The definition of a smart city essentially describes a city comprised of a more connective infrastructure. It means that data and technology are utilized to their most efficient capacity and capability to improve sustainability, spur economic development, and enhance quality of life. You can find them all over the United States. But why limit the possibilities of connecting a city, when you can connect an entire region? Welcome to The Connective, the first Greater Phoenix smart region.

“Two years ago we announced the intention and vision for a smart region consortium in Greater Phoenix,” says Chris Camacho, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC). “Now a reality, this consortium will elevate the region’s competitiveness and enhance the reputation of Greater Phoenix as a preeminent market where companies can test, develop and deploy technology at scale while providing our residents with a technologically advanced lifestyle opportunity.”

What will be the nation’s largest and most connected smart region in Greater Phoenix is the result of the unified effort of the Partnership for Economic Innovation (PEI), GPEC, Maricopa Association of Governments, Arizona State University and the Institute for Digital Progress.

“The connective is a governing structure that establishes a process by which the region can holistically adopt smart technology by entirely re-engineering the system as we know it today,” Camacho says.

Team approach

The Connective, Greater Phoenix’s Smart Region Consortium, was founded with support from Cox Communications, Dell, Maricopa County, Salt River Project and Sprint.

“These great organizations are conveners of ideas and are key to developing a vision for our future,” says Jenn Daniels, mayor of Gilbert. “No one does anything alone. Each group brings strengths and expertise to the table without an ego. It’s a remarkable accomplishment to collaborate across so many disciplines, but it’s also the Arizona way. We’ve been working together on various issues for decades and we’ve gotten really good at it.”

This collaborative effort to construct the nation’s largest smart region is designed to enable high-level problem solving that encourages connectivity, affordability, and intra-operative capability of services.

“The Connective is another step forward for smart community applications and services,” explains Ed Aaronson, vice president at Cox Communications, “engaging city leaders and citizens, nonprofits, university faculty, student researchers, industry experts, and visiting scholars to build the metropolitan and regional infrastructure of the future.”

The cities interwoven into The Connective include The City of Apache Junction, City of Buckeye, City of Casa Grande, City of Chandler, Town of El Mirage, Town of Fountain Hills, Town of Gilbert, City of Glendale, City of Goodyear, City of Mesa, City of Peoria, City of Phoenix, Town of Queen Creek, City of Scottsdale, City of Surprise, City of Tempe, City of Tolleson and the Town of Youngtown, with the potential for additional cities to join in the future.

Connectivity by region

While the needs of individual cities will certainly be addressed, The Connective seeks to solve the challenges of all jurisdictions by approaching solutions on a larger, regional scale.

According to Diana Bowman, associate professor for Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, “The Connective is meant to identify what the challenges are from a regional vantage point. This is not about ASU having a research agenda and going out to deliver technology to the cities and region because we think that’s what needed. It’s about each participating city telling us what they need and The Connective finding the best solution to address that need.”

Intra-operative efforts beyond borders

Bowman provides a real-time, palatable example of how the concept of interchangeable systems will play out in the Greater Phoenix Smart Region.

“When I wake up in the morning,” explains Bowman, “I wake up in the City of Phoenix. When I go to work at the Tempe campus, I cross a jurisdictional border. Most citizens in Greater Phoenix cross-jurisdictional boundaries every day — whether they know it or not. To have smart system transportation that only operates in Tempe or Phoenix (independent of one another) makes no sense. Having an intra-operable system allows a seamless flow of vehicles and people.”

Intra-operative transportation is but one aspect of The Connective’s drive for refined fluidity between municipalities.

“Seamless borders need to be seamless by way of technology, data sharing and integrated solutions, too,” Daniels says. “I would love to work with The Connective to ensure that solutions don’t end at municipal boundaries, but that as a region and state, we all work together to ensure total integration when it comes to traffic management, 5G connectivity and resource protection.”

Whereas smart technology solutions have historically come in the form of a pushed product upon a city council, Camacho reiterates that The Connective works in opposition to this strategy.

“Ours is a partnership and governance that enables us to form audits with our cities to find out what residents want in terms of issues that they foresee in their communities,” he says. “We find common ground in shared challenges that propel the governance system to enable a call for innovation and to ultimately come forward and address what those issues are.”

While The Connective goes to work on addressing the varied issues within the new Greater Phoenix Smart Region, there will be added advantages for those involved.

“The training, knowledge sharing and awareness that will result from participation in The Connective will greatly benefit cities as they seek to better understand how and when to implement smart technologies in their cities,” says Dan Cotterman, deputy city manager for Goodyear.

Saving cities time and money

Often, cities share common challenges, further reinforcing the value of regional collaboration in working toward connectivity. Camacho explains that the likely shared challenges of The Connective’s participating cities allow for the adoption of a scale. This scale enables the overarching cost that a city or set of cities would normally incur to procure needed technology to significantly decrease.

Cities aren’t the only entities that have the potential to save. Because The Connective ultimately seeks to provide the smartest solutions through the most efficient solutions, Greater Phoenix businesses and universities will likewise reap the rewards.   

“Think of Arizona in the last five years as becoming known as the proving ground for emerging technologies,” Camacho says. “In 2015, there was executive order on autonomous vehicles, then there’s the FinTech sandbox, wearable technology, and the recent emergence of PropTech (property technology) and new regulatory sandboxes. All of this has evolved into a partnership with private industry, including APS, SRP and others with ASU.”

The result of such partnerships is going to enable a mass number of proving grounds, testing models, where Internet of Things (IoT) devices can be deployed alongside other forms of state-of-the-art smart technology to be tested and validated before they get brought back to the consortium for adoption, according to Camacho.

“Businesses are increasingly incorporating technology in their workplace environment,” affirms Cotterman. “The use of technology spans all business sectors, from engineering companies to advanced manufacturers, who use sophisticated technology to grow and compete in the global marketplace. The Connective allows us, as a region, to stay relevant and become more competitive as we vie for knowledge-based and other highly desirable companies.”

Becoming a smart region

While financial and logistics benefits are likely to manifest in both public and private sectors, Bowman emphasizes that there is a far greater motivation at play when it comes to the underlying drive of The Connective.

“At all times, the discussion has ultimately centered around quality of life,” Bowman says. “Having the mindset that the Smart Region isn’t so much about technology or business development — but rather improving quality of life in the region — has been the driving force for everything we’ve done and is critical to our mission moving forward.”

“If we do this well over the next few years,” Camacho says, “We believe as we put the new governance structure in place, we’ll have a structure by which public and private interest in smart technology advance together, the result of which will yield an innovative brand for the region.”

And, Daniels adds, “When we demonstrate our willingness to drive change, we will attract others who see value in the same. Our universities are turning out world-class graduates already contributing to our economy. All levels of government are challenging the status quo and clearing the path for business and personal success. Our businesses are investing in solutions and in people delivering unprecedented Arizona growth. We’re all in this together and it shows.”