Finding Municipal Partners for Emerging Tech: Stratford, Ontario, Ready to Experiment

By David Hicks

David Hicks is a consultant for investStratford, the City of Stratford’s economic development corporation mandated to advance the economic future of Stratford through excellence, creativity and collaborative leadership.

Jun 12, 2018 | Governance, Technology | 1 comment

When it’s time to prove out CAV and IoT technologies, devices and platforms for autonomous vehicles, wireless networks and intelligent traffic systems, how do you partner with a city? Whose infrastructure, city streets and citizenry are ready and willing to accommodate? What are the best partnership models to collaborate?

In short, what does a good municipal partner look like? Sometimes it can be a small or medium-sized city that it is nimble enough and ready to experiment.

Stratford, Ontario, is one such city.

Stratford is a small rural city with a population of 32,000. Both a cultural centre and tech anomaly, it is ringed with prime farmland and attracts over a million tourists annually, many to attend its world renowned Stratford Festival, North America’s largest repertory theatre. A global award-winning smart city and “Pork Capital of Canada”, Stratford is a New York Times top tourism destination, CAV development centre, international banking IT centre and most recently, home to the University of Waterloo’s new Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business.

A heady mix packed into 10 square miles.

Just half an hour across rolling corn fields and dairy pastures from tech giant Waterloo, Ontario, Stratford has worked hard to attract new digital opportunities. “We have positioned ourselves as a ‘living lab’ for digital technologies to be proven out and scaled up in real living conditions,” says Stratford’s Mayor Dan Mathieson.

“We are buffered from urban sprawl and bureaucratic complexities, with a manageable 25 square kilometre footprint, yet close to major technology centres. Plus we have this fully functioning fibre-wireless hybrid mesh network spanning the city.”

 

They built it, and they’re coming

Stratford is taking a broad yet targeted approach to its economic development strategy. Major players like the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association (APMA), Renesas, QNX (Blackberry), Toshiba, Motorola, Hitachi, the University of Waterloo’s WatCAR program and others have already launched live projects in the city. The Government of Ontario designated Stratford as the Province’s official Demonstration Zone for a five-year Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network in partnership with the APMA, its partners and Ontario Centres of Excellence. The city is taking a triple-helix collaborative approach.

After a successful WatCAR pilot project in a vacant parking lot (in the dead of winter, of course) Renesas America built a four-acre CAV test site, the first of its kind in Canada, on the edge of town with a three-year lease, “and we have every intention of extending beyond that,” says John Buszek, Senior Manager, Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. “We’re starting with a 10,000 m2 pad with lanes, signals, mannequins and outbuildings, and we will expand as needed.”

The City’s part was making land, power and connectivity available for the site, which City Hall arranged by lowering red tape as much as possible. “The consistent reaction we get among companies we work with is, ‘Wow, here’s a municipality that gets this, wants this, and will work with us.’” says Mathieson. “We have both the network and the ethos for testing and scaling autonomous vehicle and IoT technologies. So we’re saying to Canadian, US, and Japanese technology companies, ‘Come play in our sandbox.’”

To meet a diverse mix of international leaders, Mathieson is attending the Meeting of the Minds’ Mobility Summit in Ann Arbor this month and hosting a dinner for a select group of CAV and IoT thought leaders.

 

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The Path to 5G

Today’s cutting edge technology is tomorrow’s legacy system. Can a municipal government, let alone a public utility company, maintain a margin of leadership in innovation? Infrastructure ages quickly.

“Actually, we think of this as future-proofing,” says Ysni Semsedini, CEO of both the city-owned electrical utility, Festival Hydro, and its data network utility, Rhyzome Networks. “It’s a long-view commitment, but when you frame this as a business case with a decade-long timeline (instead of quarter-to-quarter), it illustrates the advantages of owning your own infrastructure.

“Our strategy is to stay five years ahead of widespread technology adoption. In this world, you need that kind of lead time for development, testing approvals, etc. Technology companies are looking for those conditions where they can keep their options open and make course corrections.

“So we built our fibre/Wi-Fi mesh network in 2010, we upgraded our IEEE 802.11 hardware last year, we’re piloting DSRC now with a citywide rollout in 2019, and we’re currently in discussions with preferred partners (telecom companies) to develop a 5G mesh network and other trials using our infrastructure.”

And what would a public-private 5G collaboration with a telecom company look like? “Too early to say,” Semsedini replies, “but one possibility would be integrating a telco’s back end data system with our front-end mesh network. The lines can be drawn in different places.”

 

Platform Agnosticism

Given that Wi-Fi can’t keep pace with a moving vehicle, DSRC is still developing and 5G is a way off, how do you commit to a platform?

Maybe you don’t, just yet.

“I foresee autonomous vehicles needing to connect with multiple systems,” says Semsedini. “It’ll never be homogenous, so you’ll have vehicles going from perhaps Wi-Fi to DSRC to 5G, and so on.

“Stratford’s advantage is we already have fibre and mesh network infrastructure in place so we can test 5G’s 300-metre range and higher speeds by dropping 5G hardware into our Wi-Fi housings connected to the fibre. We have those options.”

 

Cross Border Coordination Counts

At a higher level, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed an MOU of mutual support and collaboration to promote the region’s competitiveness and closely linked auto industry that represents a quarter of North America’s vehicle production.

With industry, government and academia converging in a city most known for world-class Shakespeare productions and culinary scene, lessons can be taken from the triple helix partnerships and projects courted and coordinated from the City Council chambers and utility company.

“Stratford is a community with a culture that looks for opportunities, is proactive about infrastructure, invested and willing to evolve with technology and systems,” says Semsedini.

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1 Comment

  1. Brilliant article, David, on an exciting future for Stratford. Please give Mayor Mathieson my regards!

    Cheers

    Barry

    Reply

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