Your town is a one-industry town and your industry goes belly up. What do you do?
That was the situation faced by the City of Windsor and the County of Essex when both General Motors and Chrysler were forced into bankruptcy in 2009 as part of a rescue effort by the United States government. For decades, the region had enjoyed the benefits of a symbiotic relationship with Detroit, America's Motor City. The automotive industry very nearly was the economy of Windsor-Essex. When the financial crisis struck, the impact was immediate and shocking. Over 7,000 jobs vanished as the percentage of the workforce employed in manufacturing fell from 30% to 20%.Windsor-Essex climbed to the top of a chart where no community wants to be: in 2009, it had Canada's highest unemployment rate at nearly 15%.
People respond to a crisis in different ways. Some freeze, some despair. Others rally. The people of Windsor and Essex discovered themselves to be the rallying kind.
With the crisis upon them, they realized that, over the years of relatively stability, they had developed bad habits. Windsor and the seven much smaller municipalities in the county operated in their own small silos, as did the county's major employers. Institutions of higher education were of fine quality but punched far below their weight in the region's economy. The Detroit River separating Windsor from its US counterpart might well have been an ocean for all of the effort the two governments made to cooperate.
In a remarkably short time, all that went out the window. Collaboration among government, business and academia – and across the international border – was transformed from empty words into concerted action. From a one-industry economy, Windsor-Essex soon developed more moving parts than can easily be accounted for.
Ivory Tower No More
The University of Windsor is responsible for a considerable number of those moving parts. Serving nearly 16,000 students, the University has long conducted research for auto manufacturers and hosted a multi-school R&D program called Auto21. But under President Alan Wildeman, appointed in 2008, UWindsor has sharply raised its game as a generator of economic value.
An Institute for Diagnostic Imaging Research (IDIR) does pioneering work in the uses of ultrasound for testing. The Institute has developed a way to use ultrasound for fingerprint recognition that detects tissue patterns beneath the skin as well as the conventional fingertip whorls. It is now ready for commercial development and the University, which allows inventors to retain the rights to intellectual property they create, is helping to find the right commercial partners. In another lab, scientists have solved the problem of testing spot-welds made between two pieces of flat metal. Because the welds themselves are hidden by the metal, they have traditionally been tested by pulling a random sample off the assembly line and tearing them apart. The new system is already on the line at a Chrysler assembly plant in Windsor and has given a significant boost to quality and productivity.
The university is now in the midst of the largest capital expansion in its history. The centerpiece is a C$112 million Center for Engineering Innovation. In addition to labs and classrooms, it provides collocation facilities where companies can install industrial equipment and trouble-shoot problems and pioneer new techniques. It will house the Windsor-Essex Economic Development Corporation and the university's Center for Smart Community Innovation, a group that has played an essential role in coordinating Intelligent Community initiatives among 54 participating organizations. President Wildeman envisions the new building as an innovation destination in eastern Canada for academia and industry.
UWindsor is not the only academic institution seeking to build a stronger future. St. Clair College is a 2-year institution that serves over 7,000 students in Windsor. Among its recent innovations is the MediaPlex. Opening in 2010, the building is one of only three places in the world that teach "convergence journalism." Graduates of the MediaPlex program learn not just conventional journalism but also how to record, edit and produce finished TV and radio news, write blogs and use social media for reporting. Despite the shrinking job market for journalists, students with this "backpack journalism" training find themselves in high demand. Overall, 82% of St. Clair graduates find employment within six months.
Advances in engineering, medicine, media and communications require a robust broadband foundation. To supplement commercial networks, the Center for Smart Community Innovation's WEDnet program coordinated a network build beginning in 1996 funded by its public-sector participants. The fiber network, built and operated under contract by Cogeco Cable, delivers 1 Gbps-capable links to 200 sites including schools, libraries and government buildings throughout Essex. A second project, the Broadband Rural Community Connector, was launched in 2009 to create an optical backbone for the county's rural areas. Funded by Cogeco, the County and the Province, it has connected over 8,000 underserved residences to date and aims to pass 96% of Essex households.
The industrial legacy of Windsor-Essex had created a population in which 22% of adults had failed to graduate from secondary school and another 30% had only a high school diploma. Schools and local volunteers have stepped forward to change that dynamic. Local school boards throughout the county cooperate in annual programs designed to teach online skills St. Clair College offers a program to secondary school students called Career Innovation Program that uses hands-on multimedia to explore careers in technologies and trades – simultaneously recruiting future students while serving the community.
Computers for Kids is a volunteer-led program founded in 2004, which refurbishes computers and donates them to low-income families. The program has donated more than 1,000 computers and opened over 40 computer labs throughout Windsor-Essex. It has also recycled over 2 million pounds (900,700 kg) of e-waste that would otherwise have wound up in landfills.
Leadership in Government and Business
If the educational institutions of Windsor-Essex have provided the "brains" for transformation, the elected leadership has provided the will. The region's leading political official is Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis, who was elected to office in 2003 on a promise to revitalize the city. His administration has overseen the expansion of St. Clair College, the opening of the Caesars Windsor convention center, hotel and casino, and the creation of a Windsor International Transit Terminal. In the process, Mayor Francis managed to slash the city's long term debt by 27% while keeping city taxes low.
He has not worked alone. He is one of eight Mayors in a county-wide Council led by Tom Bain, Mayor of the community of Lakeshore. Close cooperation among the Mayors has led to shared service contracts that reduce costs. It also helps individual projects to achieve multiple goals benefiting the county as a whole.
Despite the blows it has absorbed, the auto industry remains important. Ford has chosen to centralize worldwide engine research in Windsor to take advantage of its concentration of talent, and the Windsor's Chrysler assembly plant remains the company's largest. Tool, die and precision manufacturing companies continue to serve these giants but have also diversified into fields as diverse as aerospace and dentistry.
