In the life of a community, too much of a good thing can be as bad as too little. The city of Edmonton lies close to one of the largest oil deposits on Earth, which has created a foundation for prosperity but saddled the community with major challenges as well. The resource boom has swelled Edmonton into the youngest major city in Canada with the most diverse population. It has also created housing shortages, homelessness and a range of social ills. And when oil boom turns to oil bust, the challenges mount higher. To create a new economy on top of the oil-driven present, Edmonton has built the infrastructure of the new century and engaged its institutions in translating that infrastructure into a new source of prosperity.
Closing the Digital Divide
In Edmonton, as in many cities around the world, broadband speed and coverage were driven solely by telecommunications providers, leaving underserve pockets and creating a digital divide. To combat this issue, the city created the Open Access Initiative, which commits Edmonton to partner with providers through partnerships to spread broadband access throughout the city.
As of 2016, the city is working with Shaw to install Shaw Go WiFi service in city facilities and libraries for public use, with 37 facilities and 17 libraries already completed. Edmonton also provides wireless access points around the city for citizens to use free of charge as part of the Open City Wi-Fi service, with 83 access points currently installed. Fifteen of these access points have been installed on LRT platforms, including the entire Capital Line, to ensure that citizens have access to wireless networks.
Edmonton is also working to expand fiber-optic access by supporting TELUS in its $1 billion network expansion within the city. The first phase of the expansion was completed in 2015, making fiber connections available to more than 25,000 locations. TELUS also worked with the city and the Edmonton Eskimo Football Club to install equipment and infrastructure for publicly accessible WiFi at Commonwealth Stadium. Beyond the city’s cooperation with TELUS, Edmonton has partnered with Cybera (a not-for-profit technical agency) to build a fiber optic network utilizing space in the new LRT tunnels under the city.
Borrowing Books and Wi-Fi
While the city works to spread permanent broadband and Wi-Fi access to all of its citizens, the Edmonton Public Library (EPL) is loaning access to fill the gaps. The library began in July 2016 to loan portable Wi-Fi hotspots with unlimited data to adult library cardholders as part of a two-year pilot program. These 40 hotspots enable cardholders to access the Internet anywhere they take the device. “We know many Edmontonians don’t have home Internet access, and EPL is committed to providing people the skills and support they need to participate in the digital world,” said Pilar Martinez, EPL’s Chief Executive Officer. “This innovative program will provide a key tool for access to learning and information for those who need it most.” EPL cardholders logged nearly 1.4 million public Internet hours in 2015.
Preparing the Future Workforce
Another Edmonton institution, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), is training its future workforce. NAIT has created numerous programs designed to give students the skills most needed by regional employers, including classes to address climate change and to help the region make its cities smarter and its industry more efficient. These programs aim to diversify Alberta’s economy for the future and to assist urban and rural businesses in the region with distance learning. Starting in 2004, NAIT has commanded a fleet of mobile semi-tractor-trailer education units known as NIMs (NAIT in Motion) that bring state-of-the-art equipment directly to communities in need of training.
Edmonton is encouraging an energy transition among its residents and businesses to avoid the worst outcomes of global warming. To help with this transition, NAIT has invested heavily in its Alternative Energy Technology program, which provides training and research in energy technology such as solar, geothermal, wind, and biofuels. The program often partners with the city of Edmonton, including a venture in which NAIT and Edmonton jointly installed solar panels on the institute’s campus to test the effects of solar panel angle and snow cover on energy capture efficiency. The data collected by this project is streamed to Edmonton’s Open Data Catalogue, while the energy gathered by the panels is used onsite.
The Alternative Energy Technology program has met with great success over the past few years, with a 92% employment rate for graduates of its full time programs within nine months of leaving the school. NAIT also offers 13,800 apprenticeship seats and is one of the largest apprenticeship trainers in Canada with 33 distinct registered trades programs.
The EndPovertyEdmonton Strategy
While Edmonton has grown far more quickly in the new millennium than most Canadian cities, the most recent data from 2012 finds that one in eight residents live in poverty. To combat this, the city turned to the people themselves for recommendations and ideas. The EndPovertyEdmonton Strategy began in September 2014 with 200 Edmonton residents from diverse backgrounds and sectors divided into seven working groups to analyze poverty issues and develop recommendations for action. In autumn of 2015, EndPovertyEdmonton sought input from thousands of Edmontonians through in-person engagement sessions and an online survey to refine the recommendations from the Working Groups.
The EndPovertyEdmonton Strategy was unanimously approved by the Edmonton City Council in December 2015. Shortly after its approval, the organization developed an Implementation Road Map to provide specific direction for combating poverty over the next five years, including making all Edmontonians aware of the realities of poverty in the city and what steps they can take to help in the immediate future and in the long term. The EndPovertyEdmonton Strategy also partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association-Edmonton Region and BetaCityYeg (the region’s volunteer civic technology meetup) to create the LinkYEG web app. LinkYeg.ca provides real time information on nearby community resources, allowing users to search for available clothing and essentials, health and medical assistance, legal help, and family services.
No matter what price the world puts on a barrel of oil, Edmonton fears no bust. The city has built the infrastructure of the future and, as part of the process, tapped a more valuable resource than oil could ever be: its people.
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