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Stratford, Ontario, Canada (2011)
Delivering on a vision for a new economy
Published Thursday, May 5, 2011


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In 1952, a Canadian journalist decided that his home town needed a Shakespearean theater.  The town was named, after all, for Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford, and like that English city, it lay on the banks of a river called Avon.  More to the point, the city was facing the loss of its economic reason for being as a railroad junction and locomotive maintenance center for the Canadian Railroad.  Tom Patterson, the journalist, envisioned a summer Shakespeare festival as a new economic engine.  With the support of Stratford’s Council, he went to New York City and through enormous persistence persuaded British director Tyrone Guthrie to be the festival’s first artistic director and Alec Guinness to star as Richard III in its opening production.  

In 2011, the Stratford Shakespearean Festival entered its 58th season as the community’s largest employer, which generated C$135 million in local economic activity and C$70m in tax revenue for all levels of government.  Mr. Patterson’s dream had come true – but the dreams of 21st Century Stratford were just getting underway. 

A History of Adapting to Change

Stratford started life in 1832 as a millpond, saw mill, grist mill and woollen mill – as a place, in short, for creating economic value from Canada’s natural abundance.  When the national railroad set up a locomotive maintenance shop in 1871, Stratford’s population doubled, with most working-age men employed at the shop.  During the first half of the 20th Century, the city developed a furniture-making cluster responsible for one-sixth of all production in Canada.  That industry waned, however, after the World Wars.  The locomotive shop finally closed its doors in 1964 but post-war auto parts manufacturing took up the slack, and gradually diversified into precision bearings, industrial machinery and aerospace components.

By the new century, Stratford’s economy was a three-legged stool, with automotive and related manufacturing at the south end of the city closest to the US border, agriculture in the north, and culture – represented by the Festival – in the center.  But the long-term stability of that stool was in question.  It had been clear for some time that the North American automotive sector was in trouble, but the shock of the Great Recession and bankruptcy of both GM and Chrysler still had a terrible impact, nearly doubling unemployment.  It was clear that agriculture, though economically important, could not fill the employment gap.  And community leaders knew that Stratford’s economy was already far too dependent on the Festival, which for all of its cultural cachet was still a tourist attraction, subject to the ups and downs of that industry. 

In 1997, Stratford’s leadership began conducting a visioning exercise to chart a new economic direction, and published the results as “Community Vision 2010.”    They had the advantage of basing that vision on some existing competitive advantages.  Like many rural cities, it owned its own electric utility, Festival Hydro, which offered a potential pathway for broadband deployment.  The city also boasted a well-educated workforce, with 59% of residents having advanced certificates, diplomas or degrees, compared with 51% for Canada and 39% for the US.  And it had its Shakespeare Festival, a source of artistic content and expertise if only the community could find new ways to capitalize on it. 

Broadband Assets

In 2003, Stratford elected Dan Mathieson as its Mayor.  Serving on Council or as Deputy Mayor since 1995, Mayor Mathieson had participated from the start in the community’s effort to build a new economy.  It was on his watch, however, that Stratford really began to move.  It turned out that “Community Vision 2010” was well-named.  For 2010 was the year in which many different development efforts began to pay off.

Back in 1992, Festival Hydro had invested C$1.2m to run 40 km (25 mi) of optical fiber to the utility’s biggest industrial customers and began to generate significant revenue from telecommunications. In the new century, the city and Festival Hydro decided to spin off the fiber assets into a new city-owned company called Rhyzome Networks, which was also charged with developing a WiFi network.   By 2010, the fiber network had grown to 60 km (37 mi) offering 1 Gbps connections to 125 locations including city facilities, schools, the Shakespeare Festival and commercial customers.  It also provided the backbone for 300 WiFi hubs throughout the city.  The Rhyzome WiFi network was designed to be open, with the company providing physical connectivity but local cooperatives and commercial ISPs delivering service.

The network connects smart meters in 18,000 homes and commercial sites, which allow customers to see their power usage and adjust energy habits to save money and reduce peak load.  The city has cut C$60,000 from its annual phone bills by switching employees from mobile phones to WiFi devices.  In addition to paid services, the WiFi network provides free access to 18 Web sites of public interest including the resources of the public library, which also provides free broadband access to patrons onsite.  Rhyzome and Festival Hydro are also extending WiFi coverage to utility customers in six rural towns and villages beyond the Stratford city limit.   This supplements a Rural Connections program funded by the province, and has helped make broadband available to 99.9% of residents in the rural areas around the city.

The Breakout Year

In October 2010, Stratford signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Waterloo to create a new campus in Stratford.  Beginning in September 2011, it will offer an undergraduate degree in Global Business and Digital Media, and graduate studies in Business Entrepreneurship and Technology as well as Digital Innovation.  The project is funded by the city, province and Federal government as well as by Open Text, a Waterloo-based provider of enterprise content management systems.  Headquartered in ICF’s 2007 Intelligent Community of the Year, the University of Waterloo has an international reputation in computer sciences, math and engineering.  It operates the world’s largest cooperative work program and its liberal intellectual property policies led to the creation of Open Text as well as Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry. 

The new campus will be home to two other major projects also announced in 2010.  The Stratford Institute aims to be a think tank staffed with leading digital technology experts involved in research and development, product commercialization and policy.  A new technology business incubator will provide office space, support services and consulting expertise in finance, accounting, law, product development and market.  That will complement the existing Stratford-Perth Centre for Business, where consultants offer training, mentorship and financing programs in Stratford and surrounding communities.

