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Network Brings Together Universities, Cities for Innovation

The Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities – Network is a nonprofit that facilitates 38 programs at universities across the country and their work with their communities to generate high-tech solutions.

MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month Series, which highlights impactful tech, data and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at for more information.

In this month’s installment of the Innovation of the Month series, we explore the Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities – Network (EPIC-N) model and how universities are actively engaging with local governments and their students to address community needs.

MetroLab’s Ben Levine spoke with Gavin Luter, managing director of the UniverCity Alliance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to learn more.


State College Borough Environmental Coordinator Alan Sam listens to Penn State students present their project poster at the Fall 2018 Campus and Community Sustainability Expo. Courtesy of EPIC-N.

Ben Levine: Can you explain the concept of EPIC-N? How did this network emerge and what are you focusing on?

Gavin Luter: Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities – Network (EPIC-N) is a 501(c)(3) that serves as the secretariat for 38 university-based programs applying the EPIC model. By matching hundreds of students across multiple disciplines, their faculty, coursework and learning with community-identified goals, these programs unlock unimagined solutions and learning for all those involved. As a quick example. At UW-Madison, we worked with Green County, Wis., over this last academic year. They wanted help with sustainability, transportation, government operations, health, economic development, housing and parks, and we matched 250 students across 50 county-identified projects and 25 courses.

EPIC-N’s purpose is to increase the number and quality of those affiliated programs. The EPIC model has five elements, to:

  1. respect the existing administrative structures, individual responsibilities and incentives on all sides
  2. create a genuine partnership
  3. intentionally aim at high-road development
  4. focus on community-identified, -driven and -evaluated contribution to the community
  5. to catalyze multiple disciplines and deep commitment from students
The EPIC model certainly has antecedents, but the current version was formalized as a model out of an experiment at the University of Oregon in 2010. The model was then shared with other universities, and the network grew informally for eight years. EPIC-N was formalized in 2018 when it received 501(c)(3) status. Projects happening within EPIC-N programs are as varied as the priorities and challenges that communities face: mobility, housing, race and economic inequity, public safety, resource efficiency, etc.

Levine: Tell me about the emphasis on student engagement and the focus on the community.

Luter: Cities face complex issues, and universities can contribute to solutions if they do so in respectful ways. Student learning is enhanced by use. That is, students want to make a difference in the world, but often don't have a way to focus their energy. This model allows them to go into communities easily, apply their learning and get credit for doing the work.

Levine: Can you please describe what your efforts within UW-Madison have been with EPIC-N?

Luter: UW-Madison actively participates in EPIC-N through its UniverCity Year (UCY) program. Since 2015, UCY has worked with three counties (Dane, Green and Pepin) and one city (Monona) and engaged with hundreds of students and faculty members on dozens of projects in communities across Wisconsin. Together, UCY, students, faculty and communities are finding feasible solutions that spark momentum toward a more sustainable, livable and resilient future. We have engaged more than 1,000 students in 106 projects across 40 courses, which span eight UW-Madison schools and colleges. Projects range from data analysis regarding county service provision to sustainability (water quality, green infrastructure and conservation management plans), to planning and landscape architecture projects, to improving education and economic development, and cultural and historic preservation. We typically help communities think about how to save money, explore new technologies, research policy solutions to pressing issues and help analyze data used in the policy-making process. You can see all completed projects on our website.

Since EPIC-N works across so many different colleges and universities, I’d like to outline some of those projects for your readers. While the emphasis is on community engagement, local governments are and were involved in deciding the scope of work for all of these projects. That's the cornerstone of the EPIC-N program: local governments and communities set the agenda, and universities respond to these needs. In UW-Madison's case, the project featured here was one project of many with Dane County. In the case of University of Oregon, the program was part of a larger project with the city of Salem, and Penn State partnered with the State College Borough.


Students from the University of Oregon's Industrial Ecology class visit the city of Salem's wastewater treatment facility. Courtesy of EPIC-N.

Project Title: Data Analysis and Visualization to Help Identify the Most Frequent Users of County Services

Team members: Students under the direction of Christopher Wells (Information School) and Barbara Duerst (Public Health), University of Wisconsin-Madison

Luter: Local governments across the country have recognized that a number of individuals repeatedly cycle through jails, emergency rooms, mental-health facilities and social services, with poor outcomes for the individuals and high costs to the governments. Typically, these individuals struggle with multi-dimensional problems but they are not tracked across systems, making it difficult to identify the individuals and provide coordinated, “wraparound” care. Early identification of vulnerable individuals and cross-system initiatives to provide comprehensive treatment would reduce their total service needs and prevent future incarceration. Students and faculty helped Dane County, Wis.'s Board of Supervisors begin to analyze data and formulate a strategy for how to identify these so-called frequent users of county services.

