Ontario home to two ‘intelligent communities’ for 2011

Two Canadian cities have made the cut to be on the world’s Top Seven Intelligent Communities list of 2011. Windsor-Essex, Ont. and Stratford, Ont. both made this year’s list after also being included on the larger Smart21, a list established by the Intelligent Community Forum, a global think tank that studies economic development in the 21st century.

Communities from all over the globe apply to be listed as intelligent communities, or places that have embraced the broadband economy and are looking to capitalize on it to improve their cities.

Both Windsor and Stratford have been increasingly focusing on diversifying their economies. Both Stratford and Windsor have long been economically dependent on two industries – automotive and tourism. But the cities are hoping to change that with some major tech investments.

Stratford has been working on a strong public WiFi network, says Larry Appel, the city’s economic development officer. Soon, he says, free WiFi will be available throughout the city, which will be advantageous to small businesses in the area as well as the public.

SMBs typically thrive in population-dense areas, says Louis Zacharilla, co-founder of the ICF, but the expansion of broadband means they have the benefits of reaching a greater population while still staying in a livable city.

Stratford is also a growing force in digital media education. The University of Waterloo has a Stratford campus offering a Master of Business Entrepreneurship and Technology program, which has led to the Stratford Institute, a think tank focusing on digital media.  

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Windsor is also partnering with surrounding communities to expand broadband to rural communities. The city was also acknowledged for WindsorEats.com, a Web site with an interactive map to search for local restaurants that also includes promotion of local wineries.

“We’re building awareness about what we had done and what we are capable of doing in the future,” says Kristina Verner, research and development officer at the University of Windsor’s Centre for Smart Community Innovation, who spearheaded Windsor’s ICF application. Windsor, she says, has been working on intelligent community initiatives for 15 years.

The city is also now working towards having an ICF research centre on economic diversity and recovery in communities with advanced manufacturing sectors. The city is also working to build relationships with other countries, says Verner. Trinidad and Tobago, for example, is basing its first intelligent community on Windsor’s model.

The theme for the ICF’s 2011 nominees was Health in the Intelligent Community. Growing ageing populations, especially in Canada and the U.S., made this theme particularly important, says Zacharilla. Allowing people to stay innovative and educated as they grow older is important for the growth of a city, says Zacharilla.

The Asthma Research Group in Windsor is one of the initiative’s successes. Wait times for respiratory specialists in the Windsor-Essex area can be very long. With this initiative, patients can see their family doctor along with a certified asthma educator. They then generate a report that is shared electronically with specialists. Asthma-related emergency room visits in the area have decreased dramatically because of the program, says Verner.

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Eighty per cent of Stratford’s family physicians also use broadband e-health portals for health records, administration and after-hours care, according to the ICF. The city’s hospital has also undergone extensive expansion, says Appel, and has expanded the IT used in the hospital as well. 

It’s not just about the technology itself, but also the will to use it, says Zacharilla, and Windsor and Stratford have the right idea. “The way they were thinking about it showed they really believed they could mobilize the community,” he says. In other words, it’s about the “will and soul of a city,” he says.

While Canadian cities, including Ottawa and Fredericton, N.B., are not new to the top seven, cities that are listed have doors to economic development opened for them much more frequently, says Zacharilla.

“These cities often have to work a bit harder for people to see how great it is,” says Zacharilla. Intelligent communities excite people within the city, he says, it changes the dynamics among the population.

“Hopefully, it will give us a little bit of a step up and show the business world we are ready and willing and capable,” says Stratford’s Appel. “It would make an indication to small and large businesses that we are a progressive and aggressive community prepared to do business.”

Canadian cities often rely more on public funding than those in the U.S., which can be a challenge, says Verner. But she calls it a tortoise and hare situation, where the process in Canada may be slower but the outcome is still successful.

After being listed in the Smart21 last year, for example, Windsor gained the attention of a Mexico-based company who then opened headquarters in the Ontario city. The company’s president told representatives from Windsor that it had the right climate for investment because of its innovation, says Verner.

“We acknowledge Canada as forward-thinking about the future,” Zacharilla says. “We admire that.”

The ICF will announce its Intelligent Community Visionary of the Year in early April, and the top intelligent community in early June.

Harmeet Singh is a Staff Writer at ITBusiness. Follow her on Twitter, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.

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