Full Speed Ahead for Spokane’s University District Smart City Accelerator

""“Why not us?”

This is how NFL Champion Seattle Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson inspired his team on the way to winning Super Bowl XLVIII this past February. The Seahawks proved they had the raw materials, desire, and leadership to achieve their goal, but Wilson provided the convening sentiment while millions of actors and stakeholders—Seattle’s famous 12th man—played a role in the historic achievement of a goal stated.

Earlier this month, Spokane’s University District Smart City Accelerator team left RMI’s eLab Accelerator with a similarly powerful inspiration, along with the guiding strategic direction and convening sentiment to embark on the next leg of the journey for Spokane’s University District.

Spokane has worked toward the re-development of 770 acres surrounding former rail yard and municipal waste disposal properties adjacent to our downtown core since the 1980s and more intently since the community established its shared vision and master plan for the area a decade ago. With more than 54,000 residents and daily commuters, five higher-education campuses, and contiguous to two regional health systems, the District is well positioned to be the magnet for increased development activity in the region. The most highly-revered feature of the district and the community in general is the scenic Spokane River, which encompasses two waterfalls and provides 25 megawatts of renewable hydropower in the city’s core.

Now a small group of instigators with vision, experience, and the means to make things happen sees the University District as a smart city laboratory, a place to implement and evaluate the best smart city strategies of today and the most promising next-generation smart city strategies for tomorrow. And, thanks to the advent of cost-effective “big data,” we can marry those efforts with identifying the right problems and imagining the possibilities from the consumer point of view.

Our community is home to a group of leaders in this sector who are grappling with both the opportunities of action and the threats of inaction. As our team packed bags for four days in Colorado’s mountains at eLab to experience some of the finest facilitation experts and access to unparalleled deep sector knowledge in smart city initiatives worldwide, the questions on our minds centered on getting to know our fellow team members and developing a shared understanding and articulation of what is possible with our project. During the intensity of our focused working sessions, we grappled with the multi-layered complexity of our aim—something that was especially difficult for a team of engineers and accountants! But we left with a much more tangible understanding of what it will take to find and use the cultural, economic, and political leverage points to capitalize on our assets and deliver significant impact to the lives of people in the region.

RMI and eLab were instrumental in helping us determine our convening question: How can we provide, leverage, develop, and model smart city systems in the University District to achieve our collective economic, environmental, and well-being goals and aspirations?

Though intended only as version 1.0, the question is a grand invitation to enlist the community in helping prioritize the smart city elements that most positively impact the lives of our citizens. Our team members can use the question to enroll, engage, interview, and organize members of the community who can connect their idea of economy, environment, and well being to make this initiative and its results part of their story. We came away with a much-heightened awareness of the time and effort necessary to catalyze disparate stakeholders to move together.

Indeed, we learned that it may be “comfortable” to rapidly distill the effort into a “project” with a specific form, clear principles, and a succinct definition, but doing so will be a recipe for far less than optimal results with more modest ambition, narrower scope, and missed opportunities to optimize across the bigger picture. We’re trying to take a longer view to our work, with a hope that the work we do today can lead to a series of prototypes for the cities of the future.

Coming together as a team for the first time at eLab, with different mindsets and perspectives yet collective experiences and intellectual understanding of smart city concepts and the nature of innovation, allowed us to realize that we are privileged to work on something transformative to our community, our universities, our companies, and our organizations. We also affirmed what each of us had learned individually: That innovation happens more often than not from the spirited clashes between already-proven ideas at the intersections of distinctly different disciplines and at the boundaries of previously established norms.

In one of our clinics, we were advised to “embrace the messiness.” While striving for a value proposition, we learned that, instead, we are actually striving to identify multiple value propositions depending on a given stakeholder point of view. Rather than driving for consensus, our goal might be best stated as keeping the idea “fuzzy” so that it can be continuously refined and can continuously enlist stakeholders while remaining agile to a rapidly evolving ecosystem.

We’re returning to Spokane with a “beginner’s mind” open to possibilities without limitations, bringing back a set of tools that will help us work with our larger team back home to push boundaries, enlarge our thinking, and truly transform the District’s destiny. Looking ahead now, we have two types of work to do: a) identifying discrete next steps forward and b) further shaping and clarifying the idea and the mental models that help define it.

We each brought a different perspective to eLab—perhaps thinking of our assignment in terms of technology, policy, measurement, data, and infrastructure. But we went home knowing that defining the initiative in bold, audacious terms has the potential to bind the community together in pursuit of shared aspirations of the entire community, so that it will be “their story of success”—not just ours—as well as the potential to provide, leverage, develop, and model smart city systems for cities around the globe.

So why not us?

Kim Zentz is a civil engineer with 30+ years of experience in alternative energy, utilities, innovation-based economic development, and entrepreneurship. She is a contractor to Avista Utilities on the Spokane University District Accelerator team.