The students and and the county learned that integrated data systems were essential to make progress on these items. Students did a lot of work to analyze data that currently exist in silos (more information available online), and they also provided a framework for thinking about how an integrated county data system would come to be. Based on this work, the county has launched a data sharing initiative that draws on the best practices for creating integrated data systems. Students analyzed data about free and reduced lunches in school, homelessness, housing affordability, home care placements for children, maltreatment needs, child victimization, juvenile court programs, and the location and availability of service providers across the county. County staff can finally study these data and make better decisions. For example, the Sheriff’s Office mentioned that the map of supportive services across the county was a “gift” that allows them to better refer their clients to preventative service providers.



University of Wisconsin-Madison students in the Information School and Public Health Department recommended concrete steps for building an integrated data system that would allow for integrating data from across many county departments. Diagram courtesy of Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy.

Project title: Water Reclamation Facility Biosolids Market Analysis, University of Oregon

Team Members: Students under the direction of Jennifer Howard-Grenville

Luter: This project featured a biosolids market analysis at a water reclamation facility. The Willow Lake Water Pollution Control Facility is responsible for treating the wastewater generated by the citizens of Salem, Keizer, Turner, Ore., and other unincorporated areas of Marion County served by the sewer collection system. Students in an industrial ecology class evaluated the feasibility of transforming waste to energy and reclaiming water generated by Willow Lake through three separate projects: Fuel Cell Feasibility Study, SeQuential-Pacific Biodiesel Process Effluent Fed to Willow Lake’s Digester, and Willow Lake Wastewater Reclamation. Students offered specific recommendations for each project (for more details, view the full course report here).

The city of Salem, the local government responsible for the facility, wanted to address this particular issue because they felt there were opportunities to be more environmentally sustainable and create additional energy through this project. Secondary interests include suggestions for how to save money and maximize efficiency while being sensitive to environmental concerns. After matching one local waste generator to city of Salem’s wastewater treatment facility, the city gained immediate and unanticipated revenue from tipping fees and increased power generation for the plant. They could not have anticipated that the project would result in significant cost savings while adding other benefits.

The local government has kept up momentum on the project, having turned the project recommendations into changes in practice and ultimately resulted in the city of Salem receiving $3 million in renewable energy incentives from the Energy Trust of Oregon. The city continues to have a strong relationship with the University of Oregon's Sustainable City Year Program. (Learn more about the other projects completed during this partnership.)



EPIC-N programs require extensive input from local governments and citizens to ensure the issues studied are responsive to community concerns. Picture here is a public engagement session in Monticello, Wis., as a part of the UniverCity Year's project with Green County. Courtesy of EPIC-N.

Project Title: Integrating the State College Public Calendar with Alexa Technology

Team members: Students under the direction of Michael Hills, Pennsylvania State University

Luter: The local government of State College, Pa., wanted to find more ways to get residents to use its community calendar. State College Borough was originally approached by the national organization Alliance for Innovation (AFI) to explore ways to utilize Amazon's Alexa technology in local government. The State College Borough’s Communications and Information Technology staff met to find a way to accomplish this and concluded that the Penn State Sustainable Communities Collaborative (SCC) would be a great avenue to begin exploring the possible implementation of this technology. By working with the AFI working group of communities and an SCC Information Sciences and Technology (IST) student group, the borough identified different ways to connect the Alexa technology to local government. The IST student group then programmed a way for Alexa to “talk to” the borough’s official meeting calendar. Students were very interested in the application of Alexa and were surprised that their interests could match up so well with a need of the locality.

The borough is exploring ways to apply these solutions in their current calendar. It was decided after this project concluded that the borough needed to work with additional IST student groups to publish a menu of skills. It will take additional time and resources, but the locality is interested in the potential solution. An IST student group developed a small component of the overall Alexa skills that the borough wishes to publish and market to the public. Currently, the borough is working with SCC to find another IST student group to add to the skill set of the Alexa technology. No Alexa skill has been published; so far there has been only internal testing. The borough is interested in maintaining its relationship with the SSC IST students to keep developing new technologies that could improve citizen access to government.

Luter: As you can see, the kinds of projects that EPIC-N affiliates work on is quite diverse. The examples offered here are more in the “smart cities” space, but the EPIC-N projects span well beyond this area. Many affiliates are working on engineering-type projects: designing public spaces, government buildings and workforce housing plans. They’re also working on better connecting citizens to the local government decision-making process through community organizing. Applications of EPIC-N programs are virtually limitless. EPIC-N is expanding the model to other countries as a viable option for connecting local governments with the resources of local universities. I know that UW-Madison is pleased to be a part of EPIC-N and looks forward to learning from programs across the country about how to do this work better.