Prince, or the artist formerly known as “the artist formerly known as Prince,” recently proclaimed that the internet is dead—and he’s right. Okay, well, maybe the internet isn’t really dead, but the novelty of it is dead. Remember the good old days? Ah, that fabulous modem dial and then the static that meant you were finally online. Today, however, it’s not about a few precious internet moments. It’s about constantly networking, or connecting and exchanging information—and using that information to make better decisions. As Prince probably didn’t mean to point out with his profound proclamation, now it’s more about networking, and less about just being online.

However, limitations still exist. For example, I can’t access a single byte of my health information online. Pulling up my house’s history, from its building plans to the last time its roof was replaced? Forget about it. I’m asked to conserve water—and I want to conserve water—but I don’t know how much water I consume until a month after the fact. That makes it hard to know if my conservation efforts are working. As Prince inadvertently pointed out, we’ve come so far, but I’m reminded every day that networking limitations go on and on.

With this constant reminder of networking deficiencies, I always come back to the question: Why do I care so much about networking? Furthermore, why do other people care about it? Through my research and travels for this series of essays, I realized that networking is critical for the sustainability of regions—and I’m not just talking about tree-hugging sustainability. I’m talking about economic, social and environmental sustainability. It’s about how we can use technology to improve our quality of life today and for future generations. It’s about how can we ensure that our communities prosper.

Sorry for the soapbox moment there. After years of researching smart grid and seeing how many different parts of a community it touches, I just realized it was time to dig a little deeper and explore the broader goals of those communities and how networking—both through digital and more traditional means—can help them achieve their goals. It’s time to look at networked regions.

We’re rolling out three more essays over the coming weeks that will explore communities that are actually moving toward networked regions. But before we get into the good stuff, we need to more closely consider what a networked region means, and why it matters. Even Prince, in all his worldly wisdom, could probably use some more background information about networked regions.  

Why look at networked regions?

To build the case for networked regions, it’s important to understand why we should even remotely care about them in the first place. Before getting into why this is important, let’s look at a couple of key questions:

  • What is a region?
  • Why ‘networked’? Isn’t ‘smart’ good enough?

First, we need to clarify the term ‘region.’ A region is essentially a collection of smaller units, or one part of a larger whole. Simple enough, but we have to consider scale. A few states could be a region; likewise, a few communities could be a region. In this case, we’re talking about communities that comprise a metropolitan area or rural network, places that we experience on a daily basis.

Today, these regions get bombarded by ‘smarts.’ Every new movement that comes on the scene seems to be smart, but smart can mean so many different things. “Smart” can refer to:

  • A different way of looking at things, like smart growth, or planning to curb sprawl.
  • Alternative efforts like renewable energy or green buildings.
  • Digitizing sectors. Think about buzzwords like smart transportation, smart manufacturing, smart grid, smart energy, and smart cities. 

On top of the multiple meanings, there are some other issues with “smart” movements:

  • Smart implies that things are dumb.Are cities dumb today, but smart only when they combat urban sprawl? Are grids dumb today, but instantly become smart just by adding smart meters? Communities and industries are increasing their knowledge all the time, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are dumb today. They’re just learning.
  • Smart puts the focus on the technology.Technology can help with building smarter communities and industries, but it’s more than just technology. More connections—whether public-private partnerships, university outreach or business consortiums—are needed to help communities and industries move forward.
  • Smart focuses on individual sectors.As the buzzwords above demonstrate, smart digital movements operate in individual sectors. Smart grid or smart transportation doesn’t acknowledge that there are links between the two sectors.

Moving beyond ‘smart’

It’s time to build connections between these digitized sectors and new approaches. Essentially, it’s time to get networked. Now we can discuss why it’s important to look at sustainability and networking in terms of regions:

  • Inevitable industry overlap
  • Technology’s regional availability
  • Varying drivers for digital investments
  • Regional competiveness

Inevitable industry overlap. Focusing on one industry could mean missed opportunities to integrate and leverage digital technologies across industries. Some digital technologies that work well in one industry could also apply to another, such as applying retail RFID to oil and gas. Furthermore, one technology deployment could support multiple sectors. For example, the telecommunications industry could connect multiple industries with their latest communication network. Lastly, different sectors, such as law enforcement and transportation, may be able to benefit from rapidly sharing information with one another.

Technology’s regional availability.Telecommunications companies may blanket the country in orange-hued coverage, but the orange doesn’t necessarily mean that the same level of service will be available across all the fruited plains. For example, several years ago in upstate New York, I could download a movie in a few minutes, but today in Colorado, I can’t watch a movie while downloading it. Technology availability varies by region, so looking at, for example,  the “smartness” of healthcare at a national level doesn’t account for regional technology availability.

Varying drivers for investments.Different regions have different technology and sustainability needs. With technology, perhaps you live in techie town that’s already clamoring for 5G. On the other end of the spectrum, you may live in a community where people just don’t trust any mail that doesn’t come from a snail (so to speak). On the sustainability side, some regions may face water issues, others may deal with air quality, and others still may deal with economic decline.  

Regional competiveness.Ten years ago, regions gained a competitive advantage by rolling out broadband. Since then, many have washed their hands of new technology investment. In the future, and even today, people seek more than broadband when looking for a place to locate their home or business. They are looking for a good digital quality of life and all the benefits that digital technologies can support, like a more sustainable lifestyle.