Quantum Technologies is a private company that has adapted CAD/CAM technology from the automotive sector to revolutionize the way dental implants are manufactured. Traditionally, crowns, bridges and other implants are hand-crafted and colored by skilled technicians. Quantum Technologies equips dentists with handheld scanners and software, which produce data for the company's digital design and manufacturing systems. The resulting product is a better fit, a better color match and can be produced in a small fraction of the time required for manual work. The company now ships thousands of implants per week from Windsor.
Windsor-Essex is also home to start-ups that focus on the weightless cargo of information. For an international roster of clients, Red Piston builds apps that run on the iPhone, iPod and iPad. The firm's apps were downloaded more than 275,000 times in 2010, its start-up year. 52 Stairs Studio has produced Web applications including Scribble Maps, which is used on large news Web sites, and the Fox-X game, which has received over a million plays.
Innovation Under Glass
Perhaps no company better represents the sheer ingenuity at work in Windsor-Essex than Nature Fresh Farms. Founded in 2000 by Peter Quiring, the company now operates 67 acres (217,000 km2) of glass greenhouses that produce over 7 million kilograms (2.2m pounds) each of bell peppers and tomatoes, which are sold throughout North America.
Agriculture contributes 14% of the region's GDP, but Nature Fresh is no traditional farm. Every aspect of production is monitored and managed. In thousands of rows, vines grow vertically on ropes. Water with a precisely controlled mix of nutrients is fed to each plant, and a daily sample of the run-off is conducted to determine the right nutrient mix for the following day. Workers use data cards to swipe in to their shift and to the individual rows they are responsible for. This system supports their compensation – they are paid based on acceptable produce shipped, with wages well above the averages for the industry. It also enhances food security. If any contamination incident should occur, NatureFresh could track it to the greenhouse, row and employee.
The nonprofit healthcare sector of Windsor-Essex has been equally quick to seize the benefits of ICT. Windsor's public hospitals share electronic medical record systems that connect wirelessly to diagnostic equipment, so that patient readings are automatically captured and images are instantly available to caregivers. When EMS crews wheel a new patient into the emergency room, portable monitors begin downloading the readings taken during the ride even before a triage nurse can speak to the patient. Such efficiency extends across the international border. Detroit's hospitals have extensive acute care facilities unavailable in Windsor. When Windsor's facilities are full, a process called Table-to-Table can move a patient from the emergency room in Windsor to an emergency room in Detroit, including immigration clearance, in 10 minutes.
Green Shield Canada is a not-for-profit insurer whose business model depends on its ability to do more with information than its competitors. The company administers drug and dental benefits for over 1.4 million participants. Barred by statute from negotiating down the prices it pays for drugs, the company's competitive advantage is efficiency. It operates a point-of-sale network that provides automatic claims processing for pharmacists nationwide. It mines data to create value-added programs for employers. One example is a narcotics management program that tracks prescriptions to guard against the same patient ordering from multiple pharmacies, flags physicians if patients are not filling prescriptions and evaluates the prescribing habits of physicians compared with guidelines.
Windsor-Essex is second to none among Intelligent Communities in advocating for its vision inside the county and marketing it outside. Political leaders stay "on message" in speaking about issues and projects. In a campaign coordinated by the Center for Smart Community Innovation, Web sites, billboards, online videos, newspaper articles and local news features all convey a unified message of local transformation. A recent engaging advertisement noted the resemblance between a map of the county and the human brain viewed from the side. It asked the question, "Coincidence?"
Improving the Border
On a trip to Germany, Windsor Mayor Francis met an entrepreneur who has made Frankfurt Airport the European Union's security clearance point for cargo. Every bit of cargo entering the Union is processed through his immense facility to ensure its safety. The Mayor left Frankfurt determined to bring this concept to Windsor-Essex, which is the busiest crossing point on the Canada-US border.
At the Mayor's urging, the City Council commissioned a report that recommended creation of a new intermodal transportation system and additional international bridge crossing, which are now being constructed at a projected cost of C$1.2 billion. Mayor Francis has spent the time since in consultation with the Canadian and Provincial governments as well as US Federal agencies about creating a central security clearance facility at Windsor's existing airport. Canada is in favour and the US agencies see the project as a means to help meet a Congressional mandate to inspect 100% of cargo entering the US. Lufthansa has already been engaged as a systems integrator to adapt its implementation in Frankfurt. If the plan goes through, the impact on the economy of Windsor-Essex should be vast.
Meanwhile, the community has rallied again to deal with an unintended consequence of progress. The new border crossing and highway system require the demolition of more than 1,000 homes and businesses. Rather than seeing the debris go to landfills, a project called W.E. Pay It Forward has organized a vast salvage operation entirely online. The Province agreed to support 30 temporary jobs to assist with deconstruction of the buildings. Community groups, local businesses and individuals have contributed their time and effort. Within a week of the project start, the local Habitat for Humanity facility was filled to overflowing with recovered building material as well as plumbing, heating and electrical supplies. They go to the facilities of local charities in need of renovation or expansion.
That mix of ambition and compassion is typical of this community, which has seen hard times but is determined not to repeat them. It is still early in the transformation of Windsor-Essex. Goals set and programs established two years ago will take many more years to come to fruition. But rarely has a community made a faster turnaround in its vision or more quickly assembled the building blocks of future prosperity.
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Windsor-Essex was featured in the Intelligent Community Forum book Seizing Our Destiny.
Population: 216,500 (city of Windsor), 393,400 (county of Essex)
Labor Force: 108,200 (city of Windsor), 203,700 (county of Essex)
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