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Why smart cities need smart libraries: Stories from the Alaskan frontier

This article appears in the issue April 2012 [Volume 21, Issue 4]


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Two trends we've been closely tracking in this column are the emergence of smart cities and the rise of the knowledge librarian. This month we'll take a look at how those two concepts can be combined in a way that will help create a more effective enterprise of the future.

In discussing smart cities, we have mentioned the need to pay close attention to how we design the brain of the city. By "brain," we don't just mean a central cyborg-like organism that controls every thermostat, traffic light and parking meter. Rather, the real brain of a smart city needs to be a central clearinghouse for connecting people, creating social cohesion and enabling sustained economic growth through knowledge.

Before taking on that challenge, we need to go back to a time when knowledge was paramount to survival. So let's bundle up, mount the dogs to the sled and head out to one of the few places left on earth that hasn't been overtaken by the concrete, glass and steel of today's modern city, where nature is still present in all her majestic wonder—the wilderness of Alaska.

15,000 years of knowledge transfer

Indigenous Alaskans have plenty of valuable knowledge to share. Having accumulated more than 15,000 years of experience, much is still being handed down, applied and refined. For example, last fall a native Alaskan said emphatically that the coming winter was going to be extreme in terms of heavy snowfall, low temperatures and high winds. How could he predict what many sophisticated weather models totally missed? Beyond observing "large amounts of fat on caribou" to an extent he'd never seen, most of his knowledge was deeply tacit. But he was absolutely certain Alaska was in for one of its worst winters ever. And he was right.

How did he know this with such a strong degree of certainty? One place to look for clues is the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The indigenous inhabitants of this beautiful yet extremely hostile wilderness didn't develop the capacity for survival, including predicting sudden changes in weather patterns, by being chained to a desk in a classroom or by plowing through volumes of text and diagrams, sequentially reciting facts from one chapter after another. How they gained that ability is evident in the dazzling array of programs at the center: visual arts, singing, movement and dance, storytelling and, most important, actually going into the wilderness to hunt wild game and forage for berries. Sounds like they've got the whole-brain thinking concept nailed.

Let's take a deeper look into the Alaskan native's education. Schooling in native villages tends to be more cyclical than sequential, and involves actively engaging in knowledge sharing with the local community. Knowledge is imparted using methods suited to each situation, such as context-rich stories enhanced through kinesthetic and sensory experience, as opposed to regurgitating facts and figures on standardized tests.

Speaking of community, we've mentioned in previous articles that the library of the future will more closely resemble a coffee shop atmosphere than quiet halls filled with stacks of books. Recently, as part of a casual conversation at the counter of a small family restaurant, co-author Ken Wheaton mentioned breaking an auger on his snow blower. Within minutes he was given a phone number of someone who works on small engines. Not owning a vehicle that could transport the snow blower, Ken asked if the mechanic made house calls. Although the answer was "no," he was immediately offered the use of a truck. A problem was identified, and a few quick exchanges of community knowledge resulted in a solution. This is exactly the type of knowledge exchange we're going to need if we are to have any hope of solving the tough challenges ahead.

Imagine that same type of interaction on a larger scale. A consumer electronics manufacturer on the outskirts of a smart city needs a more intuitive user interface for one of its new products. A tiny lab in a science park on a local university campus has the solution, but lacks a prototyping facility for building and testing the innovation. The small university research team also needs help obtaining financing despite being in a very turbulent economic and regulatory environment. While all that is going on, researchers from another lab post a story of how they missed an opportunity to collect significant licensing revenue because of an oversight in their intellectual property agreement, a valuable lesson that might prevent the interface developers from making the same mistake.

As things now stand, the chances of all those pieces coming into alignment are slim to none. But it doesn't have to be that way. Just like the small coffee shop in Alaska, the smart library will serve as a knowledge broker engaged in locating qualified sources of critical knowledge to solve a particular problem, including stories showing hows and whys, pitfalls to avoid, and help with connecting all the dots.

A smart city needs a knowledge infrastructure. Bricks-and-mortar enclosures with long aisles of shelves holding books and periodicals won't cut it. As University of Alaska Anchorage professor and Alaskool co-founder Paul Ongtooguk puts it, "Legends, oral traditions and stories give us a glimpse into how important it was in traditional Alaska Native societies to learn to share with others, to work hard and to value wisdom." To get knowledge to flow in a city of the future, we need to strip away the glass towers, the honking horns and wailing sirens, and recall what we did when all we had was each other, a team of dogs, a sled, and a few knives and spears.

As we build our future cities and libraries, let's pay heed to the old traditions. They worked well when we were struggling for our physical survival. We need them now more than ever, especially if we are to meet the economic challenges we're facing in a brutally competitive global marketplace.  


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