Those in the business of choosing sites have heard the advice so often that it has become tiresome: What matters is "location, location, location." Now, Lou Zacharilla says that location - at least geographically - doesn't always matter that much. Think instead of another phrase you've probably heard ad nauseum, at least if you have visited Disney World: "It's a small world, after all." The world has been made even smaller these days by digital communications. Physical proximity to massive population centers is often trumped by omnipresent broadband, a highly educated work force, an enlightened local government, a collaborative attitude, and a forward-thinking mindset. These traits define an "Intelligent Community," says Zacharilla, co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, which researches localities that stand out as Intelligent Communities.
Outside of the United States, "Canada is statistically the leader in Intelligent Communities," Zacharilla says. Over the years that the Intelligent Community Forum has been judging communities around the world, 15 Canadian locales have made the list.
One of the lists's recent additions is Moncton, New Brunswick, a city of 65,000 at the center of the country's Maritime provinces. Although it once had a thriving rail industry, its economic success these days is tied to its knowledge-based work force, innovation, collaborative mindset, and digital infrastructure.
"Moncton is one of the most connected communities in Canada, with 99 percent of our homes being connected to broadband; 100 percent of our universities, colleges, school districts, and governmental institutions; and 95 percent of our private-sector businesses," says Ben Champoux, business development specialist for the city.
Similarly, the Alberta community of Edmonton, known for decades as the "oil capital of Canada," enjoys prosperity that today is fueled predominantly by brain power, according to Kent McMullin, economic development team leader with the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation.
This Intelligent Community is a leader in scientific and medical research, nanotechnology, and development of alternate sources of power. Collaboration is the ethos here, too: Edmonton's progressive policies include widespread adoption of electronic medical records.
In the Intelligent Community of Waterloo, Ontario, a collaborative culture drives investment that yields economic success.
"Waterloo's culture is built into a cycle of investment, starting with an individual's ownership of intellectual property, leading to innovation, commercialization, global business success, and ultimately reinvestment in Waterloo," explains Marlene Coffey, the city's director of economic development.
What is an Intelligent Community?
"An Intelligent Community, from our perspective, is one that has been looking at the opportunities and challenges of the digital era and has addressed those challenges through policies and programs," says Zacharilla. The new economic drivers will be underpinned by knowledge creation and broadband connectivity, he adds.
That's dramatically different from what used to drive the pursuit of prosperity. Mobility used to be one of the prerequisites for prosperity.
"We have largely seen migration to and from places for economic purposes," he says. Throughout human history, people have frequently moved to places where they can make a living - where the resources are, where the jobs are, where large groups of people are gathering for creative or economic pursuits. A consequence of this movement is "brain drain," the migration of the best and brightest away from home to the places where prime opportunities can be found.
"We're looking now at a time and place where that can be arrested," Zacharilla says. "The phenomenon we're seeing is that probably for the first time in human history, there is an opportunity for people to remain in their place, in their community, and yet participate in the global economy."
But this can't happen in just any community. Not all locations are equipped to fully participate in the global economy and provide opportunities for their best and brightest to stay put. Intelligent Communities are those that have nurtured the means to thrive in this environment. "They obviously are preparing for the 21st century," Zacharilla says. "They are, by and large, communities that are embracing policies for the future."
When communities energize their educational systems, collaborate on knowledge-creation initiatives, make digital communications ubiquitous, and spark innovation in the public and private sectors, they make it possible for the best and brightest to build their own communities at home. They also enable economic successes that depend less on geographic proximity to someplace else. "We've eliminated the middle of nowhere," Zacharilla says.
Zacharilla thinks of his grandfather, an immigrant who came to America to build the railroads. Rail technology had a tremendous impact on the economies of the communities along its path. It allowed sleepy towns to thrive, but also left behind those communities that were not as well connected. "Once that developed, you saw all of the other pieces of the economy evolve around it," he says.
The Internet is not very different from the past's railways. Today's communities with the strongest digital foundations are similar to history's towns fortunate enough to have a railroad connection. "I look at it as kind of the new railroad - the cargo needing to go to the ports is information," says Zacharilla.
Canada's Intelligent Communities
As Zacharilla notes, an Intelligent Community can sprout practically anywhere - there is no longer a middle of nowhere. And indeed, his organization has identified such communities around the world, from Porto Alegre, Brazil; to Cape Town, South Africa; to Suwon City, South Korea; to Tallinn, Estonia; to Bettendorf, Iowa. But besides the United States, where the Intelligent Community Forum is based, no place has more Intelligent Communities than Canada. Why is that so?
"We like to look at things from a community perspective rather than a national perspective," Zacharilla says, "though I suspect there is something at the national level encouraging communities to perform so well."
"Canada is the second largest country in the world, but we have fewer than 35 million people," says Champoux of Moncton. "As a result, we have been forced to innovate, to better communicate and stay connected." No surprise, he adds, that the BlackBerry was invented in Canada.
A relatively smaller population has other advantages, too. "[It] allows us to adjust and improve our policies more efficiently than most other industrialized countries," Champoux says. "When combined with a well-educated worker, a great educational system, and many world-renowned universities, more Intelligent Communities have emerged."
