Four Canadian cities named among world’s most “intelligent” communities

Four Canadian cities – including two in New Brunswick – have been recognized as exemplary technology users on the world stage by being placed on the Intelligent Community Forum’s (ICF) Smart21 list for 2009.

Edmonton, Kenora, Ont., Fredericton and Moncton were on the ICF’s list of cities announced yesterday in no particular order.

A maps shows the 21 “intelligent communities” for 2009.

The forum made its announcement from the Gangnam district of Seoul, South Korea – its top “intelligent community” from last year.

The cities were selected from among more than 400 nominees vying for a spot on the annual list.  The forum has been attracting an increasing number of nominees each year since starting the list in 1999, according to ICF executive director Robert Bell.

The 21 communities were shortlisted based on five criteria: availability of broadband, its use amongst the population, ability to innovate, ability to build a knowledge workforce, and ability to make citizens aware of tech initiatives.

Waterloo, Ont. was named the Intelligent Community of the Year in 2007. Last year, Fredericton made the top seven list.

This year’s Canadian nominees seem to have something in common. They are all grappling with an economy in transition and turning to technology as a way to get a grip on the problem, Bell says.

He said communities here have had to come to terms with the reality that “traditional drivers of the economy aren’t as powerful as they used to be.”

Fredericton was joined by another New Brunswick city on this year’s list. But this won’t stoke a rivalry between the cities, according to Dan Babineau, director of information systems for the City of Moncton. It’s a welcome boon for the province that has a total population smaller than many of the other cities listed by the forum.

“We’re seeing it as very positive to both municipalities,” he says. “It really enforces New Brunswick’s status as a tech centre.”

Moncton was named for its effort to turn around an economy that was dependent on traditional industries just 20 years ago. By focusing on ICT as the potential for a rejuvenated economy, the city has become known for its “near-shore” IT outsourcing industry.

A telecom-centric economy has created more than 20,000 new jobs since the early 1990s. The city worked with NB Tel (now owned by Bell Aliant) to build out the infrastructure required of a tech-based economy. Then it pushed the ICT model of business to the community.

“Now we’re seeing the fruits of our labour,” Babineau says. “Here in Atlantic Canada, it’s an affordable place to live and set up business. We’re using that as a strength to focus on near-shoring.”

Near-shoring is a variant of off-shoring. Offshoring is when a company outsources a component of its business – say a call centre – to another country to save costs.

Moncton is able to offer similar cost savings while keeping the business in Canada. And that’s tripled employment in the city’s IT sector over the past 10 years, which is the highest in Canada.

The city has also been collaborating with other towns in its regional area, Dieppe and Riverview. As the Greater Moncton Area, the trio work together through the 22-year-old Enterprise Greater Moncton group to attract ICT companies to locate in the area.

This collaboration with other towns caught the eye of the awards forum.

“If you think the world ends at your municipal boundary, you’re at a terrible disadvantage,” Bell says. “If you look at your borders as being more porous, then you’re going to get a leg up.”

Less than 200 km to the West of Moncton lies Fredericton, the other Canadian Maritime town to make the list.

The city is being awarded for its founding of a cooperative telecom company that built out a fiber network that provided broadband access. It has also created a free wireless network dubbed “Fred-eZone” that covers more than eight square kilometers in the downtown core.

“We love the fact that we have two New Brunswick communities that will be dukeing it out in our process,” Bell says.

Fredericton’s Wi-Fi zone covers the most heavily used parts of the city and includes all public areas, according to Don Fitzgerald, executive director of team Fredericton. It’s one way the city encourages its citizens to make use of the broadband Web services available to them.

“We’re a community divided by a river, and you can sit in the middle of the river and connect,” he says. “In Fredericton, people book their swimming lessons online and the mayor does a weekly podcast.”

The free wireless connectivity wouldn’t be possible if the city hadn’t first laid down its own fibre ring for broadband connectivity.

“At the early stages of deployment of broadband, we weren’t able to get the coverage of our community at a price point to be competitive on a worldwide basis,” Fitzgerald says. “So we did it.”

Since building the network, four online-based post-secondary schools have cropped up in the city. Other tech-related companies have also made the city home.

Everything from taking the carbon out of fuels before they’re burned, to vaccines based on blueberries, and research into non-chemical pesticides is being done in the city. That provides lots of jobs for the city’s population – 70 per cent of which have a post-secondary degree.

New Brunswick didn’t hog all the awards. An Ontarian cottage country near the Manitoba border also gleaned a listing. This small town of 17,000 is better known for its swath of small lakes and good fishing rather than a tech hub. But the award could change that.

“It all hinges back on where our main industry is now,” says Jim Carambetsos, IT coordinator with the City of Kenora. “It’s all on tourism, where it used to be in the forestry sector. So it’s important to get information out there and the Internet is the best way to do that.”

The city was recognized by the forum for its Web portal strategy that fosters communication with local residents and part-time residents alike.

The goal was to make the town a more attractive place to visit or even live during the summer season. The portal allows users to make facility reservations, apply for permits, and keep up with town news.

“They realized what their economic strength was and then did something to leverage that,” Bell says.

Kenora’s population will double, or even triple during the summer months. Many users of the Web portals are from Winnipeg or Minnesota, nearby cities that are apt to visit cottage country when the weather is right.

Western Canada was also recognized, with Edmonton making the list of cities. It was the most populous Canadian city to be awarded and was recognized for building up its tech economy even though it is one place that traditional industry is still booming.

The city partners with the University of Alberta to promote business growth, and the project has spawned 70 new companies so far.

“Here’s an example of an industrial economy that’s just going gangbusters, thank you,” Bell says. “But the good times are not going to last. If they have an undiversified economy, they’re going to hit the wall.”

The Canadian cities shortlisted by the forum now face a thorough vetting process before they can make the cut for the top seven list. That’s a process that Fredericton is familiar with.

“We’re aware that this sets you up for a whole lot of due diligence as the list is pared down to the top seven,” Fitzgerald says.

The top seven communities will be announced Jan. 21, 2009 during the Pacific Telecommunications Council annual conference in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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