The Western Valley of Nova Scotia, Canada is a rural region of some 5600 km2 facing the challenges common to rural areas in the industrialized world: declining population (20,825 in 1998), job losses in its primary industries, low average educational achievement (49% without a high school diploma in 1996) and a high unemployment rate (13% in 1998). Yet when polled in the late 1990s, residents had strong positive feelings about their community and believed that it would become a substantially better place to live and work over the next five years. The Western Valley Development Authority (WVDA), an economic development partnership of seven local municipalities plus provincial and federal governments, believed that this attitude was a resource not to be wasted. In February 2001, WVDA became one of 12 municipalities and regions awarded a Smart Community grant by Industry Canada to conduct three-year demonstration projects, as part of a national strategy to ensure Canada’s leadership in information technology and innovation.
Planting the Seeds for Change
Over the course of three years, WVDA and its local communities introduced innovations in nearly every critical area for the Intelligent Community. Plans were made to install fiber-optic infrastructure to meet the Valley’s connectivity needs. With a small, dispersed population, the Valley had little hope of attracting private-sector telcos to deploy a network. Nonetheless, with the support of cable TV, power and technology companies, an initial 44-kilometer network was deployed. Other projects focused on Web-enabling public information and services. County library catalogs were put online, creating a new local software company in the process. Nova Scotia is home to Canada’s unique Acadian population — descendents of French colonists who settled there in the 1600s — and the Centre Acadian launched an online genealogy project documenting family histories, which is already playing a role in attracting more tourists to such festivals as the Congrès Mondial Acadien. The Nova Scotia Community College introduced new information technology courses, and a geographical information system called CLICK put 50 years of infrastructure data online, making it possible for workers to use GPS-linked laptops to precisely located underground water, power and sewer systems. Internet kiosks were deployed to 14 sites in the region and have been transitioned to a private-sector company that is adding commercial content in order to sustain the project. Two IT business incubation centers were created that have facilitated the opening of eight IT businesses, and outreach efforts offered training and promotion of Internet and PC literacy for local businesses, community groups and individuals. In all, the demonstration project created over 50 jobs in new industries and produced over C$4 million worth of in-kind contributions from governments and private-sector partners. In a traditional rural economy, WVDA has planted the seeds for major change in how local cultures and economies interconnect with the rest of Canada and the world, to their mutual benefit.