Few communities can boast of having a globally recognized scenic wonder on their border. The city of Niagara Falls can. The Niagara River divides Canada and the US and, at the Falls, more than 168,000 cubic meters (6 million cubic feet) of it plunge 60 meters (190 ft) down into the Lower Niagara.
Such a massive source of hydroelectric power attracted electro-chemical and electro-metallurgical industries in the first half of the 20th Century. But the rise of global competition in the Seventies and Eighties eroded their competitiveness, and tourism became the city’s most important business. The Canadian side of the Falls offers superb views, but promoting tourism was not left to nature. The province of Ontario has a legal drinking age of 19 compared to 21 in the US, which tends to draw young consumers across the border. The province also legalized gambling in the mid-1990s, and by 2004, Niagara Falls boasted two major casinos and numerous luxury hotels.
Building the Foundation
Even with a spectacular waterfall thundering nearby, tourism can be a slender threat on which to hang a community’s economy. The leadership of Niagara Falls has committed itself to laying the foundation of an economy that can prosper in the digital age, create high-quality employment, and equip its people with the skills to make the most of it.
When it became clear that communications carriers would not invest significantly in the region, the city helped found the Niagara Regional Broadband Network (NRBN) in 2004. Its original goal was to meet the high-speed connectivity needs of municipalities, universities, schools and hospitals in the region. Once the network was operational, it expanded service to business customers. Today, it consists of 700 km of optical fiber with eight points of presence serving 680 sites in the region. NRBN also leases telecom carrier hotel facilities in Toronto and Buffalo to provide high-quality global connections. It has proved instrumental in retaining employers by allowing them to optimize operations.
If technology is one foundation, people are another. Niagara Falls currently has the educational demographics typical of a tourist destination. Fourteen percent of the population has an undergraduate degree or higher, while 42% have a community college certificate or “some college” in their background. The city is investing at the ground floor in the long process of changing those demographics.
Multiple programs focus on teaching elementary and high school teachers how to use technology and incorporate it into their work. The Blended Learning Institute trains math and science teachers to effectively combine digital and online content with traditional teacher-led instruction. A computer science track teaches them programming and web design, as well as how to make these topics accessible to all learners. This is complemented by a provincial program called IT4Learning, where online content connects with in-class teaching and gives students more control over the pace at which they learn. Participating students can access coursework anytime, anywhere, and teachers can interact with students and fellow teachers in a secure online environment. The highest expression of this educational innovation is Teach One, a program that provides mastery-based learning. Students are assigned groups based on skill level and learning style rather than age. They participate in skill-building activities alone, in groups and with teachers. They are assessed daily to determine their mastery, and this assessment guides the next day’s lessons. Teach One equips teachers with unprecedented real-time data on how their students are doing, and ensures that students master one foundational principle or skill before moving to the next.
Behind much of this innovation is a government-university project called ihub Niagara. It is an incubator with portfolio companies that focus on educational technology for kindergarten through university. Like any incubator, it provides technical assistance and professional services to help start-ups develop products and services and bring their first customers on board. It is distinct in its partnership with the city’s schools and nearby community college and university. It hosts quarterly Dragon’s Den-style events that bring together educators and edtech startups to review emerging tech solutions against real challenges in school communities. It provides a safe space for educators to critically evaluate new products and offer early-stage feedback that helps develop better products to serve their needs.
Enriching the Ecosystem
The ihub Niagara incubator is only one part of an emerging innovation ecosystem in a 12-muncipality region. It includes a business development district in Niagara Falls, the Spark Niagara Accelerator, the nonprofit Innovate Niagara, the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Center at Niagara College and the Biolinc incubator at Brook University focusing in biotechnology. This set of partnerships is overseen by the Niagara CIO Consortium, which unites the technology leadership of the city, a regional chamber of commerce, the school board and participating colleges and universities.
The drive to prosper in the digital economy focuses not only on the future. To address lack of digital skills in today’s population, the library system offers computer access and technology training programs, and is building a makerspace. This is part of a broader Digital Inclusion Framework that has served more than 12,000 participants ages 12 to 65 and offered 7,500 hours of training to end-users and another 3,800 to the volunteers who provide the training. Volunteerism is central to the program: 99% of the people who staff it are volunteers working with such charities as the Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club and United Way. The digital training they provide has immediate relevance to its recipients, because it focuses on health and wellness, education, employment and engagement in the community.
Beyond the Falls
In 2012, the city launched the Connect Conference as showcase for its educational technology cluster and a driver of continued innovation. Every year, it attracts 2,000 education leaders, CIOs, directors of education, IT experts, business managers and government officials, and its program covers the complete educational cycle from kindergarten to higher education, libraries and workplace learning.
The roaring Falls will never stop being a vital contributor to the economy and culture of the city on its Canadian side. Niagara Falls aspires, however, to be much more than a place to gamble, party and admire the view. It is on the path to becoming a place where digital technology drives innovation, creates new jobs and new industries, and providing a rewarding quality of life for coming generations.
Photo from Flickr Creative Commons, Kai Lehmann Niagara Falls, commercial use allowed