Wait, that was technowhat?

Are you living in a technopolis? Would you want a teleport in your neighbourhood? To answer those questions intelligently, we need to know just what those words actually mean. To find out, I recently attended two conferences, back to back, on different sides of the world.

The first was the 2nd General Assembly of the World Technopolis Association in Nanjing, China. I got to represent my hometown, Calgary, which is one of 27 cities around the world that belong to this select group. Other cities that have proclaimed themselves “a technopolis” by joining the WTA include Brisbane, Australia, Bangalore, India, and Austin, Tex.

The Nanjing event started with a tour of the rather grandly-titled Nanjing New and High Tech Achievement Exposition, basically a trade show that allowed the host city to showcase its high-tech companies. We were also treated to a tour of their growing High Tech Development Zone. There are some important lessons to be learned here. One stop was a Chinese joint venture with a Dutch company that makes fibre optic cable. The group from Twente ships in the glass fibre and the local workers, using some pretty sophisticated machinery, turn it into thick black cables for local use and for export. Some of it is even sent back to Europe. Is it worth it to do all this shipping back and forth? Well, think about monthly wages in the US$125 range, with no unions, and you’ll get the idea. Of course, a lot of the cable stays in Asia to satisfy its voracious appetite for high-tech infrastructure.

OK, so one aspect of being a technopolis is having high-tech industries, but lots of cities can make that claim. There has to be more. One theme that ran through many of the presentations was a close link with excellent universities. Brisbane has its University of Queensland and the Queensland University of Technology. Austin has the University of Texas with its IC2 institute. IC2 stands for Innovation, Creativity and Capital. It’s described as a “globally interactive virtual organizations that links research universities, business, and other resources.” Nanjing has actually moved part of its university to its high-technology park so students learn side by side with researchers, business people and factory workers.

A third aspect of being a technopolis seems to be making international connections. The city of Daejeon (formerly called Taejon) in Korea is already the home of many of Korea’s high-tech research groups such as the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

Their visionary mayor, Hong Sun-Kee, has been a tireless supporter of the World Technopolis Association and its work. He and his associates ensured that cities and companies from around the world have been brought together at events such as the WTA Technomart, held in 1999 and to be held again in 2001 in Daejeon. A total of 13,000 engineers, researchers and business people from around the world participated in the last one, and there were almost 2,000 business meetings reported.

The City of Austin says a key success factor for them was the establishment of a Foreign Trade Zone, a geographic area within the U.S. where foreign and domestic merchandise is outside the jurisdiction of U.S. Customs. This makes it easy for international firms to do business there.

There must be something attractive about the letters WTA, because a completely separate organization shares those initials and many of the goals of the World Technopolis Association. The New York City based World Teleport Association is a non-profit trade group representing “teleports” such as the ones in Tokyo and Rio. Teleports are bricks and mortar facilities that house satellite dishes and other high-capacity telecommunications gear. According to Robert Bell, the executive director of this WTA, a teleport can have the same business-stimulating effect on a city as seaports, rail ports and airports did.

One of the WTA’s activities is to ferret out examples of excellence and give awards. At its Calgary meeting the WTA presented awards for Intelligent Building of the Year to the Caracas, Venezuela Teleport and to Hong Kong Land, a developer with a collection of wired buildings in that city. A small American community, LaGrange, Ga., 60 miles south-west of Atlanta was honoured as the Smart Community of the Year for its work in using technology intelligently. This city offers universal Internet access to all of its citizens at no cost through their television sets. It even pays for the service for people who can’t afford the basic TV cable service. Mayor Jeff Lukken says the initiative has really paid off by connecting people who need to learn something with sources of eLearning. In addition, there’s a virtual mall for local merchants, a hometown directory and on-line government services such as bill paying. You can even harass elected officials electronically if you live in LaGrange.

After two major conferences, I came away with the impression that some places are “getting it” a lot faster than others. All mayors talk a good game about information technology being an engine for economic development. They all want the next Intel or Cisco facility with lots of quality jobs. But only a few cities are actually going the extra mile and putting serious resources behind this effort. LaGrange is one of them, but we also have the 12 “smart communities” in Canada and they were represented in Calgary. You can learn more about them at www.smartcommunities.ic.gc.ca. Go have a look. And even more importantly, ask yourself: What can I do to help my own hometown understand the issues? The stakes are high, because cities that do figure out how to be “a technopolis” are going to be the winners in a race that spans oceans and national boundaries.

Dr. Keenan, ISP, is Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary and teaches a course called Hot Issues in Computer Security.