TORONTO — When you think of urban innovation and technology, the world’s largest cities — London, Tokyo, New York — come to mind. But one of the top cities in the world for information and communications technology is a small Canadian town of about 30,000 people called Stratford, in the province of Ontario.
Two years in a row, the Intelligent Community Forum recognized Stratford as one of the top seven cities in the world for economic and social development.
How’s that for punching above your weight?
The town runs on its own network, connecting residents, businesses and public services. The University of Waterloo recently opened a satellite campus there to teach business entrepreneurship and technology. And city officials have established partnerships with global technology giants, including Toshiba, Cisco and Research in Motion.
SmartPlanet caught up with Stratford’s mayor, Dan Mathieson, at a media event in Toronto to talk about how his city came to embrace technology — and what it plans to do next.
How has your city changed over the years?
We call Stratford the city of reinvention, the city of tomorrow. When we were first incorporated, we were a large railway center, the largest in North America for fixing locomotives. At one time, one-sixth of all furniture in the country was made in Stratford. Now there’s none.
We’ve seen manufacturing rise and we’ve seen it decline. We really had to reinvent ourselves a number of times.
We took a forward-thinking approach to technology. We saw that it was going to permeate the future economy and that we needed to look at it as an economic driver, a social development tool and, of course, the way of the future with regard to basic communication. And that’s kind of been the lens we look at all of our decisions through.
What challenges did you face in trying to develop a technologically-advanced community?
One of the biggest challenges was getting people to understand that we can do it. Many people thought that you had to be a big city to be able to move in that direction. And we tried to show that being a smaller community has many benefits. We’re very nimble. We have the ability to make decisions and act on them quickly. We are the perfect size for a pilot project for some technology company, based on our geographic size and number of residents. And we think that those types of things have allowed us to move faster than we’d ever thought.
Can you tell us about the decision to start your own network?
Well, we decided [to have] dark fiber laid; to light the fiber up was going to be key. We thought, “We need to make this pipe light up; we need to have everybody using it.” We were going out and talking to businesses about why they needed to be connected to fiber in the future and, in doing so, we started to find that everyday business people began to understand the value of having fiber. And then the knowledge started to permeate. When we talked about starting to have a university there, we talked about why digital inclusion and digital communications were going to be key in the future. And when you put it in human terms for people, they started to say, “Yeah I’m doing my banking online, I’m doing my information gathering online, I’m seeing technology used in my place of work. And yeah, I guess I can be [part of] a technology city.”
Can you tell me about the program you are piloting this September?
Mutualink is meant to connect all key city buildings, emergency service personnel, different levels of government and education together. So if we were to have an emergency within our community, we could pull together all of the relevant agencies onto a secure channel where they could use different technologies but be able to share information.
For example, in Elliot Lake right now, a roof collapsed on a shopping mall. So, in this case, if they had interoperability, nobody would have to change their radio system and all the key personnel across every sector of the government could continue to talk on a common secure channel.
How is the city funding all of these programs and technological advances?
A lot of it comes through our “living lab” concept. We tell technology companies that they can come and use our Wi-Fi and fiber to prove out their technology. In exchange, either we get to use the hardware and software for free for a period of time or we get deeply discounted opportunities to buy it when the trial is over. So we’re taking limited budgets and trying to leverage them out as best we can.
It sounds like the city has come a long way in a short amount of time. So where do you go from here?
It’s the Japanese model of Kaizen, so it’s continuous improvement. There’s no end on this road, so there are lots of other things for us to gain with regard to knowledge from our partners. And there are lots of other opportunities for us to collaborate [with the private sector].