From Canals to Computers

Water power from Holyoke, Mass.'s surrounding canals will eventually power an $80 million high performance computing center.
April 2010
Tod Newcombe
By Tod Newcombe  |  Columnist

The birth of Holyoke, Mass., is a classic tale of American capitalism. In the 1840s, financiers from Boston, looking for a new way to make money, decided to build the country's first planned community along the banks of the Connecticut River. They dammed the river and built canals to create a massive hydro-energy system for a complex of mills that turned out everything from paper to textiles.

Today the dam, canals and many of the mills are still there, but jobs have vanished, leaving a decaying city with one of the highest poverty rates in the state and an unemployment rate above 12 percent. Holyoke has tried to find a new purpose, but with only limited success (a massive mall sits next to the interstate highway that bisects the city). And its heart, where the mills and canals lie, and where many of its residents still live, remains on life support.

Fortunately Holyoke's 19th-century infrastructure is about to give the city a new lease on life. It turns out the water power that helped give birth to the Industrial Age is about to power the Information Age. In January, state officials announced plans to build an $80 million high-performance computing center in the city, in large part because of the abundant, clean power that can be delivered cheaply through the nearby canals.

Piggybacking on that announcement, Cisco Systems, one of several corporate partners in the project, signed a deal with Holyoke to change the mill town into what the technology firm calls a Smart+Connected Community. Cisco will use information technology to help the city rebuild itself with better services for education and health care, as well as improved access to government.

Cisco isn't the only tech firm that announced a new business venture to create smart communities. In 2009, IBM inked an agreement with Dubuque, Iowa, to use technology to build a "sustainable" place to live and work. IBM plans to integrate fiber networks, hardware and software with smart devices that will allow Dubuque's residents and businesses to monitor energy consumption and manage water usage while taking advantage of online government services.

The question is whether these projects are just high-profile, headline-grabbing projects or the start of something really new and transformative for America's smaller cities. Clearly IBM and Cisco foresee a business opportunity. Big Blue points out that there are 1,200 cities in the U.S. with populations of less than 200,000 that hold 40 percent of the country's population (Holyoke has a approximately 40,000 residents; Dubuque: 60,000). Every one of these urban communities has outdated energy, water and waste systems, along with transit, education, health care and government services that could benefit from the efficiency and value that technology can deliver-if applied correctly.

That's a big if, given the public sector's mixed record on adopting technology. But there's a hopeful symmetry to the idea that the nation's first planned city might become its first truly sustainable community. And if a city like Holyoke can figure out how to mix technology, sustainability and economic development, it bodes well for smaller cities, which make up such a big part of this country.