Twenty-five years ago, Dubuque, Iowa was dying. Facing a national farming crisis and subsequent declines in agriculture-related industries, Dubuque’s manufacturers, like John Deere and the Dubuque Packing Company, suffered. Dubuque citizens faced one of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S., about 25 percent. Today, this Mississippi River town is back and establishing itself as a model of sustainability and digital innovation for smaller communities across the U.S. -- and even the globe. Dubuque and the surrounding countryside provide yet another example of how networked regions can unfold.

Smaller communities and networked regions

Dubuque is certainly distinct from Phoenix and Pittsburgh -- the other regions we’ve considered in this series of essays -- in terms of population. The city of Dubuque is home to 60,000 residents, and the surrounding communities include another 30,000 people. Hours outside the reach of Chicago, Milwaukee and Des Moines, this smaller community isn’t part of the daily hubbub of these more readily recognizable metropolitan centers.

As a result, I found this community to be more tight-knit than Phoenix or Pittsburgh, which likely makes it easier for Dubuque to rally around and formalize a digitized sustainability plan.

Like Pittsburgh, Dubuque has struggled economically. The city has emphasized revitalization over the last two decades, beginning with its riverfront and building out from there. It now receives accolades like being ranked among the “100 Best Communities for Young People” and the “Best Small Places for Business and Careers.” (The city also gets my vote for the best turkey and dressing sandwich -- a local specialty also known simply as T&D.)

 “You get to the point where you think you’re a pretty great to place to live, and the minute you start looking at yourself as being great, it’s your first step toward mediocrity. Other people will pass you by,” said Roy Buol, mayor of Dubuque. “We’ve always looked at ourselves as, ‘Yeah, we’re a good place, but we could always be a lot better.’”

Dubuque community leaders realized that economic development and sustainability can go hand-in-hand. According to Mike Blouin, president of the Greater Dubuque Development Corporation, the cachet that comes with operating a business in a sustainable region is becoming increasingly important.

 “A growing segment of companies -- manufacturers and service providers -- want to be a part of this trend,” he said. “They want to be a part of communities that are into sustainability, and they believe it will be easier to attract the kind of workforce they want there. Or companies may manufacture items used in these sustainable communities. Whatever it might be, they want sustainability to be a part of their message.”

He added, “You can be pro-economic development and be sustainable. They’re not mutually exclusive. A smarter city is not the initial thing companies look at, because they still have to make money. The community has to make sense overall, but if it does, sustainability could very well be a deal-maker. If there are a half-dozen cities in front of a company, it may look at smarter sustainability and see that it fits the company’s philosophy. Final decisions are made by those kinds of factors.”

The mayor and city council made sustainability a top priority in 2006. “We immediately turned the initiative over to a citizen group,” said Buol. “We tasked them with defining sustainability for Dubuque and determining how we would approach it. They, in turn, solicited input from across the city. They brought back a proposal that had buy-in from a very large cross-section of the community, and that’s what helped to make it sustainable.”

The city rolled out a sustainability plan, Sustainable Dubuque, to give its citizens the tools they need to live more sustainable lives. Sustainable Dubuque focuses on 11 principles that support environmental/ecological integrity, economic prosperity and social/cultural vibrancy:

  • Green buildings
  • Healthy local food
  • Community knowledge
  • Reasonable mobility
  • Healthy air
  • Clean water
  • Native plants and animals
  • Regional economy
  • Smart energy use
  • Smart resource use
  • Community design

Digital = informed sustainability decisions

So Dubuque asked people and business to be more sustainable, but how could they determine how sustainable they were becoming? Dubuque realized that it needed to use digital technologies to provide people with the information they need to make more informed decisions about sustainability.

Enter Smarter Sustainable Dubuque, a partnership initiated in September 2009 between the City of Dubuque and IBM Research. The project intends to make Dubuque one of the first "smarter" sustainable cities in the U.S. Initial tasks include:

  • Launch a portal where citizens can monitor their resource use and better understand how they can change their usage  
  • Deploy applications to gather data and analyze the connections between water, waste treatment and electricity systems 
  • Conduct a smarter electricity pilot study via a partnership between the City, IBM Research, and Alliant Energy, and nearly 1,000 volunteer homes

The focus may be on utilities initially, but the program will expand to look at ways technology can cover other sustainability areas, such as public transportation -- and beyond.

