Waterloo wins battle of ‘intelligent communities’

From a 19th-century mill town to recognition as the world’s most intelligent community, the City of Waterloo, Ont., in the heart of Canada’s technology triangle, has come a long way.

Beating out six other finalists, Waterloo has been named as the “Intelligent Community of the Year” by The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), a New York-based non-profit think tank that focuses on economic development in the broadband economy.

Waterloo Mayor Brenda Halloran accepted the award from the ICF at a ceremony in New York City. She was accompanied by city councillor Mark Whaley and Waterloo’s chief administrative officer, Simon Farbrother. The audience included 140 people from nearly 20 countries, who converged on Brooklyn for the annual award ceremony.

The six other finalists for The Intelligent Community of the Year award were Ottawa-Gatineau (Canada), Issy-les-Moulineaux (France), Tallinn (Estonia), the Gangnam District of Seoul, South Korea, and the cities of Dundee and Sunderland, both in the U.K.

According to the ICF, Waterloo’s selection for the top honour was based on in-depth research and analysis conducted by a knowledge process outsourcing company in India, and the votes of an independent committee of experts from around the world.

Best known as the home of BlackBerry creators Research in Motion (RIM), Waterloo has succeeded Taipei, Taiwan, that was voted the 2006 Intelligent Community of the Year.

Participating communities were judged on certain key criteria including: pervasiveness of Internet access and its use by citizens, innovation and collaboration, education levels within the workforce, and how well the community markets itself.

On all these counts Waterloo did exceptionally well, according to ICF co-founder Louis Zacharilla. He called Waterloo “a tidal wave of a town” that has “never stopped raising the bar.”

The city that invented the BlackBerry, he said, has “created the Nirvana of intelligent communities.” Zacharilla said the Waterloo Information Network exemplified the concept of local government involvement with citizens and businesses.

Created in 1998, the Network offers a broad range of online services to better connect government and its stakeholders.

Use of Internet technology, the ICF co-founder said, has spread rapidly in Waterloo thanks to the community access program that places Internet access terminals in public locations.

Most importantly, he said, the community has an extraordinary culture of collaboration and reinvestment. “People in Waterloo make partnership a priority and are eager to give back to the entire community.”

That view is echoed by many of Waterloo’s better-known citizens, when asked about the main reasons for the city’s phenomenal success as a technology hub.

“I think the trick that happens here is that there’s a very intense collaboration between different partners, different stakeholders, each of whom brings something very special to the mix,” said David Johnston, president, University of Waterloo, in a promotional video titled “Intelligent Waterloo.”

And the private sector in Waterloo has played a critical role in fostering innovation and collaboration, according to John English of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), a Waterloo-based non-profit think tank. (CIGI was established in 2002 via grants from RIM co-founders Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis. In 2003, the Government of Canada provided a matching contribution).

The private sector’s “very generous contributions” to CIGI and other academic institutes “are of a scale unmatched in Canadian history,” English said.

Many entrepreneurs from the region attribute their business success to what they term the city’s culture of innovation. Waterloo’s “rich entrepreneurial background” is a big draw for startups, according to Tom Jenkins, executive chairman of Open Text Corp., a developer of collaboration and enterprise content management software that’s headquartered in the city.

“Open Text has been successful [in Waterloo] because it started here,” Jenkins said. “And that’s one of the core messages of many companies that have thrived here…it’s because they have started here.”

Waterloo’s geography and demographics, some observers say, also have a significant impact, although often unrecognized, on its “culture of innovation.”

A city of 115,000 people, Waterloo is the smallest of the seven cities that make up Canada’s Technology Triangle. With only 10 per cent of the labour force in the Triangle, it accounts for 45 per cent of job growth and is home to 40 per cent of the high-tech firms in the region.

The city’s current size supports its role as a centre of collaborative innovation, suggests John Tennant, CEO, Canada’s Technology Triangle Inc., a non-profit, private-public economic development organization for marketing the cities of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo to the world.

“It’s a community that’s big enough to be sophisticated, offer many amenities, and have a critical mass,” he said. But it’s not too big. It’s still of a size that allows people to intuitively and naturally communicate. And that builds collaboration.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Halloran and others have predicted that observers from other communities worldwide are likely to make a beeline to Waterloo to see how things are done there, further enhancing its reputation among business leaders and highly educated workers.

Last year’s winner of the ICF award, Taipei, reportedly received more than 400 visits from representatives of communities across the globe.

The ICF also named Wikia Inc., which hosts free content created with MediaWiki software, as the Intelligent Community Visionary of the Year.

Wikia was founded by Angela Beesley and Jimmy Wales, originally under the name “Wikicities.” Wales is also the founder of the well-known Wikipedia.com.

The ICF pointed to MediaWiki’s “revolutionary success” in creating a culture of use for broadband. “A wiki-powered Web site is as dynamic, profound, glorious, mundane and profane as are humans in physical communities,” Zacharilla said.

The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Sunderland, England, which was described as “the intelligent community that gave rise to the Intelligent Community concept.”

Once an industrial powerhouse in the north of England and the biggest ship-building port in Europe, Sunderland fell into a steep decline in the 1980s. But a turnaround effort that engaged every part of the community has transformed the city into “one of the most attractive business locations in the UK,” an ICF statement observed.

Sunderland has also featured on ICF’s Top Seven Intelligent Communities list an unprecedented five times.

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