Peer to Peer Teaches CIO About Innovation

We’d been working for about six months on Surprise Connects, a project to bring leading-edge technology into the homes of the citizens of Surprise, Ariz. We were halfway through the first phase, and it had been a particularly discouraging week. I sat down with my boss, Assistant City Manager Kathy Rice, and said, "This innovation stuff is hard." She replied, quoting Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, "Yes, it is. But if it was easy, everybody would do it!"

Surprise, a city of approximately 100,000, is right in the middle of one of the most frenzied building booms in American history. We’d issued 8,000 single-family-home building permits this year and were trying to get our arms around what our citizens wanted in terms of technology services to the home and to envision what they would want in the future.

As in many boom towns, our growth is fueled by developers, home builders and inexpensive land. The good news is that more rooftops bring retail, which brings jobs, which brings industry. The bad news? Most of the builders were constructing homes the same way they always had—entry-level houses with the same architectural features and amenities as thousands of other Phoenix-area homes. Very few were thinking about the home of the future or the technology it required.

The Internet Future

As a government entity, our focus is on creating community, not just building bedrooms. Working with top futurists and a handful of visionary developers, we identified three goals. The first was to lay out a plan that would bring Surprise onto the playing field with the top connected cities in the nation. The second was to create increased competition among technology providers. And our third goal was to position homes in Surprise for a future of ultrahigh-speed Internet television, entertainment and mobile communications.

The result of our thinking is one of the most comprehensive municipal technology projects in the nation. Begun in early 2006, the project addresses a broad range of technologies, including broadband, Wi-Fi, digital and HDTV and cellular wireless. By looking at the total technology spectrum, we aren’t trying to get a point product (such as Wi-Fi) to meet all our citizens’ needs; we’re looking for multifaceted solutions.

One of our key projects was to introduce a new technology called Broadband over Power Line (BPL). This was the linchpin in an aggressive set of initiatives that would fulfill our goal of providing citizens with advanced technology in the medium of their choice. BPL was the first major project and it had to work.

But BPL was barely out of the lab. The general public had never heard of it; our city council members and city managers didn’t understand it; my staff wondered whether it was ready for prime time; our lawyers weren’t sure it was legal. And the amateur radio community was out to kill it.

After meeting with my boss, I asked myself a few questions: Why are leading-edge projects so hard to understand? Why does everyone (or so it seems) fight them? Looking back across my 25-plus years in IT at some of my more innovative initiatives—large and small, successful and failed—I identified some common truths.

Truth No. 1: Innovation means change. Change and innovation walk the same path. They both upset the applecart. Americans love innovation, except when it affects them personally. (For more on the pain of change, see "The Science of Change," www.cio.com/091506.) My own staff was fearful that the BPL project would overburden them. But as we learned more about it from the vendor, we saw that our role would be one of oversight rather than hands-on, in-the-trenches installation. But change management is always ongoing.

Truth No. 2: The road will be blocked. Every innovation includes roadblocks. Successful project managers are those who get over, around or through the roadblocks. One of our first roadblocks on the BPL project was our own legal team. They were concerned that no other cities had implemented BPL. Several weeks of meetings and sharing of Federal Communications Commission rulings convinced the lawyers that the risks were manageable.

Another roadblock came from amateur radio operators who feared BPL would interfere with some of their operational frequencies. We met with them and agreed to provide a baseline spectrum analysis to assess interference levels before BPL was rolled out.

Truth No. 3: Innovation means execution. Many visionaries have great dreams, but few can bring those dreams to fruition. When first hearing about BPL, we approached the local electric company to ask if it was researching the technology. It wasn’t. Two weeks later, we heard that a third-party provider had a BPL test bed located in a nearby city. A few calls and several inquiries later, we discovered that the electric company had a whole division working with this company on BPL and, apparently, our initial inquiry was to a division unaware that its company was, indeed, working on BPL.

With a provider identified, we targeted one square mile of our community that was poor and underserved, believing that BPL could connect the residents with educational resources that could help address some of the roots of poverty.

Implementation moved slowly. Then the provider was acquired by another company. BPL implementation is still not complete, but I expect it to finish early next year.

Truth No. 4: Innovation requires marketing. Marketing is not just about selling; it’s about convincing stakeholders that a concept will enhance their lives. We have all seen superior products fail because marketing was weak or ineffective.

Marketing must be pursued throughout the entire innovation process. You market the idea in order to bring it to the table. Once the idea is introduced, you market to the stakeholders and customers, and then to the press and the media. After rollout, you must continue marketing to the customers to make sure you’re delivering on your promises.

Communication of the BPL vision had its ups and downs. Our senior management team was originally skeptical of the project until we demonstrated to the police, for example, how the new technology could be used to augment both crime surveillance and traffic control.

It’s been three months since my conversation with my boss, and, happily, our city council and management still enthusiastically support Surprise Connects. Roadblocks are being eliminated one at a time. It takes persistence. As Bertrand Russell said, "No great achievement is possible without persistence."

And that’s the truth.

Randy Jackson is the persistent CIO of the city of Surprise, Ariz. He is also a member of the CIO Executive Council. He can be reached at randy.jackson@surpriseaz.com.

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