Editor's Note: The Columbus Innovation Reception welcomes Louis Zacharilla, Co-Founder of the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), at the Columbus Museum of Art tomorrow (4/16) after work. He's joining civic leaders for an inspiring program, featuring guests such as Mayor Coleman and Columbus Council Members.
Louis Zacharilla: ICF's Founding Father
By Terreece Clarke, April 15th, 2015

As Columbus, Ohio readies itself to celebrate being selected for the third time as a Top 7 Intelligent Community by the Intelligent Community Forum, IT Martini had chance to sit down with Louis Zacharilla, co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) to find out what the ICF does, what it means to be an Intelligent Community and if Columbus stands a chance in being named the Top Intelligent Community of 2015.

Third Time's a Charm

Zacharilla was asked if Columbus stood a chance of being named the Top Intelligent Community of 2015 this time around. His answer was appropriately vague, yet heartening if you’re an optimist:

“Columbus has a 1 in 7 chance of making it to the top,” Zacharilla said with a laugh. “200 jurors and a research company makes the decision.”

Zacharilla went on to note that Columbus has beaten out an initial pool of 400 communities on two separate occasions to become one of the Top 7 - which is great work when you realize, just a few years ago, Columbus was only mentioned as a city on the rise.

Intelligent Community Design

So, to the Columbusite, what exactly is does it mean to be a 2015 Intelligent Community?

“Everyone wants a great place to call home,” Zacharilla replied. “Every parent wants to know their children can receive a good education, grow up and create a good life for themselves and their own children in their hometown, if they chose to do so.”

An Intelligent Community, according to Zacharilla, means that while the community isn’t perfect, it is taking steps to build a strong communications infrastructure, particularly broadband and is creating knowledge-based jobs that support the 21st century economy. He notes that this is an economy that includes not only knowledge based jobs, but entrepreneurism - a spoke in a community’s economic wheel that, Zacharilla said, is increasingly important given the state of flux in the workforce.

Additionally, Intelligent Communities embrace innovation, not just from the tech sector, but from all the entities that have a stake in the success of a community including government, private and education sectors all working together for the city’s success.

Intelligent Communities are also advocates for their community. They do a great job telling their community’s story not only to those outside of the community, but to themselves. Zacharilla calls it giving the ‘locker room talk.’

“There are communities that come up with a 30 year plan and it’s brilliant and no one gives a shit because no one communicates it to the rest of the community” he said.

It's especially important for Intelligent Communities to follow a moral mandate, making certain they continually work to ensure none of their citizens are neglected or discarded during a community’s growth or resurgence Zacharilla said.

“Those on the other side of the digital divide are brought back into the community, the elderly, schools, libraries...they are all included through programs designed to reach [those constituencies] through mentorships, education…” he said.

Can Tech Make a Community Better?

As one of the founders of ICF, Zacharilla is following his passion and his pain. He grew up in a small town in the state of New York where people could receive a good education, had access to great jobs and enjoyed being a part of the community. Within a generation and a half, the community was in decline. The largest employers were social services and the police department. Like many educated young people in the area, Zacharilla took his talents to the big city.

“It broke my heart that I was one of many who had to leave,” he said.

That heartbreak led Zacharilla to ask two questions of his friends and acquaintances: “Does it have to be this way?” and “Can technology make cities better?”

Zacharilla, along with friends John Jung and Robert Bell, set out to research six cities who were beating the odds or experiencing a resurgence, to find out what they had in common. That research gained attention and the foundation began to grow.

Zacharilla cautions cities and humanity in general, to not think of tech as a savior. In fact he believes too many worship technology as the answer to all of society’s ills.

“It’s a false god,” he said. “Technology is a tool and what it gives it also takes away. Humanity can use or misuse the tool. It’s no different than when they discovered fire and iron. We need to answer: how can we use a tool to enhance and shape human destiny?”

Culture is Key

Zacharilla noted that humans have a knack for tapping all sorts of natural resources, often to our detriment in the form of pollution, etc., but we don’t always tap into cultural capital.

“You’re not fast enough to run away from who you are,” Zacharilla said. “[We need to be] celebrating what we do well and go deeper. Find out what is in your culture you can extract and develop is necessary for a community’s economic and social future.”