As we examine the development of networked regions, it’s important to remember that there are two Phoenixes (and, no, I’m not talking about Phoenix, Louisiana and Phoenix, Michigan). One is the city of Phoenix, Arizona, the fifth largest city in the United States with 1.5 million citizens. The other is the Phoenix metropolitan area, which includes the city of Phoenix and many other cities in the area that have significant populations. Examining this collection of large cities is important for understanding another way that networked regions can unfold.

Why the big cities? Why do they matter for networked regions?

Outside the city of Phoenix, the Phoenix metropolitan area includes another 3 million people spread throughout 70 incorporated and unincorporated communities. Sure, other regions include many communities situated in close proximity to one another -- Pittsburgh’s (our focus area in the second essay in this series) number in the hundreds -- but what makes Phoenix stand out from a region like Pittsburgh is the sheer number of large suburbs that surround the urban hub. There are eight surrounding communities with populations over 100,000 in the area, including Scottsdale, Chandler and Glendale. The community of Mesa tops 460,000 people -- more than the cities of St. Louis, Miami or Minneapolis. Heck, even Arizona State University (ASU) is home to 82,000 people, a “small town” that is larger than Dubuque, Iowa (the last networked region we explore in this series).

Many of Phoenix’s big cities started out in the late 1800s as small farming towns dotting a basin that was beginning to revive an ancient American Indian irrigation system. Fast forward a hundred years, and these small towns swelled as retiring baby boomers and immigrants migrated to the area, which boasts mild winters and abundant air-conditioning. In fact, the metro population of Phoenix increased 45 percent during the 1990s and about 30 percent more during the 2000s. This ballooning population brought with it some big questions for Phoenix, such as: How do we manage air pollution? How do we curb energy consumption when we rely on air-conditioning almost year-round? Ultimately, how do we make this growing region more sustainable?

These regional questions are not easy to tackle, but a region of large cities with varying priorities creates even more complexities when it comes to answering these questions. Think back to Pittsburgh for a moment. Pittsburgh and Phoenix both have mounted a regional rallying cry around the issue of sustainability. Pittsburgh, however, had a strong central community with resources like Carnegie Mellon that could help the smaller surrounding communities answer that call, a call that could ultimately help reinvigorate Pittsburgh’s economy. Phoenix, on the other hand, is a collection of large, prosperous communities, many of which are sizable enough to be able to provide their own resources. Many of these suburbs don’t have to rely on Phoenix for sustainable digital innovations.

To better understand these challenges, I decided to explore a couple of the “big cities” surrounding Phoenix. Let’s take a closer look at Mesa and ASU, find out what motivates them to use digital technologies, and try to figure out whether they’re building connections across the region that could ultimately contribute to a true networked region.

A networking city: Mesa

I found it intriguing that Mesa came in dead last in a sustainability ranking of the 50 largest U.S. cities that was compiled by SustainLane, but is still considered an innovative digital city government, having racked up awards from the Public Technology Institute and Center for Digital Government. (It was also a little weird that I couldn’t find a namesake mesa in the city, but I digress.) I had a hunch that even with that dismal sustainability ranking, sustainability played a role in the city’s digital investments. I decided to head to Mesa’s municipal IT department for some answers. 

Digital = efficiency and engagement

Mesa’s information technology department may not publicly proclaim that they’re doing “green” things like improving air quality and reducing energy consumption, but that’s actually exactly what they’re doing. Their initiatives just focus on these goals from a different perspective. They look at efficiency and engagement to help reduce expenses and increase citizen satisfaction, which ultimately helps increase the region’s sustainability.

“If we’re trying to be efficient, if we’re trying to streamline, if we’re trying to make things more accessible to anybody, anywhere, it fits right into green,” said Diane Gardner, Mesa’s CIO. “Ultimately, we’re doing it to save money, improve and innovate, but it also ends up being green. So it’s a nice win-win for the community.”

