Collaboration is Key Factor to Spokane’s Smart City

By Heather Rosentrater

Heather Rosentrater is the Director of Engineering and Grid Innovation for Avista and leads the Transmission and Distribution Engineering groups as well as the company’s Smart Grid and Smart City efforts. She joined Avista in 1996 while studying Electrical Engineering at Gonzaga University. She graduated from Gonzaga in 1999 and was hired on full-time with Avista as an Engineer. She has held several engineering and leadership positions during her 19 year career. Heather is a registered Professional Engineer. She is a member of the Rocky Mountain Institute and serves on the Smart Grid Northwest Board, the Alumni Engagement Council (EAC) for the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Gonzaga University, and the Advisory Council for Washington State University’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

In spring of 2014, a small group of inquisitive and action-oriented Spokane community members headed to the Rocky Mountain Institute to spend four days in Colorado’s mountains and immerse themselves in deep sector knowledge of smart city initiatives worldwide. This Core Group represented public, private, and educational entities, each with potential individual benefits from Smart City implementation, which included:

  • Washington State University – Expanded research and development opportunities
  • The City of Spokane – Enhanced operational and service benefits
  • Itron – Development of a self-sustaining, standardized business model to replicate worldwide
  • Avista Utilities – New pathways for growth, productivity, and services


The time spent, carved out of busy schedules with the hopeful expectation of gathering insights and building relationships, was definitely worth it. Despite our different objectives, the team quickly grasped the benefits a smart city could bring, especially if we envisioned the future possibilities together. We left with a shared commitment to explore and model smart city systems in Spokane to achieve our collective goals and aspirations to better the economy, environment and well-being of our community.

Collaboration is worth the extra effort

A collaborative spirit is one of the admirable qualities of the Spokane community where we live. Over the decades, people here have come together to tackle difficult issues and successfully move our city forward, improving the economy and our quality of life. By way of example:

  • Our community rallied to bring the 1974 World’s Fair to Spokane, giving Spokane the distinction of being the smallest city to ever host the World’s Fair.
  • In the 1990s, community leaders came together under the banner of “Momentum” to rejuvenate the regional economy. They saved Spokane during a time when many downtown cores were being abandoned as retailers and consumers flocked to suburban malls.
  • And ten years ago, the community created a shared vision and master plan to revitalize a 770 acre plot of land that once hosted a rail yard and municipal waste disposal. The property, along the Spokane River and adjacent to our downtown core, has been transformed into Spokane’s University District — home to six higher-education institutions.


So, it’s only natural that we tap into this collaborative spirit as we architect our version of a Smart City in Spokane.

Leveraging Previous Collaborative Wins

UD_Banner_Framed[1]It is also natural that we chose the Spokane University District, shaped through community collaboration, as the venue to launch our Smart City aspirations. By focusing our efforts on these 770 acres, we could create a Smart City proving ground within the City of Spokane. This urban campus is currently home to more than 54,000 residents and daily commuters, is flanked by two regional health systems, and is ideally located adjacent to the city’s core, on the banks of the scenic Spokane River.

Even better — less than half of the University District’s total acreage has been fully developed. We have a blank canvas of opportunities for developers, entrepreneurs, researchers and community partners to prototype whatever Smart City applications they may envision. We see this district becoming a living laboratory at the frontier of the next generation of smart city applications — driven by the citizens who will use them and driving efficiencies and momentum by leveraging the backbone of a planned Avista smart grid implementation.

Focusing the scope on the district’s 770 acre boundaries, while leveraging the Health Sciences focus of the campuses and the Health Care concentration of the regional economy, creates a manageable, community-scale living laboratory that has the ability to enhance resident well-being, and we are focusing on its potential as a smart city for health. It’s an obvious application, given the existing expertise in Health Sciences. And we believe that as new businesses and developers are recruited, even more Smart City applications and possibilities will evolve through synergy.

Collaboration is worth the extra effort

We know from past efforts that collaboration takes time – more time than you might anticipate. No surprise, it always takes longer to build consensus than to dictate decisions. But it’s worth the extra effort because the end result is always more enduring when we work together. That is the secret to our resiliency as a community and the value proposition upon which we wish to build for others in Spokane’s University District.

Here’s what we’ve learned about successful collaboration over the years.

  • Establish a sense of shared purpose. Each party brings different talents and skills to the table so engaging these resources for mutual benefit is a cornerstone of collaboration.
  • Coordinate and cooperate. The confluence of these factors is where collaboration happens and shared purpose is achieved. In short, alignment always creates the greatest impact.
  • Think big, but start small. When you try new ideas at lower cost, you can adapt and move forward with confidence.


We’re certainly applying all of these principles today. We’ve established a sense of shared purpose and are moving beyond planning. Our partners are forging alignment within their organizations so we can identify pilots that will prove valuable – solve real problems for real people.

Challenges so far

With so much potential in Spokane’s University District and all the compelling prospects we’re contemplating, there is plenty of enthusiasm to start “doing something.” Yet it takes considerable time, effort and discipline to genuinely establish a sense of shared purpose among diverse partners, while also factoring in the needs and desires of the people served by the district and its ultimate amenities.

This effort is an ongoing conversation that actually started many years ago as the vision of the University District started taking shape. We know that moving too quickly to implement runs the risk of galvanizing opposition to an unknown and could unnecessarily constrain the big picture ideas. This “measure twice, cut once” approach is extremely frustrating to those with the can-do spirit who are anxious to bring the vision to life. So far, our main challenge has been to balance these opposing sources of energy.

Similar to any community with grand ideas, finding sources of seed funding has been an additional challenge. Funding is closely related to the amount of time we have to dedicate to this important effort. You also need a story or vision to share.  Avista, Itron, the City of Spokane and Washington State University have sponsored some of the initial planning activities. With our phase 1 work complete and phase 2 nearly complete, we are now better equipped with case statements and value propositions to make proposals to additional private and public partners.

Perhaps more importantly, we have adopted a design principle around leveraging any current or presently planned future investments so that we can maximize any future incremental dollars to be invested in the infrastructure to the benefit of our smart district vision.

We’re encouraged by our progress

As a cross-community team, we have completed Phase 1, which focused on evaluating the following areas:

  • Technical limitations on leveraging utility communications infrastructure for sensing data;
  • Policy and regulatory considerations for sharing infrastructure and data; and
  • Broad identification of possible value streams with specification of six initial use cases for evaluation.


By the end of Phase 1, we all agreed that the potential challenges could be overcome and the benefits are likely to be worth the effort. We are confidently on the course of collaborative discovery in Phase 2, which is focused on defining design principles and parameters as well as more specific analysis of high-potential value streams for our initial use cases.

We realize we have a lot of hard work ahead of us. Like other cities that are trying to become safer, healthier and smarter, we expect to experience our own unique challenges. Yet we know that we can achieve something greater together and the vision for the Smart City accelerator we’re creating will strengthen the well-being and economic vitality of Spokane and our entire region in ways that we can only imagine today. And that’s totally worth it!

Our story is far from finished. So stay tuned as we help create the next chapter in our community’s story.

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