Stratford, a city located in the Canadian state of Ontario, has gained international recognition in recent years thanks to its annual Shakespeare Festival (the city shares its name with Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK, William Shakespeare's birthplace). The festival has dramatically changed the image of the Canadian city, which has acquired a reputation for being a national hub for arts and tourism. 

In operation for 61 years, the festival now directly and indirectly employs 3000 people and adds C$100m ($97.8m) to Stratford’s GDP. But Stratford’s mayor, Dan Mathieson, knows the city of 32,000 people cannot rest on its laurels. “He understands that to change, you need to be very progressive,” says Randy Mattice, Stratford's economic development officer.

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And progressive is what Stratford has become under the mayor's leadership. “I wanted Stratford to be a community of excellence with a worldwide impact,” says Mr Mathieson.

Measure for measure

Over the past 15 years, Mr Mathieson has executed an intense strategy. Stratford's city-owned data utility constructed an open-access fibre-optic network with a WiFi overlay, and signed sales agreements with commercial carriers to deliver triple-play (internet, television and telephone) and mobile services. Thanks to the 70-kilometres network, the festival significantly expanded its online marketing strategy. It also plays a key role in the city’s tourism push, which builds on the festival’s growing reputation.

The city has also used the network to slash its own telecommunications costs and power a smart-meter programme. This replaced traditional meters with 'smart' ones that differentiate between peak and off-peak usage, and with consumers then billed accordingly. This approach to innovation has turned Stratford into a test bed for technology pilots for such companies as Toshiba, Cisco and BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion, as well as noted educational institutions such as Clemson University and the University of Waterloo.

Committed to post-secondary education, Mr Mathieson convinced the University of Waterloo, one of the world’s leading tech universities, to locate its digital media campus in Stratford. "I didn’t want Stratford to become like every small town where young people would grow up, move away for employment opportunities, and never come back," he says.

The creation of the University of Waterloo digital media campus, coupled with the Royal Bank of Canada moving a back-office support centre from Toronto to Stratford, has served to further embed Stratford's reputation as a centre for technology and innovation.

All's well that ends well

Under Mr Mathieson, Stratford joined the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) in 2009, and two years later was named among the ICF’s top seven communities in the world, a title it still holds. Mr Mathieson also chairs an intelligent regional strategy board, whose goal is “to get the entire region of 2.7 million people across 26 governments to do a baseline analysis of where we are and develop a strategic plan on how we can go forward”, he says.

The city has faced hurdles, however. The collapse of the auto industry in North American in the wake of the global recession saw unemployment in Stratford rise to 7.9% as the city lost 1600 manufacturing jobs. But in the same year, the city saw 700 jobs requiring ICT skills created and, since the revival of the automotive industry, six leading Japanese auto suppliers for Toyota and Honda have established operations in the city.

“Our commitment to the digital economy sealed the deal in attracting the companies,” says Mr Mathieson. “We talked about our vision to have manufacturing adopt technology to improve reliable connectivity, and that resonated with them."