These are major developments for a city of Stratford’s size.  According to Mayor Mathieson, “When the full contingent of 500 undergraduate students is onsite, it will bring a $30-40 million annualized benefit to the city, including 300 jobs and $60 million in construction.”  The long-term gains are expected to be greater, because Stratford is betting its future on digital technologies as a means to accelerate business start-up and growth.

Entrepreneurial Foundations

Stratford is already home to a number of tech start-ups and is becoming increasingly attractive to technology operations seeking a new location. 

Five young Web developers from Stratford and Toronto founded Conceptual Pathways to build Web-based systems such as  Bill Circle, a collaborative bid management system for general contractors and their subcontractors, trades and specialist services, which drastically reduces the time and paper used to compile contracts and bid.  Perth County, of which Stratford is the county seat, has adopted the system, as have a number of general contractors and thousands of subcontractors. 

PicoWireless has created a free, ad-supported email client called PicoMail that allows low-end mobile phones to mimic the user experience of a more expensive smartphone. Its global market ranges from shopkeepers in Delhi to teachers in Nigeria, who can now do online work from a standard mobile phone with a bad CEPU, tiny screen, limited bandwidth and no memory.

Tactile Sight equips users with a belt containing tiny vibrators, a GPS unit, compass and inertial sensors.  A Bluetooth interface downloads landmarks from a map application on an attached mobile phone.  The result is a wearable computer interface that offers the wearers directional guidance in the form of vibration.  The user – who may be visually impaired, suffering from memory loss, or a first responder working in darkness or smoke – walks toward the perceived source of vibration and can be safely guided to a destination.  A seamstress at the Shakespeare Festival advised the company how to make its belt not only functional but appealing to wearers. 

Stratford is also succeeding at traditional business attraction.  In June 2010, RBC Royal Bank broke ground on a 4 million square-foot (371,000 m2) data center, where 100 employees relocating from Toronto will soon begin work.  Over 200 Canadian cities vied for the project but Stratford put on a coordinated campaign to win the project, going so far as to have Festival Hydro build a C$17m redundant power station and grid upgrade for its Wright Business Park to deliver the robust infrastructure the data center requires. 

Knowledge Workers and Digital Healthcare

The region’s public school district has moved to strengthen skills up and down the curriculum.  In Stratford Central Secondary School, the district has supplemented popular Communications Technology courses with two Specialist High Skills Majors in ICT and Digital Media, which include co-op work placements.  The school system and the local Conestoga Community College collaborate on a C$1.5m program, led by a local documentary filmmaker, to develop the Stratford Digital Media Center, which will offer studio, editing and learning facilities to students and local digital media artists. 

Digital media and online resources are also used to attract and motivate the educationally challenged.  An Online Co-Op program, developed by the school district, is a digital media outreach to secondary school dropouts who can complete their diplomas online, using credit for work experience gained.  Reach for Success is an adult education program for struggling teens and young adults, which provides them with online job search, online co-op and self-study courses in a classroom environment. 

As the county seat, Stratford is also the center of a regional healthcare system.  Stratford General Hospital owns its own 1 Gbps fiber loop connecting with other hospitals and providing 100 Mb connections to desktops.  This is the core of an extended network riding on Rhyzome that connects with 80% of the physicians groups and family doctors in greater Stratford. 

Connectivity is having a major impact on quality and cost of care.  Participating physicians share access to their patients’ electronic health records, online tools, administration and after-hour clinics.  The Inter-Hospital Laboratory Partnership, based at Stratford General, conducts 700,00 tests for patients in surrounding counties.  Physically linked by twice-daily courier, lab results are turned around in hours and, for connected facilities, are available instantly.  The interpretation of medical images is likewise centralized, so that four radiologists at Stratford General can serve the entire region – with another radiologist in Austria available for off-hours service. A planned extension of the medical network onto the Rhyzome wireless system will allow secure mobile access to electronic medical records anywhere in the coverage area. 

The hospital has also made major investments in the Canadian Surgical Technologies & Advanced Robotics (CSTAR) system.  Very high capacity broadband connects its operating rooms with the London Health Sciences Center (LHSC), a medical research center located an hour away that is a global leader in robotic surgery.  Surgeons at LHSC have performed robot-assisted surgery in Stratford using CSTAR, as well as being available for video consultation right in the operating room.  Innovations like these, and Stratford’s high quality of life, make it easy for Stratford General to recruit the talent it needs to keep healthcare strong. 

Stratford’s leaders are holding their collective breath as they await the outcome of the big bets placed on the community’s future.  But having navigated so many industrial transformations over the past century, the community seems well-positioned to create a Stratford 3.0 for the new age.


2011 Top Seven Conversation Video

Smart21 Community 2010, 2011


Labor Force

Top Industries
Live theater, healthcare, manufacturing, information technology.

Broadband Penetration
+90% households, 100% businesses, 100% government, 100% educational & nonprofit

Degrees Awarded Last Year
Community college 9,165; undergrade 13,564; graduate 3,663

Key Leaders
Mayor Dan Mathieson

John Wilkinson, Member of the Provincial Parliament

Dr. Doug MacGougald, Director of Veterinary Medicine, MacGougald & Jones

Tom Parisi, President, Stratford Summer Music Festival

In the News

Intelligent Connectivity in the City of Stratford, Public Sector Digest, August 2011.

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