The Regional Municipality of Durham, known informally as the Durham Region, was founded in 1974 to provide shared public safety and other services to eight cities, townships and municipalities, ranging from cities to farmland. Agriculture is the Region’s biggest economic sector, but it is also home to an automotive plant, a film production industry, a high-tech multi-climate testing facility for products from automobiles to clothing, and the nuclear generating stations of Ontario Power, which supply 40% of the province’s energy.
Bringing Broadband to the Underserved
The rural populations of Durham, like most such areas, are generally underserved by ISPs that struggle to make an investment case for network growth. Basic internet access is available to 98% of businesses and residences, and good broadband service reaches cities, suburbs and the affluent shoreline communities of Lake Ontario. But an estimated 21% of households and more than 1,000 businesses remained underserved.
Learning from peer communities, the Region developed a plan to build a 750-km middle-mile fiber-optic network along rights of way controlled by the Region or one of its communities. Investment in a middle-mile network can substantially reduce the cost and risk to ISPs of bringing high-speed broadband to new markets. They lease capacity at attractive rates from the middle-mile provider and extend from that network to subscribers at a fraction of the cost of a complete build-out. The middle-mile, if properly planned, can also provide capacity directly to Regional and municipal facilities, universities, schools and hospitals (MUSH).
In 2020, the Region began to put the plan into practice. It held extensive meetings with all municipalities and townships to develop collaboration on managing rights of way and permitting. They led to a successful effort to create a local and regional online process that slashed turnaround time for network construction permits, which reduced risk for private-sector investors.
The Region also established a government-owned company called Durham OneNet, which developed the processes and contractor relationships to do design, construction and operation – and most importantly, to move at the speed of business. Durham OneNet completed the first 36km leg of the network in a rural area, finishing on budget and ahead of schedule. That led to deployment of high-speed service by 12 wireless ISPs to four rural communities and leasing of fiber to a mix of MUSH facilities. This was followed by the successful application for provincial and Federal funding to cover the next 250 km expansion of the middle mile network.
Building a New Economy
Agriculture may dominate the economy, but it is challenged by the reluctance of the next generation to stay on the farm. Based on the Growing Agri-Food Durham Plan 2023-2027, the Region works with the 2-year Durham College and 4-year Ontario Tech University to alert young people through videos, websites and classroom presentations to modern agriculture’s demand for marketable skills in finance, nutrition, technology and agronomy. Augmenting this core program is a precision agriculture career day and pathway programs that guide high school students to higher education in agriculture, as well as a popular training program for farmers in diversifying their businesses.
These two schools are at the heart of the Region’s efforts to create a knowledge-based, innovation ecosystem. The FastStart program at Durham College offers local businesses the opportunity to bring their challenges to the college to be addressed by a team of students led by an instructor. Brilliant Catalyst, an incubator at Ontario Tech, runs hackathons to attract students locally and across Canada, then guides them in developing, validating and commercializing business ideas. Ontario Tech also hosted Project Arrow, a 2022 collaboration among Canadian’ automotive manufacturers to build a complete, zero-emission concept car to jumpstart the nation’s capabilities in this future growth market.
Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is another contributor to regional innovation. It is developing a standardized design for an inherently safe, small modular reactor that can receive safety certification to speed installation wherever new generation is needed. OPG also developed a world-class training center to create the workforce it needs for a major refurbishment of its oldest reactor complex. OPG has founded the Canadian Center for Nuclear Sustainability (CCNS) as an innovation hub focused on sustainable decommissioning, waste stewardship and site repurposing of nuclear plants at end of life. At the end of 2023, OPG announced that it would move its headquarters from Toronto into Durham, bringing a meaningful percentage of its 10,000 employees there.
With a mix of purpose-built “back lots” and historic buildings, Durham Region is a prominent location for film and TV production. Over the past 10 years, film and TV production has grown by 260% in the Region, driven by easy access from Toronto, where Canada’s media industry is concentrated. To keep the industry growing, the Region works with unions to attract talent through a series of career days, each focused on different careers from skilled trades to production, cinematography, lighting, costumes and make-up.
Bringing Opportunity to More People
The Canada Learning Bond provides low-income families with financial assistance to access post-secondary education for their children. But the application process is so complicated that only 40% of eligible children were receiving the bond. The Region formed a partnership with multiple levels of government, school boards, businesses and charities to host sign up events and offer eligible families everything they needed to get the bond. It resulted 500 new children receiving the Bond in the first year.
In the city of Oshawa, its Senior Citizens Centres created a digital inclusion program in 2017. The Centres provide low-cost beginner computer and technology classes, making use of free internet available in all such facilities. Training programs focus on basic digital literacy, including the Brain Gym program, which uses iPads to assist seniors with dementia. More than 3,000 seniors have participated in the program since its founding.
Engaging the Community in Making Government Better
In 2019, the Durham Region launched the myDurham 311 project to improve the customer experience for residents seeking government services and community information. The project consolidates all call centers into one and provides contact channels via online, phone, chat or other options. As a regional program, myDurham 311 faced the challenge of coordinating with all the local area municipalities in the Region. Over 60 publicly listed phone numbers were amalgamated into one 311 number with the help of 23 different service providers.
While 311 services are commonplace, Durham’s development process was not. The Region consulted 400 residents from diverse backgrounds on what the project should deliver. This input led to a design for myDurham 311 that uses the latest technology to provide multiple, easy-to-use paths to the right information or service. It is based on a centralized customer management database that automatically creates work orders and service requests in municipal and regional systems, as well as powering an intuitive user portal where customers can track their engagement with the Region, check bills and learn transaction status. A follow-on partnership with a Federal innovation center and local company added access by Google Home and Amazon Echo.
Cleaner, Smarter Energy
In response to the growing impacts of climate change, the Regional Council declared a climate emergency in 2018 and began development of the Durham Community Energy Plan (DCEP). The plan seeks to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy in the region while providing additional economic and social benefits. The DCEP outlines a path to electrifying transportation and retrofitting building stock to address Durham’s largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, with work beginning on the first community-scale projects in 2020. On the residential side, the Durham Home Energy Savings Program stimulates homeowner demand for energy-efficiency home renovations. The program aims to eventually retrofit most of the Region’s 200,000+ existing single-family homes by 2050, providing 40-50% energy savings per home.
The Durham Region began working with ICF in 2020 and has steadily applied the lessons its leaders have learned. An informal gathering of advisors has become a formal steering committee for transformation. ICF’s Community Accelerator strategy has been adopted as its economic and community development framework. And through Community Assessments and participation in the Awards program, the Region has learned how to leverage its public, private and nonprofit resources to create the innovative, inclusive economy taking shape across the municipalities and townships it serves.
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Photo by Chris Harte