York is a very unusual city. It is actually an amalgamation of nine cities, towns and townships that began in 1970, as well as a reserve where the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation reside. It covers more than 1,760 square kilometers (680 square miles) from the northern border of Canada’s biggest city, Toronto, to rural land on the shores of Lake Simcoe, in what the Canadians like to call “cottage country.” It is about as diverse – geographically, economically, socially and politically – as a community can rightly be.
Diversity has strengths. The municipality is the nation’s third largest business hub, home to 600,000 jobs and 51,000 businesses. Most are concentrated in the affluent southern cities of Markham, Newmarket, Vaughan and the town of Richmond Hill, which also serve as bedroom communities for Toronto. Companies with facilities there include IBM, Lucent, Honeywell, Apple, Genesis Microchip, Compugen, Compuware, Lexmark and Rogers Communications. The farther north you go, however, the more that technology gives way to historic downtowns, farmlands, wetlands and forest. A road network laid out in the 1790s connect north and south, east and west, and an effective transit system, including bus rapid transit, helps unite the municipality into a whole.
Geographic size and diversity also brings challenges. The southern cities and towns are well-served by private-sector broadband carriers but as in any other urban-rural community, less-populated areas are not. To overcome the digital divide, York launched a regional broadband strategy in 2013 to identify connectivity strengths, gaps and opportunities. A Broadband Strategy Advisory Task Force oversees its execution, which includes a C$6 million commitment in support of an C$18.5 million proposal to the Federal Connect to Innovate program to extend the region’s current dark fiber network into rural communities. York has founded a corporation to oversee the extension of that network, which provides open access to municipalities, universities, schools and hospitals, as well as private-sector carriers. Among its prouder achievements was the 2014 installation of a point-of-presence on the dark fiber network for ORION, the Ontario Research & Innovation Optical Network. ORION is a high-speed fiber network dedicated to research and education, which connects more than 2 million users including advanced computing centers across the province. The ORION connection gives York’s city governments, schools, local incubators and healthcare facilities access to the same connectivity and computing assets as the most advanced R&D institutions in Ontario.
Leveraging the existing strengths of the region, York has partnered with the province and the City of Newmarket to develop NewMakeIt, a digital innovation hub and makerspace for members of the local community. It provides entrepreneurs and creative professionals with co-working space, high-speed broadband, tools and technologies to turn ideas into commercial products and services. In its first two years of operation, NewMakeIt gave birth to 12 new businesses and helped 17 existing ones expand their operations, with an estimated economic impact of C$3.9 million. But it is not just about business starts. NewMakeIt also offers a Repair Café, where the public can learn how to fix household items, robotics enthusiasts gather to build, and workshops train member in everything from woodworking to 3D printing.
Diversity can also mean inequality of opportunity. The municipality has launched digital equality programs in partnership with its many cities and towns. They include free Wi-Fi access at administrative facilities, libraries, transit terminals, recreational centers, hospitals and long-term care facilities. Libraries in rural communities offer the ability to check out high-speed wireless modems with a library card, and in-person and online skills training from basic computer skills to continuing adult education.
York is also investing in modernizing its transportation network to better serve residents in both rural and urban areas. Mobile transit payment solutions are reducing waste and speeding processing. Expanded video monitoring along roadways and improved control of signal systems are easing congestion and delays. The C$20 million initiative uses Bluetooth device tracking and a data sharing partnership with Waze to develop a rich and real-time portrait in data of transportation patterns, so that the municipality can develop solutions that serve the entire region.
A regional municipality is an unusual thing. It enables its individual cities, towns, townships and reserves to each do much more than they could alone, and to pursue collective solutions to individual problems. It also challenges them to see past their traditional boundaries – to realize that the success of one community in winning inward investment or new jobs is not a loss for its neighbors but a multiplier that makes them all more successful. While leaving local governance to its cities and towns, the Regional Municipality is coordinating and attracting investment in the technology foundations of balanced, inclusive growth for the greater community.