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Integrating Citizen Engagement & Smart Technology for a Sustainable City

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Cori Burbach and Casey Muhm

Burbach juneAs cities strive to do more with less and engage residents and businesses in meaningful conversations about their communities, connection to natural resources and the vital role they play in creating a high quality of life are key goals. What began in 2006 in Dubuque, Iowa as a holistic, community vision to become a more sustainable city has transformed into a smarter city initiative where local government works with partners to leverage technology and engage citizens in dialogue about the financial, environmental and social benefits of natural resources.

When Roy D. Buol ran for mayor on a platform of “engaging citizens as partners,” residents told him that water quality, green space, recycling, cultural vitality and downtown revitalization were important to them. A 40 member, diverse citizen task force then met and collected community-wide input to develop the Sustainable Dubuque vision, focused on creating a viable, livable and equitable community.

The work of the Sustainable Dubuque Task Force didn’t stop when they delivered recommendations to the City Council. “One of the core principles of our community and our local government revolves around the concept of planning, partnerships and people,” asserts City Manager Mike Van Milligen. “The Mayor and the City Council have always recognized that you’ll get the best results if you partner with people in the creation of the plan and the implementation of the community’s ideas.”

Members of the Task Force, residents, businesses and nonprofits, continue to be engaged in achieving the Sustainable Dubuque vision. From the Dubuque Metropolitan Area Solid Waste Agency, who leads the Green Vision Schools program, to the residents who have started multiple community gardens as a way to bring healthy, local foods to low-income neighborhoods, one key to the protection of the tri-states’ natural resources is continued community engagement.

In multiple instances, the city and its partners have encountered residents and businesses who want to make environmentally-friendly decisions, but need resources to implement those changes. Depending on the situation, those resources could be information, technical assistance or incentives.

  • The East Central Intergovernmental Association (ECIA) created the Petal Project green business certification program in 2009. The program, built around a simple framework that includes energy and water efficiency, resource management, pollution prevention and staff education, was created as a resource for multiple businesses, all of whom were spending valuable staff resources to research opportunities to become more sustainable.
  • The City of Dubuque Engineering Rain Garden program provides personal, technical assistance for residents, businesses and nonprofits that are interested in installing rain gardens on their property but are unsure where to begin. These rain gardens are part of the community’s overall commitment to water quality and stormwater management.
  • When the City installed new water meters with increased ability to detect leaks, they recognized that many low-income residents would be financially unable to fix the newly-identified leaks. A matching grant program was created to assist all residents in fixing water leaks.

Something that makes Sustainable Dubuque unique—especially for communities with a population of 200,000 or less where over 40 percent of the U.S. population resides—is its utilization of technology. Smarter Sustainable Dubuque began in 2009 as a high-tech research component of the Sustainable Dubuque initiative, and is a unique public/private partnership between the City of Dubuque, IBM research centers and other key partners. Through a shared goal of making Dubuque one of the first “smarter” sustainable cities in the U.S., the initiative aimed to use technology to provide residents with detailed information regarding their personal use of several resources and services. Specifically, Smarter Sustainable Dubuque has consisted of five pilot studies:

  • Smarter Water.
  • Smarter Electricity.
  • Smarter Travel.
  • Smarter Heath and Wellness.
  • Smarter Discards.

Dubuque’s Smarter Water pilot study was conducted in conjunction with the City’s community-wide water meter replacement project. More than 300 Dubuque households participated in this 12-month pilot study and received access to a dashboard that provided near real-time, personalized information about their water usage. The dashboard displayed water usage (in gallons, cost or by carbon footprint), provided leak detection and notification and showed historical usage and comparative data. With this information, 61 percent of volunteer households made a change in the way they used water, with an average reduction in water usage of 6.6 percent. Additionally, the pilot and the associated technology resulted in an eightfold increase in leak detection and responses.

In partnership with Dubuque’s private electrical utility, Alliant Energy, the Smarter Electricity pilot included the installation of nearly 1,000 specialized meters in volunteer homes. The user dashboard allowed the study participants to compare their usage to their own usage history and comparative peer groups, set goals for usage reduction and compete in community challenges with other volunteers. Using these data, 45 percent of participants identified ways to reduce usage, with all households consuming between 3 percent and 11 percent less power.

The Smarter Travel pilot began with 1,000 volunteers installing an application on their smartphones and another 500 volunteer public transit users carrying radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, with anonymous data being collected on how, when and where they traveled within the community and identifying opportunities to reduce vehicle miles traveled. In addition to helping volunteers make smarter decisions about how they travel, the aggregate data collected is being used by the City and its partners to implement policies, build infrastructure and shape public transit routes that incorporate lower-impact options sought by citizens.

The Smarter Health and Wellness pilot study was designed to explore how a combination of new technology and community engagement assists participants in achieving health and wellness goals. The technology to deliver this pilot consisted of two smartphone applications: one that used sensing technology to track activity and movement, and a second that provided data collection on activities and goals. Though the pilot was limited in scope compared to the other Smarter Sustainable Dubuque pilots, valuable information was gathered on the relationship between volunteers’ activity levels and the amount of engagement messaging conducted by the City.

In the recently concluded Smarter Discards pilot, more than 300 households volunteered to participate by allowing their weekly trash, recycling and food scraps/yard debris setout weights to be anonymously collected. IBM Research created a website portal for the volunteers that provided diversion tips for beneficial use, household goal challenges, data visualizations across time and analytics that compared discard generation against other households with similar profiles. The “actionable data” that were collected through this pilot are still being analyzed, but will be used in the City’s decision-making related to discard management and diversion to beneficial use.

As cities continue to engage residents and businesses in solutions that will protect resources and create more resilient, sustainable communities, Sustainable Dubuque and Smarter Sustainable Dubuque offer examples of the continued importance of personal engagement while also looking to high technology solutions as an opportunity for future success.


Authors: Cori Burbach ([email protected]) is the Sustainable Community Coordinator for the City of Dubuque. Casey Muhm ([email protected]) is the Director of Sustainable Innovation for Greater Dubuque Development.

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