Two Canadian cities among world’s seven most “intelligent” communities

Fredericton and Moncton – both located in New Brunswick – have been named among the world’s top seven smart communities of 2009.

The announcement was made by the The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) in New York City.

A tale of two Canadian cities

The two Canadian cities were shortlisted from a Top 21 list announced last October by ICF.

Other world cities in ICF’s 2009 Top 7 list include Bristol, Virginia, USA; Eindhoven, Netherlands; Issy-les-Moulineaux, France; Stockholm, Sweden and Tallinn, Estonia.

From these seven finalists, the Forum will pick the Intelligent Community of 2009 at an event in New York City on May 15.

The winner will succeed the Gangnam District of Seoul, South Korea, which was 2008’s Intelligent Community of the Year.

This year, Canada is the only country with two of its cities in ICF’s Top 7 list.

ICF – a think tank studying social development – hosts this high-profile international awards program to recognize communities that have responded exceptionally well to the demands and challenges of a “broadband economy.”

Each of this year’s top seven cities have designed and deployed innovative broadband applications that benefit their communities in very tangible ways, according to Louis Zacharilla, ICF co-founder.

This is the second successive year Fredericton has made it to ICF’s top seven list.   

Entering the eZone

One of this city’s chief accomplishments is Fred-eZone — it’s free WiFi program for the entire city . This program makes Fredericton Canada’s first free, wireless city.

Fred-eZone is a component of  e-Novations, the city-owned fibre optic network with a 70 per cent penetration rate, and speeds of up to 18 Mbps.

There was a time when broadband was three times costlier in Fredericton than it was in Toronto or Boston. 

But the e-Novations initiative has changed all that dramatically.

In 2003, with the creation of Fred-eZone (a wireless network covering around 65 per cent of the city) Fredericton was able to provide WiFi services to citizens at no cost by taking advantage of unused broadband capacity the municipality had on its own network.

Fredericton isn’t trying to make money on these programs, according to Don Fitzgerald, executive director of Team Fredericton – the city’s economic development department.

He said return on investment (ROI) isn’t the driving force behind the initiatives at all, but rather the conviction that broadband and WiFi are the infrastructure of the future.

“We wouldn’t try and figure out the ROI on a new sidewalk so why would we do it here.”

Fitzgerald said broadband and WiFi have spurred both innovation and  collaboration.

He said city council is providing the very best tools and a competitive place to grow business, 

Over the past decade or so, around 12,000 new jobs have been created across a wide variety of technology and knowledge industries, the Team Fredericton executive director noted.

Fredericton – and each of the Top 7 smart communities – were picked based on key success criteria, according to Robert Bell, executive director at the ICF.

One of these is their setting up broadband connectivity linking citizens to government, industry and educational institutions.

Another is creation of a knowledge workforce, trained in new technologies, and fully able to adapt to the needs of a fast changing economy.

Bell said geography, economic status, or prejudice should not be reasons to exclude any citizens from participating in the digital community.

Experts  say community differentiation, is key to succeeding in the broadband economy.

“Creating a differentiated market allows you to put your community on the map and draw attention to it,” said Sebastien Ruest, vice-president of services and technology research at analyst firm IDC Canada in Toronto.

Broadband, he said, allows you to reach an unlimited number of prospects. “All barriers are removed and suddenly your biggest competitors are in Estonia or France, in places you’ve never head of before.”

Another industry observer, however, sounds a note of caution.

Broadband isn’t “pixie dust” that can be sprinkled over infrastructure, notes Darryl Schoolar, senior research analyst at Scottsdale, Az-based In-Stat, a digital communications market research group.

To gain any real economic benefit, he said, cities must have an intelligent, overarching plan to co-exist with the development of city-wide broadband access .

Technology by the people, for the people

One key factor that got Moncton recognized this year was the city’s clear vision about the direction it wanted broadband to take.  

This is articulated in its Vision 2010 plan that identifies six key industries that could benefit and grow from broadband and information technologies.

The goal is to create an environment where technology empowers everyone, regardless of their economic situation, said Dan Babineau, director of information services at the City of Moncton.  

In the past two decades, he said, Moncton has transformed itself from an economically unstable railroad and industrial hub to a major Canadian customer contact and back office center, building a “near-shore” IT outsourcing industry.

The growth opportunity came from North American call centers that wanted to keep their workforce on the continent.

Those running such centres believe their customers would be better served by Canadian employees rather than an offshore location.

The cost of conducting business in Moncton is far lower than it is in other parts of North America, and housing is also the cheapest in Canada, making it a good place to set up an IT industry, Babineau said.

The plan also includes the region’s universities and community colleges, which have identified niche areas where technology can be deployed and created courses to meet that need.

The changes have resulted in 20,000 new jobs in the city — in the finance, management, technology and education fields.

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