In early April, Robert Bell was snooping around Surrey. The New Yorker was looking to see what makes Western Canada’s fastest-growing city tick on many levels, from technology and workforce development to innovation and access to digital communications. He toured multiple sites and institutions around the city, eager to see where this city is going.
Bell’s visit was noteworthy because he is the co-founder and executive director of the Intelligent Community Forum, a United States-based non-profit think-tank that has pegged Surrey as one of seven finalists in its quest to find the Intelligent Community of the Year. The award is given to the city best using broadband deployment in various sectors and is chosen out of 300 submissions across the world. Bell said Surrey has an “electric feel” to it even though it’s been “living in the shadow of Vancouver” – though he wouldn’t give any hints as to whether Surrey will emerge at the top when the winner is announced in June.
“Surrey is a community in transition in a really tremendous way,” added Bell. “And you see it in the juxtaposition of things like a pawnshop right beside a high-end luxury condominium. So there’s definitely a lot of visible change going on.”
On April 22, Surrey will host its first Evolution of Communities Forum. Spearheaded by the city, the one-day event is a partnership among a number of organizations including IBM (NYSE:IBM), Simon Fraser University and FortisBC. The forum tackles such technologically focused subjects as “Increasing Public Safety in the Digital Age” and “Intelligence Driven Smart Infrastructure.” One of the forum’s moderators is Bill Tam, president and chief executive officer of the BC Technology Industry Association. Tam is former employee of such companies as MetroNet, AT&T Canada, Rogers Communications (TSX:RCI.B) and Bell Canada (TSX:BCE). He said the idea is to make Surrey a hub like Silicon Valley in California or Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“At the core of it is this intersection between the municipality and all the stakeholders that provide the services to the citizens of the community,” Tam said. “And how their service model and delivery model intersects with the needs and the growth of the community as a whole.”
Tam said no other Lower Mainland city is embracing entrepreneurism the way Surrey is. New businesses in the city rose 27% in 2014 compared with 2013, the largest increase in more than a decade. In 2013, Surrey’s population passed the half-million mark and is set to outgrow Vancouver in as little as a decade. With this unparalleled increase in residents, Tam said things have to be done differently to keep up with the times.
“You can’t do things in a city that’s growing that fast in a traditional way. You’ve got to think about stuff differently, and that includes the methods by which we do permitting or development projects, or community enablement even at the borough or the neighbourhood level.”
Having left to visit other finalist cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and New Taipei City, Taiwan, Bell said what he’s looking for when it comes to picking a winner for the prestigious title of Intelligent Community of the Year is a city that almost thinks for itself.
“We have this phrase we’re using a lot lately of digital intelligence,” Bell said. “And economically speaking everything we work with now, from our smartphone to the water meters that measure water levels, have intelligent characteristics. And of course [with] the rise of the knowledge-based workforce, we’re using our heads instead of our hands a lot more, and that goes right from the research lab to the checkout counter.”