“The digital connection makes a whole lot of sense because you can’t ask residents to change their daily water behavior without giving them access to information about their daily water behavior,” said Cori Burbach, Dubuque’s sustainable community coordinator. “What we’ve seen in Dubuque is that the general public is really excited about getting the information. They might be a little confused and overwhelmed at first, but once they understand what the data is all about, they say, ‘This makes it so much easier to save energy in my daily life.’”

But it isn’t about just throwing any information out there, as Chris Kohlmann, Dubuque’s information services manager, pointed out. “How do we take some very complicated analytics and deliver them in a very simple, easy-to-understand portal that someone with a very high level comfort with technology or a very low level of technology comfort could look at and say ‘Oh, I get it’? It is all about data and serving it up in a way that’s easy” to use and understand.

Getting people involved

So Dubuque’s got a formal plan for sustainability and supporting digital technologies. What’s left? Oh yeah, involving people. Community engagement in Pittsburgh and Phoenix seemed to evolve from looser, more informal connections within the region. Dubuque, however, developed a more structured plan: Dubuque 2.0.

“You’ve got Sustainable Dubuque, providing the foundation for the community, then you’ve got Smarter Sustainable Dubuque applying technology to that foundation to really achieve greater efficiency and generate business opportunities,” said Eric Dregne, vice president of programs for the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. “And we say, ‘Well, that’s all really good, but if nobody cares about it, it doesn’t mean anything.’ So our job at Dubuque 2.0 is to help people understand it all, care about it and get engaged.”

Dubuque 2.0 is all about wrapping community members’ minds around sustainability concepts. The program reaches out to the community -- from an interactive website to community cafes where people sit down and discuss sustainability. In addition to learning about sustainability, Dubuque 2.0 provides community members with the opportunity to share their efforts and results, which will hopefully encourage local best practices and new ideas.

When engaging people around the issue of sustainability, Dubuque 2.0 realizes that the digital technologies aren’t what really matter to most people. “Sustainability is a concept, not a product. For example, I don’t care what light bulbs or meter you use. At the end of the day, our real message is: wherever you are with sustainability, here’s information about it, and you can chose anything you want to do with it. All that digital technology is, is a tool in the sustainability toolbox.”

And the tools -- whether it’s buying local food, drying clothes on a clothesline or using a web portal -- are all equal choices for sustainability in Dubuque. “Yes, some have greater benefit than others, but for us, it isn’t about measuring all that,” noted Dregne. “For us, it’s about selecting behaviors you think are sustainable.”

Taking it to the region?

Dubuque has formal sustainability plans in place, but what about the regional part? For Dubuque, networking at a regional level revolves around breaking down barriers between sectors, and sharing its experiences with other communities.

Within the city, we can see a breakdown across ‘smart’ sectors, like water, electricity, government and transportation. As we discussed earlier, the city government is partnering with utilities that operate across a large service territory, like Alliant. There is also a message of sustainability across all these sectors, and the digital technologies that may reside in each sector. As Dregne pointed out, various sustainability efforts across different sectors now feed into a broader community goal of sustainability.

Dubuque really gets regional when sharing its experiences with others. Regional isn’t just about coordinating all the different resources in a community; rather, it’s about sharing information for how to get things done. “A long time ago, we decided that metropolitan areas have to think regionally and incorporate citizens and communities within your economic region,” said Buol. “We’ve tried to do that with economic development and our sustainability program.

Dubuque hosts a sustainable communities event where people from across the region come into the city of Dubuque and learn about what the city is doing, and how they can incorporate some of Dubuque’s strategies into their own communities. And Dubuque is looking to share its knowledge with the world. “We’re creating a smarter city model that can be used in any city of 200,000 people or less,” said Buol. “This is something we see as a solution that will help with smarter sustainability around the country -- and around the world.”

Final thoughts

These essays remind me that sustainability issues, such as air quality, transportation or economic development, are at heart regional issues. Visiting these communities revealed that the real challenge isn’t so much what digital product or technology solution to deploy to solve these issues, but rather how to coordinate and deploy sustainable practices and supporting digital technologies across a collection of sectors and communities that face the same sustainability challenges.

As Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Dubuque highlighted, communities can unfurl networked regions in different ways -- whether through a formal plan or informal collaborations. Certainly, each region is still in its infancy in terms of coordinating sustainability efforts. These community profiles simply highlight the nascent sparks of the fully realized networked regions that will unfold over the next several years, and decades, as communities seek ways to increase their sustainability and economic vitality.