Mesa has demonstrated the connection between efficiency and sustainability by making fundamental changes to the city’s IT infrastructure, like:

  • Document management and electronic council agendas instead of paper
  • Telecommuting and remote access instead of mandating that all employees commute to work
  • Consolidating servers, which means decreased power usage for data centers

And these changes to make the city’s digital realm more efficient can have a significant impact on the physical world. For example, gains in the efficiency of municipal document management systems meant lessstoragespace was needed at the city's new courthouse. “Physically designing a building without having filing cabinets,” said Alex Deshuk, Mesa’s manager of technology and innovation, “meant fewer building materials and less space where we have to control the climate.”

Mesa is tackling vital IT work that improves efficiency and sustainability, but it’s also dabbling in what it sees as the future of city IT departments: an approach that focuses on information-sharing and engagement. Ultimately, the city is building a digital community network that could help engage more citizens in sustainable efforts.

“We’ve done some social media, and we’ve been heading more in that direction over the last couple of years,” said Rhonda Angle, Mesa’s IT applications manager. “We’re trying to present more of our web resources on mobile devices.”  The numerous community engagement opportunities reiterate the city’s focus on efficiency and improving citizen quality of life through initiatives such as tracking solid waste trucks and an online airport noise-tracking system.

These resources help satisfy citizens, and ultimately help them engage with the city on a more meaningful level. For Mesa, it’s really about producing solutions that people want to use. “That’s the world we live in -- people want their technology and they want it to work the way they want it to work,” said Angie Earl, Mesa’s desktop and messaging services manager.

Taking it to the region?

Mesa is improving efficiency and engagement within its own city, but what about its level of engagement and cooperation with the rest of Phoenix? Mesa is sharing its digital work, but is choosing to focus on a smaller portion of the Phoenix area.

The sizeable city realizes that it needs to kick off its digital coordination efforts closer to home -- most significantly, within its own geographic boundaries. “We’re starting with government agencies that share our same footprint [...] but are separate agencies, like Mesa Public Schools and the community college,” said Deshuk.

Still, Mesa is working to reach out to surrounding communities, and to build a sense of cohesiveness in terms of regional technology. Currently, Mesa’s efforts are focused primarily on the eastern section of the Phoenix metropolitan area where it is seen as a regional hub. “From a shared view, if we can build an app and let everyone else use it, then we can swap and share services more easily [with other regional and municipal agencies],” said Gardner.

“We just created a chief technology officer position, and one of the job’s major roles will be looking at these regional collaboration efforts,” said Deshuk. “It makes sense for economies of scale to work with different agencies, and to develop public-private partnerships when possible. And a lot of [these partnerships] have these efficiency goals, but it also means green goals.”

“Despite the 2008 SustainLane survey ranking, the city and Council’s priority on sustainability is evident with the work underway in our Development and Sustainability department. An energy audit of our data center will be part of an overall effort led by this department that is funded by ARRA project dollars received for solar energy projects, efficient LED streetlights, transportation, energy analysis and more,” said Gardner.

A more networked campus: ASU

Next, let’s take a look at the ASU campus. Like Mesa, ASU is bringing together sustainability and digital technologies within its own community first -- but for different reasons.

Sustainability is a top priority at ASU. The university is one of 18 colleges (out of 703 surveyed) to receive The Princeton Review’s 2011 Green Rating Honor Roll. ASU’s president and co-chair of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, Michael Crow, has helped fuel this sustainability priority in response to climate change and carbon reduction. As a result:

  • ASU is committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2025 
  • ASU currently has 2.8 MW of DC solar generation, and by end of February 2011 should have 10.5 MW 
  • ASU’s School of Sustainability is the first of its kind in the United States

Sustainability is a goal that drives ASU, but cost-effectiveness certainly creeps into the process of determining which sustainability projects get top priority. ASU has realized that digital technologies are critical to the success of its sustainability efforts.

