June 17, 2013 By Robert Bell
We all recognize the sound of an engine revving up. But when that engine is digital, what sound does it make?
The question was prompted by a March visit to Stratford, Ontario, Canada. I went there because this city of 32,000 was named as Top7 Intelligent Community for the third year in a row, and it was my turn to conduct the site inspection. I went looking to see what was different: what program they had made on very ambitious goals announced three years before.
Back in 2011, Stratford was talking about decisions by its municipal electric utility, Festival Hydro, to build an open-access fiber network and spin it out as a separate business called Rhyzome Networks. The network aimed to ensure that business had the advanced communications infrastructure it needed, while providing the backbone for the utility’s smart-grid project. But there was a much greater ambition in the background. The open access network had the potential to make the Stratford area much more attractive to competitive service providers by offering them a ready-made backbone for hire. In a small city surrounded by farmland, they could offer big improvements in speed and price.
In March, I met Tom Sullivan, CEO of Wightman Telecom, a well-regarded rural telecom operator with its own fiber network. He had done a deal with the city to deliver broadband to businesses and residents over the Rhyzome network, and to begin building out from Rhyzome POPs to provide fiber to the premises at 1 Gbps throughout Stratford. It has hard to imagine any other scenario that would bring “ultrabroadband” to such a place.
In 2011, Stratford had just completed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Waterloo – located about 90 minutes away – to create a Stratford campus specializing in business and digital arts. It represented a big coup: a small city finding a way to bring a prestigious and effective higher-educational institution right into the center of town. But at that point, it was little more than a handshake and a press release.
In 2013, I visited the new building that houses the University of Waterloo Stratford and saw the early stages of an exciting vision being fulfilled. The curriculum brings together students focused on engineering, arts and business to explore how digital media will transform them all. The nearby Stratford Accelerator Centre offers a place to take that exploration one step farther. So in three years, the city has reproduced at small scale the innovation triangle of education, business and government collaboration that powers economic growth worldwide.
In 2011, Stratford had an economy composed of separate pieces: an agricultural sector, a manufacturing sector specializing in automotive components, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (the city’s biggest employer), and related tourism industries in food and accommodations. Except for manufacturing, all were seasonal businesses – and in Canada, the season was only 4 months long. When I returned in 2013, I saw what had been separate pieces beginning to mesh like the gears in a good machine. A simple example is the success of online tourism promotion by the city, which has created a unified marketing program for individual small businesses. It provides easy, online, mobile access to all of the city’s food, hotel, entertainment and culture resources. The tourism season is now stretching out at both ends as a result.
Nothing captured the transformation for me so well as attending a breakfast meeting of one of the two Rotary Clubs in Stratford. It was a typical group: small business leaders, independent insurance agents, bankers, retirees. It was a typical breakfast of steam-table eggs and weak coffee. But the speaker was representing the city and he was there to tell these small town business folks about Intelligent Communities and Stratford’s programs. It made me think of that famous line from The Wizard of Oz: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
What I saw was a digital engine – designed and built over the past few years, with high hopes and false starts, big dreams and midcourse corrections – turning over and starting up. I can’t describe the sound for you. But thanks to Stratford, from now on, I will know it when I hear it.
About the Intelligent Community Forum
The Intelligent Community Forum is a think tank that studies the economic and social development of the 21st Century community. Whether in industrialized or developing nations, communities are challenged to create prosperity, stability and cultural meaning in a world where jobs, investment and knowledge increasingly depend on advances in communications. For the 21st Century community, connectivity is a double-edge sword: threatening established ways of life on the one hand, and offering powerful new tools to build prosperous, inclusive and sustainable economies on the other. ICF seeks to share the best practices of the world's Intelligent Communities in adapting to the demands of the Broadband Economy, in order to help communities everywhere find sustainable renewal and growth. More information can be found at www.intelligentcommunity.org.
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.
ICF co-founder John G. Jung originated the Intelligent Community concept and continues to serve as the Forum's leading visionary. Formerly President and CEO of the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance and Calgary Economic Development Authority, he is a registered professional urban planner, urban designer and economic developer. He leads regular international business missions to US, European, Asian, Indian and Australian cities, and originated the ICF Immersion Lab program. John is a regular speaker at universities and conferences and serves as an advisor to regional and national leaders on Intelligent Community development. The author of numerous articles in planning and economic development journals, he has received global and Toronto-based awards for his work in collaboration and strategic development and sits on numerous task forces and international advisory boards.
ICF co-founder Louis Zacharilla is the creator and presenter of the annual Smart21, Top Seven and Intelligent Community Awards and oversees ICF's media communications and development programs. He is a frequent keynote and motivational speaker and panelist, addressing audiences of tech, academic and community leaders around the world, and writes extensively for publications including American City & County, Continental Airline's in-flight magazine and Municipal World. His frequent appearances in the electronic media have included both television and radio in South Korea, China and Canada. He has served as an adjunct professor at Fordham University in New York and is a Guest Lecturer at Polytechnic University's Distinguished Speaker Series. He holds a Masters Degree from the University of Notre Dame.