medium is the message.”

And then there’s Moisés Naim, former Foreign Policy editor and Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who wrote “The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be”.

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He writes:

“We know that power is shifting from brawn to brains, from north to south and west to east, from old corporate behemoths to agile start-ups, from entrenched dictators to people in town squares and cyberspace.  But to say that … is not enough.  Power is undergoing a far more fundamental mutation … Even as rival states, companies, political parties, social movements, and institutions or individual leaders fight for power as they have done throughout the ages, power itself — what they are fighting so desperately to get and keep — is slipping away.

“Power is decaying.

“To put it simply, power no longer buys as much as it did in the past. In the twenty-first century, power is easier to get, harder to use — and easier to lose…

“The decay of power is changing the world.”

Naim’s book makes a persuasive case that the Internet, along with other major factors, is fundamentally reducing the power of the nation-state and other centuries-old institutions.  The tools are diminishing and modifying the nation-states, not merely being added to their arsenal.

©2014 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/89859756227/the-internet-versus-the-nation-state/]

Only One Way To Get Broadband?

For the first time ever, there was a Master Class focused on rural communities held two weeks ago as part of the annual summit of the Intelligent Community Forum.  There were people from Europe, the USA and Canada, Asia and as far away as New Zealand in the class.

Part of the focus of the class was on how rural areas can get broadband.  Too often there is the assumption that broadband and fiber optics are the same thing. 

One of my former colleagues used to describe the passion of some broadband advocates for fiber connections as a kind of “Fiber Taliban”.  But while fiber makes economic sense in densely populated urban areas, it becomes very expensive to deploy in the countryside.  As a practical matter, exclusive use of fiber is a dream that stands in the way of getting broadband to the countryside.  This may be one situation where, as the old line goes, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

In the class, I pointed out that just as there isn’t only one way for a person to get from Point A to Point B, there isn’t only one way for a person to get broadband. 

Like many people, I used to think that the laws of physics provide a natural cap on the amount of data that can go through the air.  And, in a theoretical sense, that is still true.  But the engineers have nevertheless made dramatic improvements. 

Verizon Wireless, for example, now usually range of 10-20 MB, although in NYC, it’s been independently measured above 30.  Its 4G is, according to Verizon, ten times the speed of 3G.

A couple of weeks ago, Huawei promised more.

Huawei Technologies officials say the giant tech vendor has successfully tested a WiFi service that hit more than 10 gigabits per second, a speed that is 10 times faster than what is currently commercially available.

There are a variety of ways that data can travel over the air.  The most well-established, alternatives include satellite, Wi-Fi and standard fixed wireless.  Free space optics, pictured below, offers a large pipe that can be especially useful for rugged territory. 

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Also of interest is the future use of “white space” as television goes digital.

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And balloons, which act as flexible and inexpensive towers.  Google has proposed balloons at high altitudes.  But even below the aviation floor of 500 feet, balloons can provide coverage over a wide swath of countryside.

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The Internet protocol doesn’t care what the communications medium is, so you can combine different methods to provide broadband to different kinds of places

By the way, there is also a lesson here in another important aspect of deploying broadband into the countryside – funding it.  The most successful broadband projects have usually combined more than one purpose:

  • High speed communications
  • Healthcare
  • Education and libraries
  • Business development
  • Smart grid and management of other infrastructure
  • Etc.

This combination opens up more sources of funds and means more people have a reason to use the broadband, thus making the project successful and sustainable.

This is a natural approach in really remote places.  A couple of the folks in the class came from Wanganui in New Zealand.  That town’s Mayor described their bottom up approach in which each farmer extends the network further into the countryside.  And, if you’re thinking this is just some semi-rural, small town place, look at this picture of what their broadband project eventually has to cover.

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Pictures via:

©2014 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/89157915184/only-one-way-to-get-broadband]

Accelerating Internet Activism?

Last week I was at the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF), the annual gathering of technologists, political activists, entrepreneurs and many others focused on the ways that the Internet is playing a role in government and society.  As it does every year, PDF had an interesting and thought provoking range of speakers and panels.  The event was inspiring both in the activities of many of these individuals and the sheer creative ambition that drives them.

With more than 140 speakers in both plenary sessions and breakouts, it is not physically possible to hear everyone.  But something was bothering me in many of these sessions I did attend.

It was brought home by Anthea Watson Strong’s reference to the Calculus of Voting written many years ago by the political scientists William Riker and Peter Ordeshook.  This was a relatively rare moment in which someone explicitly or implicitly referred back to previous research and analysis of political behavior.

And in a breakout session, Ben Berkowitz, the founder/CEO of the very useful and successful SeeClickFix, rightly expressed concerns about the focus of many activists on just the next election.  He asked for a new approach – a consistent effort, an organization, that helps people with the daily public issues and annoyances that bother them.  

I told him that there used to be organizations that did just that — the old urban political machines.  They were building long term supporters for a party, so their timeframe was more than just the next election campaign of one politician.  While they helped people with their problems, of course, the old machines were also corrupt.  A modern more ethical version may be what he’s looking for.  Not a new idea, just a better one.  (For a recent assessment of the political machines of the 19th and early 20th centuries, see Terry Golway’s book “Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics”.)

This was one of several examples in which more historical context would have been helpful.

Perhaps it was entrepreneurial enthusiasm to push ahead and not look back.  Perhaps it was a matter of being so convinced that what you’re doing is so new, no one before you could have something of value to contribute to your thought process.  (I have to admit that this is something I’ve also been guilty of myself in some of my entrepreneurial enthusiasms.)

Newton famously said: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”   In the world of political technology this means understanding previous political thought and analysis, history and modern research on political behavior. 

Most people in the audience were excited by the possibilities for true democratic governance that the Internet and related tools make possible, including me.  But to accelerate this movement there needs to be more context and deeper knowledge on the part of the creators and activists. 

Otherwise, we end up becoming another example of the old story about reinventing the wheel.  Not only is that wasted effort, but, without learning, each new reinvention of the wheel seems to start out as immature as the last one.  In turn, that immaturity and lack of progress may dampen the potential engagement of the larger number of potential citizen activists which the PDF movement will need.

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© 2014 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/88472868695/accelerating-internet-activism]

This blog explores the future of government, the economy, business and knowledge. It will be a combination of my own thinking and pointers to interesting stuff that I see. You can follow me (@NormanJacknis) on Twitter to learn when blogs are posted.

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