Digital  = visualization and control for sustainability

For ASU, digital technology:

  • supports increasingly complex real-time systems and databases needed for sustainability 
  • engages people in sustainability 

Whether operating intermittent renewable resources or building control systems, digital technology and sustainability are becoming increasingly linked. “Oh, the two are tied together so much now,” said Robert Vandling, a technology support analyst and coordinator for special systems technology at ASU. “We’re able to identify baselines and establish real-time statistics of building loads, as well as to determine whether we have problems with building loads. Without our energy information system, we wouldn’t be able to identify that our basketball arena was running air handlers at the wrong time. Now we can see a spike in generation at 3:00 am and we can ask, ‘Why is so much power being used at that time?’”

Digital technology can also help students, faculty and staff understand why it’s important to participate in sustainability efforts -- and then take action. “Human beings don’t want to just be told to do something. Human beings need to know the why,” said Bonny Bentzin, director of university sustainability practices. “The visualization piece is really important for engaging people and moving them forward with sustainability.”

At the same time, Bentzin realizes that technology alone can’t drive people to participate. Technology needs to be coupled with education, communication and policy efforts to be successful. “The policy comes in and gives people a reason to participate, and then we can give them the tools to be able to track it and to see it,” said Bentzin.

To better understand the power of visualization and the connection between policy and technology, let’s take a closer look at ASU’s key visualization effort: Campus Metabolism (CM). CM is a web tool that enables students, faculty and staff to track real-time energy use on campus. CM is actually just an offshoot of an existing database developed for a more complex energy information system that tracks real-time energy information for more than 90 campus buildings. 

“Students, faculty and staff are very interested in what the solar [energy system on campus] is doing, so they can go to CM and see it live,” said Vandling.

The technology, however, isn’t just about understanding energy use. Policy is coming on line to incentivize staff to use the information to make better energy decisions. ASU’s utility bill used to be paid out of a central fund -- essentially, it was one big bill for the entire campus. Now, however, the utility bill is being split across university departments. “With this change in billing, departments will now take ownership of their energy usage,” said Bentzin. “CM will help them understand their usage and change their behavior accordingly.”

ASU plans to expand its visualization efforts, as well. Tracking everything from solid waste reduction to business miles traveled by faculty and staff, ASU is ultimately building what it calls its Environmental Impact Data Management System (EIDMS). In addition to funding hurdles, data collection is a significant challenge to expanding the database and CM system. For example, Bentzin pointed out that “the solid waste data for this campus alone is probably owned by ten different departments. It’s all over the map, so how do we really track that and understand it?”

Taking it to the region?

ASU has certainly been building digital connections with its own university system, but what about taking in-house systems and sustainability initiatives to the broader community? Right now, there just aren’t strong connections with the larger region in terms of sustainability and digital technologies, as the university focuses on improving its own enormous campus -- but they’re building the foundation for outreach efforts in the future. For example, bringing in data for ASU’s EIDMS will help build connections across the region as different organizations serving ASU report their own data. Other connections are developing, as well: recently, high school students from Tempe Union High School District were given the opportunity to learn about some of the CM program’s efforts.

ASU is also working with the City of Phoenix on the Energize Phoenix project, which aims to transform 10 miles of light rail line into a green rail corridor. This transformation includes the installation of energy-efficient systems and smart meters.

Final thoughts

Like Pittsburgh, Phoenix doesn’t have a formal sustainability and digital innovation plan at the regional level. Pittsburgh demonstrated that innovation and the deployment of technologies can happen through more informal networking activities. In a region with many large, affluent communities, like Mesa and ASU, regional constituents are figuring things out internally before beginning to reach out to other communities in a significant way.

To provide another contrast with Phoenix and Pittsburgh in terms of how networked regions can arise, the final essay in this series will look at a town that does have comprehensive sustainability and digital technology plans in place at a regional level. Of course, it is the smallest of the three regions: the Mississippi River town of Dubuque, Iowa, and the surrounding tri-state area.