Situated in the center of Metro Vancouver, New Westminster, which was founded more than 150 years ago, is one of the oldest cities in Canada west of Ontario. Like many older cities, its industrial base was hit by hard times beginning in the 1970s.
Now, with the strong support of its newly elected Mayor and City Council, it has set its sights on a government-sponsored fiber network backbone for its future revitalization. This is, in part, feasible because of its relatively small size, 7 square miles. It also helps that the city has a publicly owned electric utility which will also run the broadband network.
With the network underway, the Mayor, most of the City Council, many members of the New Westminster’s Intelligent City Advisory Committee and other leaders met, for two days last week, to consider the city’s future in a broadband era and what they will be doing about it.
The event started with my hour-long keynote, reviewing the trends in the economy, society and technology that any small city must consider as it plans for the future. I told the participants that the Internet age is giving small cities, like theirs, a new chance to flourish and so I wanted them to think about these big questions:
- How can a city of fewer than 70,000 stand out in a world of 7,000,000,000 people?
- How can New Westminster build a high quality of life by intelligently responding to the trends that will affect all of us in the future?
- How can the people there expand their thinking about their options?
My underlying theme was that broadband, while absolutely necessary, is insufficient by itself. I showed many examples – even a few videos – from other intelligent communities around the world who have built on the foundation of a broadband network.
(A copy of the slides can be found at http://www.newwestcity.ca/database/files/library/New_Westminster_Keynote.pdf )
I especially emphasized lifelong learning in a knowledge economy, connecting residents to global economic opportunities and services and creating a culture of innovation. I finished by pointing out how they could use their network to provide delightful new urban experiences for both residents and visitors, which in turn would also inspire people to be more creative.
The second day was devoted to further discussion about the contents of the keynote and a workshop in which the participants broke out into five groups, each on a different subject – education, health, economic development, government services and the network itself. Each group debated the implications for that subject and came up with projects they will undertake to make use of the new network.
They developed a sophisticated and broad understanding of what they’re getting into with the broadband network.
They clearly understood that high speed Internet made it possible for their residents to overcome large geographic distances and connect to others anywhere on the globe. But I suggested that, because New Westminster is a small city, they shouldn’t assume that it would be easy for everyone to participate by going downtown. Even within the city, the Internet can make it easier for residents not to have to travel to participate in public discussions, to get government services, to collaborate on growing their businesses, etc.
I noticed that some people were trying to find an answer that would work for everyone, although the residents of the city had quite varied needs. (This is somewhat related to another phenomenon you sometimes see in cities trying to figure out their broadband strategy – the search for the one “killer app.”) So I pointed out to them that the Internet has, instead, renewed our awareness of the long tail – the need for and ability now to deliver many solutions and more personalized service to individual. There is no longer a requirement for a mass production, one-size-fits-all approach.
At the end of the second day, Mayor Coté said that he realized being an intelligent community is so much more than just laying fiber. Some of the more technologically savvy in the room offered their own examples and ideas, which is great because these efforts must be led from within the community and not depend on outside experts.
What is often encouraging to people like me is that many participants told me that they felt inspired – yes, that was the word they used – to take on the potential opportunities offered by their new broadband network.
I was also impressed by them. New Westminster still has much work to do, but they clearly have their act together and have the leadership to get the job done. They will indeed re-create their city for a new century.
© 2015 Norman Jacknis