Dubuque, Iowa: The First American 'Smart City'?

When IBM (IBM) announced last January that it planned on locating an IT services center that would eventually employ 1,300 people in Dubuque, Iowa, it was great news for city leaders. Every additional job is a check mark in the win column for a place that has seen its traditional industry of farm equipment manufacturing decline over the past few decades. But the relationship between this city of 60,000 on the banks of the Mississippi and the global corporation with 400,000 employees has blossomed since the announcement. On Sept. 17 the two announced a joint effort to turn Dubuque into an international model for environmental sustainability.

Dubuque city government and business leaders have made green a priority since 2006. Now, with IBM as its partner, the city plans on using federal government stimulus money and other funds to make its electricity, water, and transportation systems operate more efficiently and to attract business investment. "We're developing processes where people can make good decisions that will save them money and that will be sustainable beyond their generation," says Dubuque Mayor Roy D. Buol. "We call it making sustainability sustainable."

For IBM, this marks its first so-called "smart city" arrangement in the U.S. Also on Sept. 17 the company announced an arrangement with the Chinese city of Shenyang to collaborate with government agencies and China's Northeastern University to turn that city into a model for environmental protection and sustainable development. IBM already has many engagements underway with cities around the world focusing on small slices of the sustainability puzzle, such as transportation or energy management. These two projects are the first that take a holistic view on improving the basic functions of urban centers.

Dubuque as a Template IBM hopes to use the technology it develops and the lessons it learns in Dubuque to create a template that it can use in business engagements in other American cities with populations of less than 200,000—an estimated 1,200 cities. "Dubuque is a great partner for us to get started with. We can work with them to create a living laboratory for sustainability," says Mahmoud Naghshineh, director of IT services for IBM Research.

The partners face many challenges. While neither IBM nor the city would reveal specific details, money is tight, which is why the city hopes to tap federal stimulus funds. Also, government agencies, local businesses, citizens, and IBM all have to have their say—a complex mishmash of interests that has to be handled carefully. How it will work has yet to be figured out, but the city plans on engaging and involving its citizens from the get-go. "We think that if you give people information and make them part of the decisions, they'll buy into anything that will save them money and make the world around them a better place to live," says Mayor Buol.

The first phase of the Dubuque project concerns water conservation. The city plans on installing meters that gather extensive data about water use and will be able to detect waste and leakage. The city is looking for 1,000 home and business owners to volunteer to participate in a pilot project. Later, it plans on addressing electricity usage and the coordination of auto parking and bus lines.

Historic Preservation For Dubuque, there's a direct connection between environmental sustainability and economic development. The city is working with businesses to restore parts of the downtown to provide much-needed housing and attractive office space. The idea is to maintain the historic flavor of the old river town while saving money on energy and materials. At the same time, local industries see the water and power projects as business opportunities. For instance, Dubuque manufacturer A.Y. McDonald has developed metering equipment for the new water use monitoring system. "Sustainability isn't just an activity. It's a market and an economic engine," says David Lyons, a former director of economic development for Iowa who was hired by the Greater Dubuque Development Corp. to assess the city's sustainability plans.

IBM is doing its part for historic preservation. It has located its IT services center in a restored former downtown department store. Already, nearly 1,000 people are working there—and some of them will be assigned to help out with the Dubuque sustainability project.

IBM also plans on putting research scientists to work on the project. Among them will be usability specialists who will help design a Web site where citizens and city leaders will monitor water and energy use and calculate benefits. The research department is also creating what it calls a Platform for Real-time Integrated Sustainability Monitoring, or PRISM. It's a package of software for gathering data, monitoring, spotting patterns and anomalies, and analyzing interdependencies between physical systems—such as water, waste treatment, and electricity. Once PRISM is completed and has been refined in Dubuque, the company plans on using it in engagements in other cities around the world.

In 2005, Buol ran for mayor with sustainability as one of his issues. At a meeting of the Conference of Mayors in 2006, he joined the climate protection group and was later invited by actor and environmental activist Robert Redford to a conference on climate control. Buol was inspired to make Dubuque a model for sustainability. "I told people here that the city should get ahead of the curve, and we'd prosper in the future," recalls Buol. "This has been a top priority of the city ever since."

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