By Tim Leeds
Andrew Cohill, director of Blacksburg Electronic Village in Virginia, said every community that wants to succeed in modern society must ask itself three questions.
The first is "Where are we now?" The third is "How do we get to where we want to to go?"
The middle question is the most important.
"Where do we want to go? That's the crucial thing," Cohill said Thursday.
Cohill was one of the speakers at Techspo, the northern Montana technology exposition held in Havre last weekend. Ninety percent of the 38,000 people in Blacksburg., Va., are actively using the Internet under a project of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
The key, he said in a telephone interview, is creating access to the Internet and a demand for it. Once that is done, private businesses will have a reason to invest in Internet infrastructure and services.
Cohill said a community needs to define where it's at and where it wants to go in simple, general terms.
"It's fairly easy to walk backwards and ask what concrete steps do we take to get from point A to point B," he said.
Bear Paw Development Corp., working with Applied Communications of Great Falls, started doing a survey of local businesses last month to see how they are using the Internet and what they would like to do with the Internet. Bear Paw mailed out 600 surveys, and the survey is available to fill out at its Web site.
Craig Erickson of Bear Paw said the survey appears to be the first like it conducted in any Montana community.
Bear Paw extended the deadline for the survey to April 12 to try to get as many returned as possible. The the results of the survey will probably be ready April 15 or 16, Erickson said.
He said the phone has been ringing "like crazy" from people asking about what the survey is. Some have asked why they should answer it.
A lot of people don't know what technology is available and what it can do for them, Erickson said.
"A lot of people seem to think they don't need to know," he said. "Just from the preliminary stuff I've seen, a lot of education needs to be done."
Cohill said that once a community decides what it wants to have in the future, it can start making short-term goals.
"Then you start saying, If we want every citizen to have e-mail, we need an e-mail server,'" he said.
A community's vision of its future should be short and simple.
"The vision document doesn't need to be a big long thing. It might be as short as two or three pages. (It) ought to be very broad, in plain English and very short," Cohill said.
For instance, it could say that every citizen should have an e-mail account and know how to use it, every government official should have e-mail and use it to correspond with constituents, groups and organizations should have Web sites and use the Internet to inform the community about their activities, and every business should have a Web site and derive some business from it.
A community should be able to complete a vision statement in three or four months.
The process should involve as many people in the community as possible, he said. The world is so complex that no one person or group has enough information to make informed decisions anymore.
Cohill said local governments need to be a part of the planning process and implementation of it, but that the governments should be somewhat distanced from the process.
Cohill said it's appropriate for governments to be involved in providing or helping to providing infrastructure, and providing or helping with some free or low-cost services, such as an e-mail server or Web page hosting.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said the city is very interested in trying to help develop the community's technology capability. "We're going to sit down and take a hard look at it," Rice said.
The primary movers should be local groups or organizations, like nonprofit groups or cooperatives, and private business, Cohill said.
But a community needs to be careful about what it decides to use, Cohill said. Often, communities let technology decide what goals to set, instead of the other way around.
"It's not only common, it's tragic," Cohill said.
Being ruled by technology is often the result of "well-meaning people being bullied by the technology industry. They let vendors and technocrats decide what to use, and it typically has no connection with the needs of the community," Cohill said.
It's much better to have an independent advisor, Cohill said. That person will likely be found in the community once it begins assembling its network.
"(Their interest) is vested in the community, not in the shareholders of a computer company," he said.
Erickson said the next step for Bear Paw will probably be discussions with Havre Public Schools, Montana State University-Northern, the North American Futures Institute and other groups and organizations to find ways to educate people in the community about technology.
Erickson said Bear Paw is very interested in working with Cohill on the issue of educating the community and turning it into a wired community like Blacksburg. He added that this topic is just as new for Bear Paw as it is for Havre and the area.
"We're definitely cutting new ground here," he said.
Cohill said the need to use technology is real, although it isn't a guarantee of success for a community. Other factors also affect success, Cohill said, but success won't happen in the modern world without technology.
It parallels what happened in the 1950s when interstate highways were constructed across the United States, Cohill said. If a community didn't get an off-ramp, its businesses went belly up and the communities died.
"The one piece of good news," Cohill said, "is it's much easier to get the information superhighway to communities than it is to get a real highway."
On the Net: Blacksburg Electronic Village: www.bev.org
Communities of the Future: www.communitiesofthefuture.org
North American Rural Futures Institute at Montana State University-Northern: www.narfi.org