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How New Brunswick got smart with IT

The Intelligent Community Forum named two New Brunswick cities among the seven most intelligent communities in the world. Learn why Fredericton and Moncton are leaders in the new economy

What makes a community intelligent?

For Robert Bell, the definition begins with what an intelligent community is not.

“It is not about being the biggest community, the richest community, even the community that looks best in a bathing suit,” the co-founder of the New York City-based Intelligent Community Forum told an audience at a recent Economic Club of Toronto luncheon.

It’s not just about blindingly fast broadband or cutting-edge university research, either. “It comes down to three things: what they do, how they do it and why they do it,” Bell said.

Bell’s organization named two New Brunswick cities, Fredericton and Moncton, among the seven most intelligent cities in the world in 2009. New Brunswick will soon be the first jurisdiction in North America with broadband access for 100 per cent of its population, and a deal with Bell Aliant will extend fibre-to-the-home connectivity to 70,000 homes in Fredericton and Saint John by the middle of next year. But broadband access is merely “table stakes,” Bell said.

A skilled knowledge workforce — not just engineers and grad students, but everyone “from the checkout counter to the research lab” — is key. “Innovation is the only thing, quite frankly, that drives value anymore,” Bell said.

Digital inclusion is also a barometer of community intelligence. People’s lives shouldn’t be worse because of where they live or because they’re poor, Bell said.

“Communities work on digital inclusion because it’s morally right,” he said.

In the early 1990s, both cities were at a crossroads. Fredericton, traditionally an institutional city driven by government and universities, found itself facing negative growth for the near future, though the city had been able to take growth for granted in the past, said Don Fitzgerald, executive director of strategic initiatives for the city.

In Moncton, the situation was even more dire. The city was a railway hub for the east, largely dependent on the Canadian National Railway. When CNR pulled out in the late 1980s, it threw 4,000 to 5,000 people out of work, and unemployment reached 20 per cent, said Ben Champoux, business development specialist with the City of Moncton. Half of the downtown was boarded up, he said.

“We could easily have disappeared from the face of the earth,” Champoux said.

The timing was lucky. Moncton had to go back to the drawing board just when telecommunications began to change the way people worked, Champoux said. Location isn’t as crucial in a knowledge economy.

Champoux credits local leadership, regional and intergovernmental collaboration, private sector engagement and infrastructure investment with creating 25,000 jobs – a 50 per cent increase – over the last 15 years.

Meanwhile, Fredericton was creating its first economic strategy. Leaders there recognized the city’s institutional heritage meant something different in the knowledge economy.

“We realized we were a knowledge community, we’d always been a knowledge community,” Fitzgerald said.

But broadband cost about three times what it did in Toronto or Boston, Fitzgerald said, and the community wasn’t large enough for service providers to build out. So the city built its own telecommunications company.

This prompted the incumbents to try to recoup their market share, according to Fitzgerald. “That fuelled the switch from an institutional community to an entrepreneurial community,” Fitzgerald said.

Fredericton now boasts Canada’s largest Wi-Fi network, Fred-eZone, entirely free to use. In Moncton, the entire public transit system is Wi-Fi-enabled.

According to New Brunswick Minister of Business Victor Boudreau, a recent deal with the province of Quebec will make New Brunswick even more attractive for business. The province’s energy utility, NB Power, will be sold to Hydro Quebec, eliminating 40 per cent of the provincial debt. Boudreau said the deal freezes commercial and residential electrical rates for five years, and ties industrial rates to those in Quebec, which are among the lowest in North America, he said. It makes New Brunswick “the most cost-effective, technology-friendly jurisdiction in Canada,” he said.