Exploring the Urban Sustainability Director’s Network (USDN)

by Mike Lippitz

A KIN Innovation Communities Case Study Exploring the Urban Sustainability Director’s Network (USDN)

The Urban Sustainability Director’s Network (USDN) formed in April 2009. Municipal sustainability leaders recognized that local governments were faced similar cross-cutting sustainability issues without a forum to collaborate, to share best practices or to partner. The network has grown rapidly to 111 member cities and counties in the U.S. and Canada who (1) Are responsible for cross-departmental and communitywide collaborations to achieve sustainability goals; (2) Have proven sustainability policies or practices that they are willing to share with their peer USDN members; and (3) Are committed to actively learn from, assist, and collaborate with their peers and regularly contribute time and effort to the Network.

The USDN further extends its community by allowing members to invite multiple city staff to receive e-news and privileged access to the website, as well as take part in small group discussions, working groups, and user groups. USDN is funded by the Summit Foundation, the Kendeda Fund, the Kresge Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Surdna Foundation, the Barr Foundation, and the Home Depot Foundation. Additionally, it receives income from core membership dues and voluntary contributions. Dues current cover 25% of core network operating costs and are designed to grow over the next 3 years to 50% of core network costs.

A Planning Committee and the Network Coordinator (Julia Parzen) oversee a number of working group activities as well as strategic partners and consultants. USDN peer to peer networking activities are the first step toward identifying opportunities for joint gain and innovation investment.  In addition to a 2.5 day annual meeting at which core members set USDN focus areas for the following year, the network staff also facilitates communication among its members through peer-to-peer user groups, a small group discussion marketplace, helpdesk/online networking and the creation and co-creation of tools/products through working groups.

Exploring the Urban Sustainability Director’s Network (USDN)

Peer to peer user groups are self-formed groups of USDN members that share operational questions and challenges for a particular field (e.g. instituting a citywide bike-sharing program). 80% of USDN members participate in one or more user groups.  Examples include: Sustainable Economic Development, Rental Housing Energy Efficiency, and Sustainability Indicators. The Small Group Discussion Marketplace are conversations facilitated by USDN staff that take place among 7 to 10 USDN members. Requests for these small group discussions are advertised in the USDN Weekly E-News, and example topics include: urban climate adaptation strategies, eco-districts, and responding to external sustainability rating organizations. USDN’s Help Desk is an online forum for discussion on sustainability topics. USDN members can post questions and participate in an online dialogue with other members. Questions are publicized in the Weekly E-News, and examples of topics include information on recycling contamination rates, training programs and safety requirements for city employee bike programs, and ways to accelerate permitting of EV charging stations.  Finally, USDN will launch this year a private social networking website for its members organized around a series of tags that index documents, links, discussion topics, and most importantly, individuals who are related to that topic.

USDN also coordinates working groups of 10 or more interested members to create tools and products.  One group prototypes innovation best practices.  USDN coordinates opportunity identification and development processes for promising innovation investments through its regional networks.  (USDN’s Regional Networks Coordinating Committee supported the creation of regional networks in New England, Western States, Southern States, Heartland, Midwest, and Northwest.)  USDN’s “Innovation System” scans best practices, helps find financial support for development of innovations, and pilots approaches to scale and replicate these innovations. Investments are determined by RFP for priority areas that the members choose each year at the annual meeting.  The effort is led by the USDN Sustainability Innovation Fund Steering Committee made up if 10 members and its strategic partner, the Innovation Network for Communities (INC). The RFP launched in December 2011 attracted 16 collaborative innovation proposals totalling about $700,000 from 45 member cities.

USDN manages and measures value-add of its activities by keeping constant track of its members’ contributions to the network as well as their satisfaction with the user groups and activities. Members are committed to three in-depth surveys annually so that the network may measure its effectiveness and impact.  The network keeps a scorecard for member participation and measures the depth and breadth of the member network on a “connectivity map,” to understand the broader reach of diverse network members.   USDN’s members have limited resources and time to meet in-person to collaborate, so much of the network’s activities are conducted virtually.  However, the single annual meeting is an essential and intense opportunity to build relationships. USDN has a dynamic programming model that is based on member’s unmet needs and focus areas. Each year the organization compiles a “zero-based budget” and allows the annual meeting and Planning Committee to determine strategic directions for the organization based on current member challenges. Leaders from old groups are encouraged to start and join new groups based on their changing needs and interests. USDN believes only in putting energy into projects that have member momentum and interest. (USDN does not consider ending a group to be a failure.)   The total network size is limited to about 100 so that the intensive engagement, monitoring and peer-to-peer sharing remain the operating motif.

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of case studies on Innovation Communities being created by the Kellogg Innovation Network here at Innovation Excellence. They would sincerely appreciate it if you would contact them if you know about INets that they should consider including in their database. If you’re a leader of an INet, they will invite you to join a gathering of INet leaders that they hope to arrange next year, to review the findings of the study and take this research to the next level: What are lessons to be learned in creating INets and making them successful? It’s kind of the meta-meta level. Innovation results are the base. INets are the first meta level, which is learning about how to manage innovation to produce results. And if we can form a network of INets, that will be about learning about how to produce powerful new learning environments. To participate in KIN’s research, please fill out their data form and they will contact you!

image credits: sustainablecitiesinstitute.org/usdn; kinglobal.org


Exploring the Cardiff University Innovation NetworkMike Lippitz is a Research Fellow with the Center for Research in Technology and Innovation at the Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois, a Senior Policy Analyst with the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, DC, and a Principal at Clareo Partners LLC.  Prior positions include Special Assistant for Strategic Technology Planning in the Office of Director for Defense Research and Engineering, US Department of Defense and product line manager at Hewlett-Packard Company.

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