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Robert Bell: Why Montréal is an Intelligent Community

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Last June, Montréal was named Intelligent Community of the Year by the prestigious New-York based Intelligent Community Forum. The ICF, as it’s known, is a nearly 20-year-old international organization that celebrates and encourages communities that thrive thanks to their unification of culture and technologies. Previous winners include New York, Columbus, Toronto, Eindhoven and Taipei. We caught up with Robert Bell, ICF co-founder, to get the skinny on Montréal’s great honour.

Bell Headshot 2012_400px

What are the ICF’s founding principles?

The ICF was founded back in 1999 because I and two other gentlemen perceived something we wanted to do something about. Even at that time it was clear that broadband and information technology were radically changing the world we live in, from the economy to the way people connect to the way we manage infrastructure. And what we saw was these huge impacting forces having terrible effects on job losses, industry disruptions and cities tumbling into stagnation. But we also noticed that some places were doing extremely well in this brave new world, so we wanted to learn from them and turn their strategies into lessons for other places that needed to turn themselves around and adapt to change.

Was the award part of the project since the beginning?

It was, actually, and we did the award because it’s how we develop our research.  We give people awards and they share a great deal of extremely valuable information with us that we turn into best practices, teachings, writing, the things that we do.

What differentiates an intelligent community from a smart city?

The differences are pretty simple. Making a smart city is very much like automating a factory. We’ve been automating factories since the early part of the 20th century, and what we’re doing is continually finding ways to do what we do today faster, cheaper and better. A smart city is basically applying that same approach to running a city: we’re going to tie all the traffic lights together and coordinate them to make our traffic flow better. We’re going to put monitors on our water systems and our power systems to be able to invest less on hardware and run the systems smarter. We’re going to add cameras that will be able to measure human traffic in our pedestrian areas. On and on and on. Really, it’s an important movement. The Intelligent Community, however, is a step beyond that.

We like to say that every intelligent community is a smart city but not every smart city is an intelligent community, because we’re interested in how cities can use that same set of technological approaches to build their economies, create jobs and wealth, solve longstanding social problems and find ways to give their cultures a megaphone that can reach the world. Those are the things that make a place.

So how did Montréal do that?


In so many ways! The city has a smart city plan, for one, but the most impressive intersections are where it’s building completely new economies. You have a set of tremendous universities there, but those universities don’t just stand alone – the city has worked proactively to pull them together, like for instance your Innovation District is a physical manifestation of a set of relationships that are creating a pathway for young people coming out of university to stay in Montréal, to get a great job, to start their own company. There’s a tremendous network of incubators and accelerators to help create that start-up culture. The other thing that really leaped out at me is more than any place I’ve yet been, Montréal harnesses culture and technology to unite the city. You’ve got that wonderful swing set there in Quartier des Spectacles, for example!

Is the community aspect also a driving force?


It absolutely is, because a city is nothing but the people in it, and when you can engage them they can power tremendous transformation. In Montréal, you have this wonderful project, Je fais MTL, which is basically a forum where people can pump ideas into the community and have the Mayor’s office fund their projects. An example I really liked was a project by a couple of photojournalists who posted a montage of interracial couples online, because Montréal, like all places, has to struggle constantly with difference living together. It was a wonderful project.

Part of the “intelligence” of an intelligent community has to do with technology, clearly, but what are other types of intelligence it involves?

We all know what intelligence is, right, we’ve got this brain to think big thoughts and add up numbers and do all sorts of amazing things. Well also have this term “social intelligence,” which refers to people connecting with other people. Some folks are good at it and some folks have trouble doing it, but it’s a key component of getting through the day, getting things done, creating allies and all the ways in which we as people operate.

The next level above that is community intelligence, as I touched upon. That’s where you’re going to use these tools of the digital revolution to try and create the same kind of thing but on a much larger basis, far beyond the circle of people you can sit around a table with. That’s where you really create that sense of being unified, to make the place called home the best possible place in the world to live, and work, and build a family, and build a business, and forge a career or whatever it is that you’re going to do. All the communities we consider tend to be very proud – they really do believe in their hearts that they’ve got something great to offer the world, and that’s the energy that drives transformation. Without that everything is just a plan.

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