Nelson has been named one of the most intelligent cities in the world.
Last week the Intelligent Community Forum announced an international 21-city shortlist that aims to recognize digital innovation, and Nelson is the smallest one included. It joins Edmonton, Melbourne and Moscow as the cities they judge to be best poised to take advantage of the burgeoning digital economy.
“What impresses me most about being a part of this, linking up with this greater world vision, is that the whole intention is to share with each other and learn with each other,” Mayor Deb Kozak told the Star, following the announcement in Niagara Falls on Oct. 19.
“It’s not just about attracting tech workers — that’s part of it, and we’re poised beautifully for that — it’s things like the Civic Theatre wanting to use broadband to stream shows from the Met, it’s about lifting the knowledge base of our entire community.”
The 21 cities named in the announcement will now go forward to the next competition, in February 2017, in which the ICF will select the Top 7 cities in the world. The final winner will be announced in June.
Kozak first became aware of the Intelligent Community Forum in 2013, when Community Futures executive director Andrea Wilkey encouraged her to attend a conference in New York. That led to the Nelson and Area Economic Development Partnership making a goal of being named an Intelligent Community by 2018, a goal they’ve now reached two years early.
“This puts us on the map,” Wilkey told the Star. “What this means is Nelson is doing the right things to be successful in the digital economy. We’ve brought in broadband infrastructure and in today’s age, having high speed internet is just as important as electricity or water.”
And there are plenty of people in town capitalizing on it.
“If you look at the Facebook group Nelson Tech and Knowledge Workers, there are over 250 people on there using the Internet and technology to work together. We have systems in place to help people find work and collaborate, as well as programs and services to help entrepreneurs.”
She also believes the Kootenay Association of Science and Technology (KAST), which has a mandate to help commercialize science and technology businesses, has buoyed their efforts.
And there are plenty of stories about how these technological efforts can have idiosyncratic benefits. During the ICF conference she was at, Kozak heard stories that inspired her.
“One of the most inspiring stories I heard was there was a Canadian fishing village that had bait bags they crocheted out of netting for fishermen. Then some designer from New York saw them online and ordered them for purses.”
The takeaway for Kozak?
“You never quite know what’s going to connect or how. We’ve been discovered in a lot of ways, but as we work on our infrastructure I think we’ll continue to see things develop in ways we can’t even imagine.”
So far the city has Selkirk College, School District 8 and the Kootenay Lake Hospital connected to their broadband network. She’s excited to see the ways different businesses and institutions in town will take advantage of it.
Wilkey thinks we’re punching above our weight.
“I’m pleasantly surprised. On the world stage we’re on the list with communities from Australia, Taiwan, Russia. Even though we’re competing against much larger cities, by getting ourselves on the map we’re going to attract tech and knowledge workers, and maybe even new businesses.”
She would love to see a satellite office for Electronic Arts in town, for instance, and pointed to businesses like Thoughtexchange and Retreat Guru that are already operating locally.
“We’re also looking at people who grew up in Nelson and had to move away. We want to bring those businesses back to the Kootenays, if possible,” said Wilkey.
And though the digital world can feel daunting, Kozak thinks residents of all ages will benefit. Programs like Cyber Seniors, which is run by the Columbia Basin Association for Literacy, teaches people everything from how to share recipes online to how to connect with their grandkids.
“This initiative benefits everyone, from kids taking advantage of education opportunities to seniors learning new ways to communicate with their families.”
And local businesses are getting on board.
“There was a fear storefronts would disappear with online shopping, but downtown we have people who still want to have that physical location but are really taking advantage of the digital world. Cartolina, Mountain Baby, these places have great online presences and are thinking outside the box.”
Kozak wants to see more of that.
“It’s about enhancing what you have and showing it off to the world.”