Two weeks ago, CGE wrote about the selection of Toronto as a leading Intelligent Community, a recognition of its Prosperity Agenda and its innovations in technology and other sectors – despite the trials and tribulations of its mayor.
The award was given by the New York-based Intelligent Community Forum, co-founded by Robert Bell, John Jung and Louis Zacharilla. The three have recently co-authored Brain Gain: How Innovative Cities Create Job Growth in an Age of Disruption, a book based on their research over that past 15 years of hundreds of communities around the globe.
The book focuses on 17 of those cities, four Canadian, large and small, to show how civic leaders can “can build economic prosperity while meeting social challenges in an age of fast-paced technological disruption.”
Technology and innovation may have created job upheaval and job loss in many of the world’s cities, but they are also the opportunity for new growth.
Below is an excerpt from Chapter 4, which tells the interesting story of Stratford’s innovative ecosystem.
STANDING IN THE MIDDLE
“Take an Extra $25. New York is an Expensive Place.”
Those words of wisdom came from the City Council of Stratford, Ontario, Canada, in 1952. A prominent citizen, journalist Tom Patterson, had come before the Council with a proposal. Patterson wanted to travel, at Council’s expense, to New York City, where he would somehow convince legendary British director Tyrone Guthrie to come to his city and found a summer Shakespeare Festival in the park. His pitch? Who could resist attending Shakespeare in the park on the banks of the Avon River in a town called Stratford?
These were hard times in Stratford. Its prosperity had been built on agriculture and on serving as a repair depot for the steam engines of the Canadian National (CN) railway. Agriculture was still going strong – though employing fewer people every year – but a decision by CN management had centralized repair services somewhere else on the line. No idea promoting the community’s survival was too crazy to consider. And so, on January 22, the Council signed off on Patterson’s brainstorm, giving him $25 more than he had originally requested for the trip. Patterson did meet with the legendary Tyrone. More than once, as a matter of fact, which required more $125 disbursements by Council. But by July of the following year, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, under artistic director Guthrie, presented its inaugural performance of Richard III, starring Alec Guinness, under a massive tent in the park.
In 2003, the people of Stratford elected Dan Mathieson as their Mayor. He was a young, entrepreneurial business man with deep roots in the city, and he set out to change the way Stratford did business.
His first priority was to embrace high-speed broadband connectivity and take it to heights that a small Canadian community like his had never done before. He believed that broadband needed to be treated as basic infrastructure, not a luxury amenity. As he told The Globe and Mail in August 2013, “In the future economy, the data that flows across those networks is going to become part of everyday life, if it hasn’t already. If you can’t entice commercial entities to do it, then government should look at how they can play a role in advancing public broadband.”
His vision led to a series of strategic choices. Like many rural cities, Stratford owned its own municipal electric utility. In the 1990s, the utility had laid optical fibre along its rights of way to provide communications capacity for lease to large industrial customers. Early in his tenure, Mayor Mathieson faced pressure from Ontario Province to privatize the utility, supposedly in the name of efficiency. His Council chose a different path. It spun the utility off into a pair of private companies with the city as sole shareholder: a hydro company to own and operate the electrical system and a services company to become a data utility that operated the dark fibre.
By 2012, the services company had grown its network to 60 km (37 mi) and introduced 1 Gbps connections to 125 locations including city facilities and schools. The network also served as the backbone of a 300-node WiFi network, which the hydro company used to roll out a smart meter program to 18,000 customers.
What Mayor Mathieson and his team were creating was a new innovation ecosystem, built on home-grown talent but proving equally attractive to external investment. Today Stratford is leveraging that ecosystem to transform its economy. The fibre network proved pivotal in attracting external investment from the Royal Bank of Canada, which built a national data centre in the area. The city-owned utility has signed an agreement with a private carrier to provide retail triple-play services over its network as well as extending fibre to premises throughout the city.