A tale of seven (intelligent) cities

Scott Rourke, president, OneCleveland vividly recalls the morning of January 17 when he opened his Inbox, and saw the e-mail he had been waiting for. It had “Congratulations” in the subject line, but this time it wasn’t spam!

It simply stated that Cleveland, Ohio was named one of seven intelligent global communities by the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), a New York-based think tank.

OneCleveland is a not-for-profit organization with the mission of setting up ultra-broadband network in Cleveland metropolitan area.

While Rourke received the good news by e-mail, a delegation from Waterloo, Ont. heard about their city’s nomination “first hand” in Hawaii – the venue of this year’s ICF conference.

Each year ICF holds a similar conference where it names seven communities around the world that it considers digital age role models.

In addition to Waterloo and Cleveland, this year’s finalists are the Gangnam district in Seoul, South Korea; Ichikawa, Japan; Manchester, United Kingdom; Taipei, Taiwan; and Tianjin, China. These were chosen from a list of around 500 nominations.

The world’s most intelligent community will be selected in New York in June.

Rourke recalls how thrilled he was on reading the news that Cleveland made it into the “select seven” list. He said Cleveland has long sought to become and be recognized as a vibrant tech community and its selection is a big step towards the fulfillment of a long cherished dream.

Cleveland and Waterloo are the only two North American cities in the ICF list.

But the similarity ends there. While Waterloo has a fairly long tradition of tech innovation, for Cleveland it has been an uphill struggle.

Two decades ago Cleveland was beset with financial woes, and couldn’t pay its creditors.

And yet by 2005, a city once written off as a “mistake by the lake” by the national U.S. press was being cited as a model of urban renaissance.

Cleveland started making tech waves with its pervasive broadband connectivity. But setting up this connectivity was not an easy process.

It took OneCleveland two years to build consensus, collaboration and partnerships between private, public and research centres. “The technology was the easier part,” said Rourke. What took more time was getting a broad consensus on what we wanted to achieve.”

With Waterloo, however, the alliances between various sectors – research institutes, industry, government – came more easily.

Waterloo boasts some impressive credentials. It is home to 334 technology companies, and thrown up entrepreneurs who have founded such heavy-weight companies as Research in Motion (RIM), Sybase and Open Text.

Waterloo also has long established links between academia and hi-tech – with the University of Waterloo serving as the focal point. Former university alumni have launched numerous tech start ups.

Local government and business in Waterloo have been working together to set up research institutes for theoretical physics, wireless communications and information technology.

In both Cleveland and Waterloo, technology innovation has triggered economic growth. For example, two IT companies – one from Israel and the other from Greece – will be moving to Cleveland this month. “They were drawn by a large (potential) customer base and massive fibre network,” said Rourke.

And while many find this hard to believe, tech growth has had a favourable impact on art, culture and music.

For example, the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Waterloo (UW) holds lectures on a range of topics from physics to arts to music. The Institute was set-up through a financial grant from RIM founder Mike Lazaridis.

“So here you have a physics institute backed by a technology company encouraging excellence in other fields,” Said Simon Farbrother, chairman of the city’s Intelligent Community Committee (ICC).

ICC’s mandate is to help Waterloo develop as an intelligent community by fostering cooperation between the public, private and research sectors.

What then are some distinguishing features of an “intelligent” community?

ICF has a clearly defined response. An intelligent community has at least one of the following traits in good measure:

• Widespread use of broadband communication;

• A computer literate workforce;

• A government that promotes technology;

• A society that strives to eradicate the digital divide;

• A community that harnesses its technology infrastructure to attract new employers Broadband infrastructure is the most important factor, according to Louis Zacharilla, director of development, ICF. His reasoning: “You can’t bring the train in town or load it up with goods, or have people working on the railroad if you don’t have the tracks.”

However, some representatives of the shortlisted cities have a slightly different take. Rourke believes collaborative effort is the sine qua non of an intelligent community. “Technology is a tool, but it is collaboration that makes it happen. The most beautiful thing about broadband is you can be as inclusive as possible.”

OneCleveland has been running a program Computer Learning in My Backyard that provides PCs and Internet access to low-income residents at subsidized rates. The funding for this program came from government as well as businesses.

Allen George, a professor of computer engineering at UW said the most important ingredient is proximity to a major university. “We have three exceptionally good institutes in Waterloo, including the Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier universities, and Conestoga college.

All of them offer an empowering environment for producing highly skilled human resources. That is what builds intelligent communities.” RIM founder Mike Lazaridis was a UW graduate when he started his company in 1984.

George said while UW fosters innovation it doesn’t make any intellectual property (IP) claims over the inventions of its alumni.

“UW follows the ‘inventor owns’ policy as far as IP is concerned. The university does not insist on partial ownership of IP. This encourages faculty members and students to keep an eye out for research inventions that could be commercialized.”

There are no easy steps for building an intelligent community. ICF’s Zacharilla has this message for all wannabe communities who did not make to this year’s list: “Don’t ever think you can’t. No matter how far back you are, there is always a chance for innovation. That is the best part about technology.”

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