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Thursday, August 18, 2005 | Universities have always served their communities by providing an educated workforce, contributing to a community’s knowledge base through consulting work to government and business, and by being part of the social fabric of a community. Increasingly, however, like the land grant colleges of an earlier era, universities in urban and metropolitan settings are being looked to for unique leadership as communities make the transition from a postindustrial economy and society to a new uncertain age in the wake of globalization.

The University of California, San Diego and San Diego State University, for example, and to some extent even our community colleges, are blurring the lines between town and gown as they say, but so much more could be done. So much more needs to be done for our region to make the great leap forward to be one of the most prominent regions of the world.

Some universities – like those in our region – have already started to more actively engage their communities in meaningful ways, through faculty and administrators serving on various local boards and commissions, and by creating new research parks and centers.

As author and New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman has said, “The world is flat.” We are suddenly competing with every community around the world for basic manufacturing requirements and provision of high-tech and biotech services. With this flattening taking place everywhere, we must accelerate change taking place within our communities. This means reinventing our centers of learning at every level and at a pace and speed unparalleled in the history of the country.

We can do this best by helping our communities renew and reinvent themselves for this new global age where the Internet, knowledge creation and innovation are key and where collaboration and connectivity are the hallmarks of those most successful communities. And, importantly, by accelerating change within the university itself.

The agenda to renew our cities is huge. Many cities are already developing plans to provide the wired and wireless infrastructure of this new age. Either in partnership with the existing cable or telecommunications providers or through some alternative strategy, they are aggressively looking for ways to provide so-called wireless “hot spots” often found in downtowns, coffee shops and other public gathering places, and they are planning a comprehensive wired, 24/7 broadband infrastructure plan.

Broadband Internet is as important as the waterways, railroads and interstate highways of an earlier era. Other cities are also exploring how to provide universal broadband access. New York, which recently held hearings to find a way to provide affordable broadband to all their citizens, believes that having broadband is as necessary as water, electricity and a telephone in an earlier era. Indeed, such broadband Internet service may be the missing link to reinventing and renewing our cities so they can compete in the global knowledge economy.

This is now a matter of some urgency. In the last few years, for example, we witnessed the outsourcing of several million high-tech jobs. Forrester Research predicted we would lose 3.3 million such jobs over the next 10-15 years. The University of California, Berkeley, however, said we would more likely see the loss of 10 percent of all white-collar jobs over a similar period, not to outsourcing per se but rather to a global economy.

Not surprisingly, cities the world over are struggling to reinvent themselves for the new, global, knowledge economy and thereby attract the most sought after creative and innovative work force. Those most successful at positioning themselves as cities of the future will decidedly have 24/7, broadband telecommunications in place; wired and wireless infrastructures connecting every home, school and office through the World Wide Web to every organization or institution worldwide.

The question of who has responsibility for a region’s infrastructure is complex. As columnist and author Kenichii Ohmae and others have observed: “There are no national economies anymore; only a global economy and regional economies with strong cities at the core.” Thus, what happens within the cities must permeate the entire region the city is apart of.

San Diego, the city, for example is really part of the greater San Diego region involving 17 other municipalities, and one might argue that the region also includes Tijuana and the greater Baja California part of Mexico. A regional strategy, therefore, should include all public agencies and governments and ensure that broadband Internet access is widespread.

How can we best use our technology in communities across America so it can reinvent itself for the new economy? How can we best make the transition to the new economy?

Helping to find the solutions is a role uniquely suited to the university. It has the expertise, but perhaps more importantly is the most trusted agent of change within a community. The university interests are clearly learning and linkages, not power or financial gain. Equally important, the university operates on a principle of “shared governance.” The idea of sharing power – giving all the stakeholders a voice in the new smart community – is long overdue. If there was ever a time for this concept to have community-wide applicability it is now.

John M. Eger is the Van Deerlin chair of Communication and Public Policy and executive director of the International Center for Communications at SDSU.

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