Photo courtesy of the city of Dubuque
Smart, sustainable success
Dubuque, Iowa, is striving to become a model of sustainability as part of an IBM public-private partnership. To do that, citizens, businesses and other institutions have been changing their behavior on a grand scale.
February 14, 2012 | In 2005, as then-City Councilman Roy Buol climbed the hilly streets of Dubuque, Iowa, knocking on voters’ doors in a run for mayor, he was thinking about sustainability. He and his wife had begun enjoying the birth of grandchildren, he recalls, and wanted to preserve this new quality of life for them.
As he campaigned, he asked voters what they wanted for Dubuque, and he was delighted with their answers.
“They said they were concerned with water quality, air quality, the social aspect,” Buol, who won the election, said.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Dubuque had been hit hard by recession, unemployment and racial tensions. By 2005 the city was thriving, but Buol found that residents were not complacent.
He interpreted voters’ concerns as subsets of an overarching desire for sustainability. Sustainability of the environment, yes, but also of all aspects of this city on the Mississippi River, which has garnered designations as the third most beautiful place in the U.S. (USA Weekend Magazine) and “the best small city to raise a family” (Forbes).
In response, Dubuque launched Sustainable Dubuque, which in turn sparked Smarter Sustainable Dubuque, a partnership with IBM to use analytics and cloud computing technology to help city residents.
Individuals, businesses and religious institutions have all taken part in the effort to make Dubuque, population 58,000, a model sustainable city using smart technology.
The goal? To save money and resources. The hitch? The program is voluntary. That is, no one has to take shorter showers or turn the thermostat down -- but they do.
Final data haven’t yet been released, but initial results from the electricity pilot program show a 4 to 11 percent savings rate, while the water pilot program is credited with saving the city $290,000. (The water program is being rolled out citywide now, and the electricity program will soon be implemented for all residents.)
How did city officials get citizen buy-in on a project that might -- at least in the short run -- cost money, for efforts such as fixing leaks and installing programmable thermostats?
The answer, municipal leaders, experts and ordinary citizens say, is simple -- yet challenging to replicate. The key to Dubuque’s transformation was meaningful citizen engagement.
Smarter Sustainable Dubuque
In 2009, IBM located its 1,300-job global technology service delivery center in Dubuque. Company officials offered three reasons for the city’s selection: Dubuque’s strong public-private partnership base, its colleges and universities, and the fact that the city’s sustainable model mirrored existing initiatives within IBM.
IBM didn't only bring jobs. The company extended an offer to the city: Would it partner with IBM to become the first “smarter city” in North America?
That, city leaders now say, was a no-brainer.
Questions to consider:
- How might Dubuque’s strategy for gaining citizen input help your leadership team build support for strategic initiatives?
- The mayor notes that “not everyone is moved by the same issues.” What motivates your constituents? How do you listen to and respond to their motivations?
- Smarter Sustainable Dubuque is a story of successful collaborations. Who are your key partners, and how do you tend your relationships with them?
- Has your institution experimented with models that could be replicated? How are you learning from them and sharing what you’ve learned with others?
“We still had the bitter taste of the past in our mouths," said David Lyons, project manager of Smarter Sustainable Dubuque. "We wanted to maintain the [new] high quality of life for now and the future.”
SSD would pave the path into the future. Created to supply actionable information to Dubuque residents and organizations, SSD marries the research capacity of IBM with private Internet portals to collect and deliver data. That data -- gathered from water, electricity and gas meters, for example -- shows how much water is used in the shower each morning, say, or how much money it costs to heat the house during the day when no one is home.
IBM research staff member Tom Erickson said the purpose of SSD is to leverage the expertise of the people -- homeowners, businesses, schools -- to make systems run more efficiently. Whether the subject is “the patch of sidewalk in front of my house that needs repair” or the daily expense of electricity, Erickson said, gathering and sharing data helps create a “smarter” city that can “produce and distribute energy more efficiently.”
“Dubuque is a really interesting town,” Erickson said, “especially notable for the degree of collaboration and civic pride amongst the residents.”
That collaboration and pride were already in place thanks to Buol’s Sustainable Dubuque program. It had begun with an intense effort in meaningful citizen engagement.
“When the Council identified sustainability as a priority, the mayor appointed a 40-member citywide task force that was very diversified,” Dubuque Sustainable Community Coordinator Cori Burbach said.