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Inside the Regional Innovation Approach in Phoenix (Part 2)

The collaboration and shared learning made possible through the smart region consortium known as The Connective enhances tech work for cities that are members — such as Phoenix, Mesa and Surprise, Ariz.

Image shows Phoenix skyline at night with mountains and moon in background
Credit: city of Phoenix
Through the smart region consortium known as The Connective, several cities in the Phoenix metro area are working together to make better use of new technologies, including artificial intelligence.

Phoenix’s Office of Innovation Director Michael Hammett said that local governments with a shared goal of becoming smarter cities can benefit the entire region by working together. Essentially, this work is interconnected, and this Arizona local government network is trying to embrace and benefit from that.

“We can't, as cities, do something in a silo and expect it to really impact community as a whole in an inclusive way,” said Hammett.

Workshops are crucial to this effort. In April, The Connective held a workshop about digital twins, which is a relatively complex concept. Hammett said it helped demystify what this concept is and how it could be implemented within the city.

To maximize the impact of this workshop, Hammett had folks within the city that would most benefit from this attend and learn from experts in this space who have had success with this model.

Harry Meier, deputy CIO for innovation with Mesa, also attended this event and said that it was a great opportunity to blend the knowledge and understanding of technical experts with elected officials and other people who may not have a lot of prior technology expertise.

“The idea of a digital twin is a very technical thing,” said Meier. “They got it, and saw the value in it, and immediately started workshopping ideas of how to use the technology for the challenges in the community.”

Another workshop is slated to occur later this year and will focus on artificial intelligence.

As Meier explained, government agencies are already seeing AI evolve. In response, some cities are releasing policy decisions or statements to assure the public the tech will be used responsibly. Meier cited an AI use policy published by neighboring Tempe, and noted that an increasing number of cities nationwide are creating similar policies, one of which is San Jose, Calif. For Mesa, such discussions are already underway, Meier said. This workshop will help cities compare ideas and implement best practices to meet community-specific needs.

He expects the AI workshop not to focus on any specific technology-of-the-moment, like ChatGPT, because they are coming at a lightning pace, but rather on the discussion of how this type of tool can be leveraged.

But the workshops are not the only way member cities work together through this consortium.

For example, the city of Surprise is piloting technology for recycling. Jeanine Jerkovic, economic development director for the city, said that her jurisdiction wants to improve traditional recycling methods, which often leave excess landfill waste. Through The Connective, city officials were able to share top priorities in this space to come up with new solutions.

Now, the city is at the starting phase of a pilot using technology to help turn plastic waste into filament that can be used in 3D-printing technology. The city uses library locations to demonstrate this technology’s value and educate the public about this recycling solution.

While this currently is a small-scale pilot, Jerkovic said it can be scaled up, and the city hopes to model this solution for eventual regional impact.

Jerkovic, who works on the economic development side of local government, gets to learn from IT experts, corporate leaders, educators and others through The Connective. As she said, personal relationships with community help advance local government.

“We just appreciate the opportunity to learn every single month, through their meetings and their presentations,” Jerkovic said. “And so that's been incredibly valuable but it's also been valuable just to meet a different group of experts.”

In Phoenix, a project born from this collaboration is focused on expanding equitable public access to chilled drinking water stations. As the hottest major city in the nation, and one designed with a focus on an outdoor environment, Hammett said the city felt it was important to expand access to multimodal amenities. And for folks in the city reliant on public transportation, strategic placement of water stations based on data is key.

The city is currently in the pilot phase of the project, but the longer-term goal is to connect this information to the transit app. Ultimately, there is a long-term goal of expanding this beyond Phoenix to neighboring cities.

“And that’s part of the spirit of The Connective,” Hammett said. “We need to have everybody working together, and we can learn from each other what is working and what could potentially benefit other cities.”

In Mesa, The Connective has been instrumental in the city’s smart city master planning.

Mesa is also working with the Smart City Cloud Innovation Center to improve civic engagement to help bring more diverse voices into city decision-making and planning through an app — aiming to solve for a gap in communication between city residents and officials.

Meier said that as cities pilot different tech solutions, The Connective’s members get to see what works and how it might be useful for their own city.

That has always been the purpose of The Connective, according to Program Manager Ben Williams: “How do we allow concepts and solutions to pass between cities?”

This is the second of a two-part series. Click here to read part one.
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.