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Inside the Regional Innovation Approach in Phoenix (Part 1)

The smart region consortium for the greater Phoenix region, known as The Connective, offers members across sectors a model for collaboration and learning to develop and deploy technology solutions.

Image shows skyline of Phoenix from above at sunset
Phoenix, Ariz. The metro area contributes a majority — 73.6 percent — of the state’s GDP. (Shutterstock)
In one of the nation's fastest-growing metro areas, government innovation has become regional.

The Phoenix area's smart region consortium, The Connective, offers public, private and community partners a collaborative environment through which to develop and deploy technology solutions for a smarter region.

The Connective officially launched in 2019, although the work dates back farther than that. Such a consortium can help cities tackle smart city projects beyond city borders. As this model gains ground, such consortiums have begun working together across the nation to further build and scale the collaborative approach.

But the definition of what it means to be a smart city or region may differ depending on who's talking.

According to Jake Taylor, human-centered design consultant with The Connective, this can be a point of contention, but for this team, the definition is clear: “It’s — very simply — using available technology, resources and state-of-the-art processes to enhance a better quality of life for every citizen.”

As Taylor described it, the issues of this age will not be solved in silos; transparency and collaboration will be necessary.

This is the mindset that led to the creation of The Connective, according to Program Manager Ben Williams. He explained that there's a very interdependent relationship between Maricopa County and its outlying cities because of the communities' proximity to one another. As such, solutions to the challenges residents face cannot be bound by city borders.

This was further illustrated by Harry Meier, deputy CIO for innovation at the city of Mesa, a member of The Connective. As Meier explained, many in this metro area live in one town and cross into another city each day to work.

Government work such as emergency response can benefit from jurisdictions using similar tech systems across borders, rather than relying on an entirely different system for emergency response workers to, say, pre-empt traffic signals when crossing a city line.

“Things like that just make sense, but don’t naturally come without that collaboration between municipalities,” Meier said.

As Williams explained, the consortium started in collaboration with several key partners including the Greater Phoenix Economic Council and Arizona State University. It initially involved 22 cities and towns on its membership roster, with other communities joining over time. Members pay a fee for participation in select projects.

The fees sustain the consortium’s existence as a convener. However, Williams noted that projects and solutions sometimes require additional funding sources, such as grants.

The consortium is made up of both community and industry partners, Taylor said. The cities themselves represent the community partners, while private-sector industry specialists such as Dell and Intel offer technology expertise.

Unlike some technology councils and consortiums that offer specific products and solutions to community partners, The Connective's approach is flipped: The problems of people in the community are the central focus, and then the goal is to work together to find a technological solution.

The Connective also holds regular workshops on different topics, such as a recent event on digital twins in April 2023 and one on AI slated to take place this month. The workshops were the product of member cities suggesting a way to discuss emerging technologies that are causing challenges or spurring questions.

With AI causing a lot of concern among city leaders, Williams said the workshop aims to spur conversation, de-stigmatize the tech and create understanding among those leaders as they plan to thoughtfully adopt and regulate it.

In addition to these workshops, The Connective members also meet in a less-structured environment.

Notably, The Connective is part of a group called the National Smart Coalitions Partnership. Through this national coalition, The Connective is able to learn from and share with similar consortiums across the nation.

Williams underlined that The Connective is an effective consortium because of the region’s natural inclination to collaborate for shared solutions to shared problems. Having an organization that could act as a convener and champion to bring these stakeholders to the same table to solve those problems “is really going to make the biggest difference.”

Stay tuned for part two of this series, which will examine how The Connective impacts the work of its member cities.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.