Furthermore, sectors that serve a community, like transportation, energy, healthcare and education are often handled at a regional level. And as we’ll see with our three case study regions, developing new digital, sustainable technologies fuel a better quality of life that attracts innovative companies that, in turn, fuel even more growth and demand, and, well, you get the point.   

As these points demonstrate, we need to look beyond individual technologies and sectors. Taking ‘smart’ to the next level requires studying how well sectors come together to provide a sustainable life for people, businesses and the environment in a region. We’ve come a long way from getting excited about a modem, but there’s still a long way to go. It’s time to look at ‘smart’ in terms of networked regions. Perhaps we can bring Prince on board as a promoter of this concept. I’m sure he would buy into it and develop a clever song to explain it. Or not.

Defining a networked region

I’ve discussed why it’s important to look at sustainability and digitization from a regional perspective—and I’ve managed to make it almost halfway through the article without actually defining a networked region. Well, I had to build some suspense, but like a second-rate horror movie, I’m going to give it all away before it’s even close to being over.

A networked region is one that digitizes for the benefit its citizens and providers—and does so in a sustainable way that’s regionally appropriate. Sorry, folks who are looking for a checklist of networked region technologies. There isn’t a networked region holy grail. A networked region ensures any digital investments truly benefit constituents in a sustainable way, fosters digital connections between sectors when they make sense, and creates an environment that supports continual digital and sustainable innovation. Let’s explore these concepts in greater detail.

Not just technology, but benefits

After just downplaying technology, I know we can’t ignore it. Digital technology is necessary because you can’t rapidly share information if you don’t have a way to transmit and analyze it. Table 1 lists a small sampling of technologies that could contribute to a networked region. Remember, this isn’t a complete list. Rather, it provides some tangible technology examples. Technologies like these are cool (who doesn’t love a cell phone tower?), but we must think beyond technology.

Table 1: A teeny-tiny list of technologies that could support networked regions

  • Public transportation/toll road electronic payment Advanced metering infrastructure Library/school computing facilities Building automation systems Public transportation driverless systems Sensors to measure and analyze traffic/weather conditions Electronic clipboards for physicians Servers and applications for e-government activities Sensor networks to monitor critical infrastructure conditions
  • Instead of looking solely at technology, networked regions consider their needs and then determine what process changes, and perhaps digital technologies, will help the region satisfy those needs. We can break down these needs in two ways:
  • The citizen experience.What are the everyday needs of people in a region? Are citizens environmentally focused? Do they prefer public or private transportation? Is traffic a significant issue? Is air quality a problem? Are energy prices high? What about water supply? Ultimately, what do citizens need to live a high-quality, sustainable life, and what sorts of digital technologies can help a region serve those needs?
  • The provider experience.To meet citizens’ needs, regions have networks of hard infrastructure, soft infrastructure, and businesses (see Figure 1). To meet citizens’ needs in the most cost-effective, efficient and sustainable way possible, these providers may deploy technologies that improve the way these networks and organizations operate.

Balanced connections

As we discussed previously, the smart movement often focuses on specific industries. Within a particular region, for example, a utility may start digitizing its energy network. However, as it moves forward, the utility may bump into other sectors, like transportation (electric vehicles) or construction (building automation systems). The utility may also learn from the local telecommunications provider that the latter is using a better communications network or software system that could apply to the utility. A networked region recognizes the possibilities to integrate and leverage, and looks at investments from a cross-sector standpoint.

Environment supporting innovation

Last but least, a networked region creates an environment that supports continual digital and sustainable innovation. Often, the technologies exist, but the key is determining whether they make sense to deploy and, if so, how best to move forward. At the very minimum, how do regions not hinder sustainable and digital efforts? Looking further ahead, how can regions promote digital innovation and improve the quality of life for their citizens and providers? And who is responsible for all of this?

Also, how can regions facilitate good old-fashioned networking in their communities? How can they connect different research institutions and businesses? How can they use their sustainability and digital initiatives to build the economic base of their communities?

Final thoughts

I’ve thrown out plenty of networked region theory here, but you’ve heard enough from me. As you can see, I’ve probably put out more questions than answers. The next three essays will focus on how regions are putting networked region theory into action—or at least starting to put it into action. Each region has a different approach, and each has made varying amounts of progress toward linking sustainability and digitization.

Here’s a preview, which has been approved for all audiences:

  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. People always think of Pittsburgh as the steel city, but they need to pull back that steel curtain. There’s so much more behind it. As I traversed the red-foliaged hillsides and crossed the shimmering rivers during two amazingly sunny days, I found folks all over the place who are creating a region where sustainable and digital innovation thrives.
  • Mesa, Arizona:In the Valley of the Sun, I explored work going on at Mesa and ASU to see if they’re building connections that could ultimately contribute toward true a networked region. Essentially, do networked regions have to have a single plan for the entire region, or can they move forward with looser connections?
  • Dubuque, Iowa:This town of 60,000 nestled along the mighty Mississippi river recently rolled out a comprehensive sustainability plan, and supporting technologies to give its citizens the tools they need to live more sustainable lives. What makes this community so intriguing is not only its grasp of the connection between sustainability and technology, but the fact that they’re successfully engaging people and business in these sustainability