In Canada, "all three orders of government emphasize importance of innovation and technology," adds McMullin of Edmonton.
The 15 Canadian locations that have made the Intelligent Communities list include Toronto, Canada's largest city, and its newest territory, the remote Nunavut. The list, including the cities below, represents Canadian communities of all sizes.
Burlington, Ontario: This community, with its successful technology industry and strong broadband assets, continues to seek new clusters to promote and new projects to train and educate its citizens.
Calgary, Alberta: Rich in petroleum resources, Calgary also has a strong base in telecommunications and wireless manufacturing, along with hundreds of software companies. When it made the list, it had more miles of installed fiber optics than any other Canadian city.
Edmonton, Alberta: This oil center has also diversified its economic base, nurturing the health industry, nanotechnology, and manufacturing.
Fredericton, New Brunswick: Cisco Systems has honored this community of approximately 50,000 residents as the "smartest in North America." Traditionally strong in forestry and agriculture, it is comprised of a strong entrepreneurial class and a cooperative spirit that helped spread broadband service across the city, including free WiFi service.
Kenora, Ontario: Home of fewer than 20,000 people, this "cottage country" community draws enough summer residents to double its population. When its forestry business declined, Kenora focused on spreading Internet connectivity and moving as much of its commercial and governmental activity online as possible.
Moncton, New Brunswick: Changing times led local leaders to focus on information and communications technology in this Maritime traditional railroad and industrial hub. Now, the bilingual community is a stronghold for back-office and call-center operations, with strong, tech-based entrepreneurship.
Nunavut: This is the country's newest and largest federal territory, sliced off of the Northwest Territories in 1999. Arctic Nunavut is remote, but its efforts to develop broadband connectivity are exemplary.
Ottawa, Ontario: Government is big business in the nation's capital, but government downsizing in the '90s left a lot of people looking for new work. The tech sector helped ease the problem, and the Ottawa Innovation Strategy sped the creation of jobs and investments. Broadband connectivity has been a focus, as has the creation of public-private partnerships to fuel education, entrepreneurship, and job creation.
Gatineau, Quebec: Just across the river and border from Ottawa, Gatineau is part of the capital region's innovation-based economy, and its IT and telecom cluster. The region emphasizes broadband development, promotion of entrepreneurship, expansion of e-government, and development of a knowledge-based work force.
Sudbury, Ontario: This community is on the cutting edge when it comes to connecting online. Among its accomplishments is an advanced portal for the delivery of community services. Residents and businesses alike have one point through which they can access nearly anything they need to know about living and doing business here.
Toronto, Ontario: More than five million people call the Greater Toronto area home, making it not only the country's largest metro area, but also its financial center and a corporate, manufacturing, and research and development hub. Broadband hit home early here, as did electronic delivery of government services.
Vancouver, British Columbia: The world came to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics, but this Intelligent Community has been connected globally for some time. It's home to a solid technology sector, and has benefited from a private-sector broadband wireless initiative and well-linked online governmental services.
Waterloo, Ontario: The ubiquitous BlackBerry? It was created at Waterloo's Research in Motion, part of a thriving tech cluster and diverse economy. The community is known for its public-private collaboration and business networking initiatives.
Western Valley, Nova Scotia: The Western Valley had all the problems rural areas face, including a declining population and shrinking primary industries. Then, local development officials landed a Smart Community grant from Industry Canada and initiated a demonstration project to prove the value of innovation and information technology. Broadband access improved dramatically, local educational institutions began developing IT curricula, IT business incubators were launched, and governments adopted impressive new technologies.
Windsor-Essex, Ontario: Windsor shares a metro area with Detroit, and with it much of the automotive industry's turmoil. Local governments have responded with business incubation efforts, the launch of an innovation center for engineering research, and efforts to boost software development. A public-private partnership is working to stimulate investment, and another initiative is focused on expanding broadband access to underserved areas.
What's evident from these Intelligent Communities is that their success is only partly related to technology. Perhaps the biggest common thread is the community spirit that has helped all of these communities overcome their challenges and craft their futures.
"One of the defining characteristics of Intelligent Communities is that there is a lot of collaboration, people working for common purposes," Zacharilla says.
In Edmonton, businesses benefit from a tax environment unlike any other in North America, according to McMullin: no provincial sales tax, no capital tax, no payroll tax. An entrepreneurial spirit has fueled a remarkable rate of small business formation, he adds. Examples of this community's innovation include its early establishment of computerized medical records and nanotechnology growth, which he says "have yielded 70 active spin-off companies and created over 1,000 new jobs."
The cost of doing business is low in Moncton, as well, says Champoux, and the work force is "well-educated, competent, loyal, and bilingual." Helping 21st century, knowledge-based businesses thrive, he adds, is "a proactive municipal government that continually thinks outside the box."
Coffey's assessment of Waterloo's attributes sums up the advantages offered throughout Canada's Intelligent Communities: the "culture of collaboration, and the cycle of investment, is what fuels further innovation and the future."