For small and medium size towns and cities, connecting physical and digital infrastructure and assets has seemed out of reach, but with a new movement to approach projects regionally, every community can benefit.

From the development and testing of new technologies for reducing the consumption and cost of energy, to smart lighting, to the implementation of environmental sensors, traffic management and control systems, to coordinated first responder real-time communications and public notifications and alerts during natural disasters, regional projects are surfacing all over the United States – and for good reason.

It’s hard to efficiently plan, budget, provision, build and manage one smart town solution at a time. There are still very few experts available, and we are still at the early stages of what is possible when we sense the world around us. When towns and cities work together, they spread out risk, buy hardware and software less expensively through volume agreements, and continually learn from each other. These programs can instituted through a government entity (county and state programs), economic development agencies and chambers of commerce, private-public partnerships or educational institution driven models.

Big cities have natural scale, and big cities can serve as a “hub” for regional initiatives. With a larger tax base, larger municipalities have bigger staffs and more resources to work with and can afford to experiment with department-driven projects, including improvement of public safety and health. Big cities also have big problems, including traffic congestion, air pollution, vulnerable open spaces and public venues which are targets for terrorists, and aging infrastructure. Until now, these big cities have been leading the way in the Smart Cities efforts.

Their experiences create templates that can be adapted by smaller towns and cities, and regions that have long cooperated when it comes to basics like the maintenance and management of shared roadways, shared energy and utilities, shared communications networks, and other assets which citizens and data traverse.

One of the most exciting projects we’ve been following is based out of Arizona State University and is designed entirely around leveraging innovation to create better living through regional cooperation.

The Center for Smart Cities and Regions’ (CSCR) mission “is to advance urban and regional innovation to make more inclusive, vibrant, resilient and sustainable communities.” The center coordinates and collaborates with researchers, policy-makers, planners, entrepreneurs, industry and the public “to enhance the ability of cities and regions to responsibly use emerging technological infrastructures and improve quality of life.”

The center brings the art and science of community planning to a new level and starts with education and training as part of a college curriculum.

Their impact, however, goes beyond the classroom and is now being seen in real world deployments, where a large city (Phoenix) is sharing templates and techniques, guidance and support with surrounding communities including more rural towns in Arizona.

Phoenix is one of the first to create a smart region, made up of 22 cities and towns in the area, organized in part by the Arizona Institute for Digital Progress.

The AZIDP looks at big challenges first and technology second, with a mission to use technology to “continually improve government efficiency, enhance citizen well-being, and solve complex problems.”

Their Smart Region initiative is designed to “build a system and framework that takes the approach of the smartest cities and leverages the scale and testing capabilities of the entire region.”

Perhaps the most valuable platform this organization offers, working closely with the center at ASU, is the AZ Urban Labs, a regional test bed to generate IoT solutions. This network of “Innovation Sandboxes” invite companies to bring their solutions to the community, so devices, applications, networks, and more can be tested for energy, environmental, water, population health, public safety and more.

These Innovation Sandboxes are efficient in that they enable a region-wide transformative platform for cities and towns, entrepreneurs, innovators and private sector businesses able to leverage the regional approach for research and development (R&D) activities, proof of concept, and a commercialization testing ground.

Smart cities and towns – yes – but the real upside ultimately is regional economic development supporting new businesses, jobs, sustainable improvements and simply better government management of physical and digital infrastructure.

The regional framework in the Phoenix area is an excellent example of organized cooperation between academics, government, business, and community activists all genuinely determined to make life better through innovation and connectivity.

Putting together innovators and policy-makers, sharing risk and rewards, regional thinking will continue to unlock the potential of connected communities in smarter ways.

How can a small or medium size city start a movement locally?

  1. Mayors can lead the way in bringing together a regional group to learn from other regional successes

  2. Local educational institutions can establish programs like the center at ASU, even if on a smaller scale as part of the civil engineering and urban planning curriculums

  3. Economic development groups can also be organized into a consortium model – whether government agencies working on attracting businesses or Chambers of Commerce and other business-led organizations to participate

  4. Seminars can be organized with guest speakers including experts who have built regional frameworks

  5. Events can be sponsored by utility and network service providers who already support the community with related services, with valuable information on recent technology innovations, for example establishing LoRaWAN networks specifically designed to run IoT solutions at a lower cost

Finally, every city and town can come together with regional programs, bringing in visionaries and strategists who can help establish a solid, feasible roadmap to connected regions. Smart Region projects can surface new business models that can generate cost savings and create revenue for government operations that can reduce taxes while providing better services and an improved quality of life for citizens.

It’s all in the mix – economic development, improved infrastructure, safer streets, cleaner air and water, more control, less cost and shared risk all leading to sustainable and continually improving positive outcomes.

– Brad Bush