ASU's 2022 Smart Region Summit

2022 Smart Region Summit: Trust and partnerships are key to closing the digital divide

January 20th, 2022

Over 550 smart city experts, technology leaders, faculty, researchers and students convened at ASU's fourth annual Smart Region Summit, a digital immersive event on January 13, 2022. Together, this community came together to strengthen a partner network around increasing digital equity in smart regions in Arizona and beyond.

This year, the Summit planning committee, led by ASU CIO Lev Gonick, intentionally placed the communities that we serve at the center of the event by focusing on the intersection of smart regions and digital inclusion. In doing so, participants were able to have honest conversations about ways to address the digital divide, deepened during the pandemic.

Through a variety of plenaries and panel discussions, speakers showcased their work and the work of their region when it comes to bridging the digital divide. Thought-provoking, inspiring, sobering – the conversations that took place during the day-long virtual event had attendees engaged and eager to actively partake in conversation, share resources and more. 


If there’s one thing to take away from the Summit’s programming it’s this: putting digital equity at the forefront starts with building trust in the community and grows through public and private partnerships.

Moving at the speed of trust

Angela Siefer, Wendy Ruiz Xicale, Nicol Turner Lee

(From left: Angela Siefer, Wendy Ruiz Xicale, Nicol Turner Lee)

A key theme throughout the Summit was the need for digital equity activists to authentically gain the trust of the communities in which they are trying to make change. During the Connecting the under-connected panel discussion, National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) Executive Director Angela Siefer shared how the NDIA effectively uses the digital navigator model – when someone helps people with their immediate needs while figuring out the long-term solution – to gain trust. 

In the same conversation, ASU student Wendy Ruiz Xicale shared her personal experience working with members of her hometown – Maryvale, Arizona – to help her community get free internet access. Xicale and others walk door to door around the community to build honest and authentic relationships. “Many of these people we’re having conversations with want to be helped, but they just have a lack of trust,” said Xicale. “A big lesson that we learned is that many people want to be part of the solution, they just don’t know where to go. I’m very glad that my team and I are able to provide that and help them and lead them in the right direction.”

The Brookings Institution’s Nicol Turner Lee echoed the idea of meeting people where they are at in her session titled: Digitally Invisible: How the Internet is creating the new underclass. “Challenge the status quo,” said Turner Lee. “Let’s move towards more regional solutions for collaborative solutions, and solutions that happen from the ground up.”

During the fireside chat that followed Commissioner Jim Steyer’s update from the Future of Tech Commission, Alex Fischer of the Columbus Partnership explained that another trust issue when it comes to broadband access is who is doing the talking and who is doing the selling – it’s important to acknowledge these trust factors in order to make a difference.

Matt Rantanen, Director of Technology at the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, explained that tribal communities need allies who have their best interest at heart as we attempt to close the digital divide that Native Americans are currently facing. “Tribes could benefit from having a lot more trusted partners, advisors and folks who can support them,” said Rantanen. “Because there has never been a bigger lack of trusted individuals to do these builds and do this work.”

When it comes to commitment to digital equity and the community, Gonick confirmed that ASU is all in. “We are all in on connectivity. We’re all in on digital literacy. We’re all in on meeting people where they are at, and we’re all in on trying to build trust,” said Gonick. “It’s not something we take for granted, it’s something we work on every day.”

Partnerships help fuel innovation and change 

ASU President Michael Crow and Verizon Business CEO Tami Erwin

(From left: ASU President Michael Crow and Verizon Business CEO Tami Erwin)

If having buy-in from the community allows us to begin to narrow the digital divide, then creating public and private partnerships allows changemakers to fuel change. In addition to many conversations about the value of coalitions throughout the day, the Summit began and ended on the topic of partnership. Early in the day’s agenda, ASU President Michael Crow and Verizon Business CEO Tami Erwin announced that ASU has become Verizon’s newest 5G Innovation Hub, bringing 5G Ultra Wideband to the university. 

President Crow shared that we are “in the most transformative technological moment since the early stages of the industrial revolution.” “Who gets educated is no longer socially stratified, we are able to unleash human creativity in ways not possible before,” said Crow. “At ASU, we’ve become, with this new partnership with Verizon, the furthest at the tip of the spear, to be empowered with technology to continue to improve the ways in which we learn, work and live.”

“If we don’t innovate as public/private partners to enable society to move forward, we have failed,” agreed Erwin. For more information on the partnership, check out recent coverage in Fierce Wireless: ASU aims to untether immersive learning with 5G; Verizon turns up 5G lab at Arizona State University

The virtual event concluded with a rich conversation on the benefits and challenges of collaborations during “Partnerships for a Smarter Region.” Susan Anable of Cox Communications explained that there’s no success without partnership. “We all depend on each other to be able to create the ecosystem, having the network providers that enable the world class platform for delivery of smart tech,” said Anable. The Cox Connected Environments Collaboratory at ASU is a prime example of how Cox and the university work together to accelerate new ideas to deliver on the promise of human-centered smart solutions for the ASU community.

Gonick closed the event by echoing the words of keynote speaker Larry Irving, who shared a motivating presentation on the power of dreaming, planning and acting. “Dream big on digital issues,” said Gonick. “ASU is prepared to both lay down new tracks where folks have never been before and partner with everyone in the community on work that they are doing to make advances and with tribal nations who are working on connecting their communities.”

Special thanks to the Summit’s valued sponsors for their partnership: AWS, Cox, Verizon, World Wide Technology, Arista, Intel and Siklu.

For more about the 2022 Smart Region Summit: