A tale of seven intelligent cities

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

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

OneCleveland is a not-for-profit organization with the missionof setting up ultra-broadband network in Cleveland metropolitanarea.

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

Each year ICF holds a similar conference where it names sevencommunities around the world that it considers digital age rolemodels.

In addition to Waterloo and Cleveland, this year’s finalists arethe 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 NewYork in June.

Rourke recalls how thrilled he was on reading the news thatCleveland made it into the “select seven” list. He said Clevelandhas long sought to become and be recognized as a vibrant techcommunity and its selection is a big step towards the fulfillmentof a long cherished dream.

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

But the similarity ends there. While Waterloo has a fairly longtradition of tech innovation, for Cleveland it has been an uphillstruggle.

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

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

Cleveland started making tech waves with its pervasive broadbandconnectivity. But setting up this connectivity was not an easyprocess.

It took OneCleveland two years to build consensus, collaborationand partnerships between private, public and research centres. “Thetechnology was the easier part,” said Rourke. What took more timewas 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 334technology companies, and thrown up entrepreneurs who have foundedsuch heavy-weight companies as Research in Motion (RIM), Sybase andOpen Text.

Waterloo also has long established links between academia andhi-tech – with the University of Waterloo serving as the focalpoint. Former university alumni have launched numerous tech startups.

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

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

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

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

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

ICC’s mandate is to help Waterloo develop as an intelligentcommunity by fostering cooperation between the public, private andresearch sectors.

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

ICF has a clearly defined response. An intelligent community hasat 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 toattract new employers Broadband infrastructure is the mostimportant factor, according to Louis Zacharilla, director ofdevelopment, ICF. His reasoning: “You can’t bring the train in townor load it up with goods, or have people working on the railroad ifyou don’t have the tracks.”

However, some representatives of the shortlisted cities have aslightly different take. Rourke believes collaborative effort isthe sine qua non of an intelligent community. “Technology is atool, but it is collaboration that makes it happen. The mostbeautiful thing about broadband is you can be as inclusive aspossible.”

OneCleveland has been running a program Computer Learning in MyBackyard that provides PCs and Internet access to low-incomeresidents at subsidized rates. The funding for this program camefrom government as well as businesses.

Allen George, a professor of computer engineering at UW said themost important ingredient is proximity to a major university. “Wehave three exceptionally good institutes in Waterloo, including theWaterloo and Wilfred Laurier universities, and Conestogacollege.

All of them offer an empowering environment for producing highlyskilled human resources. That is what builds intelligentcommunities.” RIM founder Mike Lazaridis was a UW graduate when hestarted his company in 1984.

George said while UW fosters innovation it doesn’t make anyintellectual property (IP) claims over the inventions of itsalumni.

“UW follows the ‘inventor owns’ policy as far as IP isconcerned. The university does not insist on partial ownership ofIP. This encourages faculty members and students to keep an eye outfor 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 whodid not make to this year’s list: “Don’t ever think you can’t. Nomatter how far back you are, there is always a chance forinnovation. That is the best part about technology.”

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