How digital transformation took Gilbert, Arizona from “hay capital” to smart city

By Tony Bryson, Ph.D., chief information security officer of Gilbert, AZ, and Sean Hargrave, contributor

Running a city is just like running a business: Understanding the changing needs of customers—or citizens, in the case of a city—is imperative for growth and function. As chief information security officer for the town of Gilbert, Arizona, I have seen firsthand how listening to the needs of constituents can turn a fast-growing suburban community into a thriving municipality.

In the same way that a business might debut a new product line to reinvent itself, our town of Gilbert rebranded, modernized and restructured to become a city of the future. The secret to our success wasn’t a secret at all; Rather, it’s a combination of forward-thinking leadership, an entrepreneurial mindset and a successful business partnership with providers who could help us transform and accelerate.

The catalyst for this transformation was a major change in our citizen base. What began as an oasis in the desert for snowbirds and retirees has evolved into a mecca for families, booming businesses and university-educated millennials. Gilbert’s rapid expansion began in the 1970s and emanated from Phoenix, where big business and startups prosper, and the University of Arizona and Arizona State University attract world-leading researchers.

But in the 2010s, we saw a need for improvement to our digital infrastructure, one that would improve the daily lives of our 281,000 citizens and lay the foundations to be a smart city ready for the challenges of the next five, 10 or even 100 years . We needed to adapt to our changing demographics and provide citizens with the security, agility and connectivity they needed to thrive through the pandemic and beyond.

Keeping our heads in the cloud

Stamp or label with text Gilbert, Arizona written inside, vector illustration

We all know of businesses that have come and gone because they failed to adapt. It’s the same with a town. After we experienced security threats, we knew we needed to be proactive and provide a more resilient infrastructure that would ensure consistent delivery services for all our citizens.

We looked at the various attack vectors that exist within the threat surface and determined which ones held the most potential for damage and recovery, and what was going to be the best way to address those challenges. Before restructuring, we did not have the skills to take on those challenges immediately. So, the best way to take that on was to find a business partner that could come in, help us make the selection in the integration of products, and then do a knowledge transfer to our people so that they could then maintain and improve upon those particular systems down the road.

We saw this as a necessary change for our citizens at the time. Not only were the demographics of our town changing, but the circumstances of work and life were about to unexpectedly change with COVID-19, too. Despite the disruption, we were steadfast in our desire to digitally transform.

We knew we had to offer our citizens fast and reliable access to the internet so they could work from home, as well as interact with the town online. We saw the need to safeguard data, ensure consistent delivery of digital services and give IT team members the opportunity to drive innovation. Our goals were ambitious, but we had a cloud-appropriate mindset from the start. We asked ourselves: Do the services being offered make sense for Gilbert? That helped us shift towards the cloud and use the right services at the right time. We moved some of our core services and applications to the cloud. Our partnerships with Dell Technologies and others allowed us to operate our services in a mixed environment.

This took a lot of stress off of our internal infrastructure. It allowed us to shift some of our resources from expensive internal services to build a more robust infrastructure that supported the remote work environment. So, when Covid hit, we were able to send people home to work within 24-48 hours while ensuring security, connectivity and physical safety for our people.

Safeguarding Gilbert

A scenic view of downtown Phoenix, Arizona from the heights of South Mountain.

Security is a fundamental expectation of any business’s customers. It’s no different when it comes to cities. Municipalities hold sensitive data, such as court and criminal justice information. In 2021, over 2,300 US-based government agencies, educational institutions and healthcare facilities suffered ransomware attacks.

As remote work continues to gain ground, it becomes all the more important to secure safe connections and storage for each worker and citizen. This is why we opted for air-gapped storage that provides an additional layer of security against cyber threats. We have a safe harbor environment that is separate from the rest of the network, so we can ringfence our data in the event of an attack. We can replace the data on our systems in the unlikely situation we ever need to.

We started on this digital transformation journey before the pandemic. But in 2020, the value of being able to work from home, for both our customers as well as our own employees, became self-evident. Now workplace patterns have changed, and our town is in a strong position to attract and retain professional families who expect fast internet connections as an integral part of their daily home and working lives.

What lies ahead for our “city of the future”

The nature of digital transformation is that it is an ongoing project. We are always strategizing how to future-proof our network and services and what the next steps should be. We are working on further digitizing Gilbert for accessible services for all our citizens. People can now interact with us online, and soon we will have an app, so everything will be accessible on a mobile screen. We are also working on connecting our public transit systems so people can find out in real time when the next train or bus is coming, as well as stay up to date with traffic conditions.

For any organization wanting to embark on its own digital transformation journey, there are three things our experiences suggest you are going to need:

  1. A focus on meeting customer wants and needs
  2. Strong leadership to commit to acting on customer insights and asking questions around what the resulting service should look like
  3. A detailed strategy so you have a plan to deliver success.

While running a city is similar to running a business, our gains are somewhat different. In Gilbert, we’ve seen our profits in the form of flourishing businesses and remote workers. We’ve seen our “shareholders” succeed as our community can handily access secure and reliable networks. And we’re able to project exponential growth that will continue to take us from a startup town to a booming business hub. Cities of the future run with the know-how of a business but also with the heart of a community. At Gilbert, we are shaping a new tomorrow, today.

Lead photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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