Nokomis: Enabling a better place

How much can digital transformation in a community with abundant broadband in the heart of rural Canada improve their socio-economic wellbeing? FlexNetworks and the Town of Nokomis intend to find out.

‘Enabling A Better Place’ is a community-wide initiative focused on meeting the wellbeing, needs and wants of an entire community and region by leveraging technology. While demonstrating what’s possible and improving the health, education, and quality of life for all the citizens of Nokomis, it is hoped that researchers, entrepreneurs, professionals, and specialists as well as governments will come together to create a ‘living lab’.

The objective of a living lab is to push the boundaries, to create jobs, attract investment through applied research and to leverage the existing assets of the town. A community-wide initiative such as this is a first in Canada, perhaps North America, but there are so many benefits. The Town of Nokomis and FlexNetworks believe digital transformation is an exciting opportunity to address the needs of the community. And perhaps create a model for other rural communities across Canada.

Nokomis, a typical rural Canadian town, is an ideal community for a ‘living lab’. The town has a population of 450, a k-8 school, day care, medical clinic, seniors home. Importantly, Nokomis also has strong community leadership and a spirit of collaboration.

The initiative is in its infancy, but some early actions being undertaken are targeted, such as the formation of a youth entrepreneurship program to leverage the technology. As well, revitalizing the long-abandoned concept of a community theatre by converting the town hall to a movie theatre to stream movies and events through the high-speed internet.

Other initiatives focus on the needs of the citizens, especially seniors. The concept of Age Tech, a myriad of technologies that leverages abundant internet targeted to meet the needs specific to seniors, is being explored with the town council. These needs include facilitating self-care, aging in place, management of one’s health, increasing mobility, providing purpose and more. Further, the ability to monitor for critical illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease  in rural communities is beneficial to many citizens, not just seniors. There is the potential to enhance the community clinic with digital diagnostic equipment and to electronically connect the lab for results and specialists for diagnosis.

The Nokomis School Community Council, teachers, parents, and students will begin to explore the educational possibilities that abundant internet brings. This is about thinking with abundancy and not being constrained by scarcity, and it dramatically changes the realization of what’s possible.  Adult learning and training leveraging the same technology offer exciting opportunities for the community and region.

So how did they get to this point? FlexNetworks engaged with the Nokomis town leadership and subsequently, the community expressed strong support to improve their limited access to the internet. FlexNetworks invested in building a broadband fibre network capable of serving each premise within Nokomis. With the abundant infrastructure in place, Nokomis has decided to act.

Nokomis is not in proximity to a larger centre and is committed to demonstrating that socio-economic development in a rural setting is not only possible, but very viable with enabling infrastructure and the application of emerging technologies.

Mayor David Mark and Town Council took inspiration from Saskatchewan Economic Development Alliance’s (SEDA) Connected Saskatchewan initiative, in particular the Digital Enablement document. They discussed challenging the prevailing scarcity thinking that the community can do without and instead began to focus growing the community and improving the wellbeing of the town’s citizens and surrounding area.

FlexNetworks is a fast growing, client-centric telecom serving the ultimate in connectivity speeds to the province of Saskatchewan. According to their web site, by the end of 2022 FlexNetworks had invested over $100 million and built more than 1,500 km of fibre-optic cable to connect 106 underserved communities across Saskatchewan. The Town of Nokomis was one of the communities positioned for the future with a fibre optic network of up to 2.5 Gbps per subscriber and with the potential commercial access to a network capacity of up to 400 Gbps. To put this in perspective, the federal minimum standard speed is 50 Mbps (or 0.05 Gbps), the norm for fibre installations across Canada is 1 Gbps.

Tyson Almasi, director of business development residential for FlexNetworks has been instrumental in the digital transformation of the town to date. “We are already seeing the benefits to the community from the higher bandwidth. I am excited about the future potential to improve the quality of life and grow the community.”

One local success story, Nokomis Craft Ales, a small-scale brewery recently celebrated their nineth anniversary. Leveraging the town’s renowned aquifer and regionally grown barley, the company has created six new jobs in the community. Jeff Alport, president and CEO of Nokomis Craft Ales, sees access to abundant reliable broadband as a benefit to his business as well as the community. “Not only am I able to utilize the internet to market my product but it is critical to operating my business. My point of sales systems and most aspects of managing the company are now done on the cloud. Importantly for me and for the community, access to fast internet helps attract and retain workers,” says Alport. 

Wayne Busch, a prominent resident of Nokomis, has been actively involved in building the community for decades. Wayne, a former mayor, principal of Nokomis School, past chair of the local health district, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations (SAHO) and national representative on a national Health Canada committee sees abundant broadband as an enabler for the basic health and education needs of the community. “Meeting the community’s needs is not going to be achieved with the systems we use today,” says Busch. “People have become convinced technology is not required or will cost a lot. But if we don’t embrace technology, both actively and creatively–the alternatives are far more expensive.”

Broader engagement with the community, the rural areas and adjacent First Nation communities is planned to better understand both the opportunities and the needs. But progress has been made. In part, the Enabling a Better Place initiative has fostered the formation of the Last Mountain Economic Alliance along, with the communities of Nokomis, Strasbourg, Semens, and Govan to collaborate and share.

Some people have written off rural Saskatchewan. Some are skeptical of new enabling technologies and have been told for years that it is too expensive. Enabling a Better Place is intended to show that with collaboration, significant benefits can be achieved and that the benefits far outweigh the cost, especially of the alternatives. Most importantly, the initiative will seek to improve the education, health, and quality of life. Researchers, entrepreneurs, professionals, and specialists are encouraged to contact the town if they have an interest in participating in the initiative.

Enabling a Better Place is a journey. Nokomis isn’t sitting back and waiting for someone to define it for them. Their journey is just beginning, and they are creating it. A journey with exciting possibilities.