A thriving community in Western Pennsylvania with a growing population of over 30,000 residents, Cranberry Township is known for its business, recreation, healthcare, and housing amenities, along with being the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ training facility.
But among local governments, the town has a different reputation.
Officials from as near as Mount Lebanon, PA to as far as Maryland, Michigan, and even Indonesia, have looked to Cranberry as a blueprint for traffic management, water efficiency, pandemic response, and more.
Cranberry Township has become an inspiration for its innovative approach to solving problems. And beyond the projects it incubates, the town is a leading example of the progress that can be made when people who work in local government are empowered to embrace new ideas.
As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Innovators — cities, towns, and counties who are implementing transformative ideas and fostering a culture of innovation. We chatted with administrators in Cranberry Township to talk about how their township empowers local government workers and citizens to embrace new ideas.
Laying the Groundwork for New Ideas
A hunger for innovation often starts at the top. And indeed, that’s the case for Cranberry Township. As Jason Dailey, Director of Public Works, notes:
“We have a progressive board of supervisors, and they’re big picture thinkers. They gave the direction that we want to be a very connected community. Then it’s up to the township leadership team to determine how we do that.”
By setting a clear vision and tone for the township, then installing the people and tools to make it happen, Cranberry’s leaders have invited a forward-thinking approach to solving problems. And it’s had big dividends.
Take, for instance, the town’s traffic system. Cranberry Township sits at the intersection of a number of major interstates and highways. As a result, it runs the risk of having some major traffic troubles.
The township board recognized this, so made efficient traffic management a priority, says Dailey:
“They started to install their own fiber optic lines 25 to 30 years ago, and connected all our traffic signals with fiber.”
They even connected areas where there were no signals, knowing that in ten years, those places had the potential to become large development sites and would need to be looped in.
The new network gave instant access to all the town’s traffic cabinets, allowing real-time reactions and rerouting capabilities. It also created a communications infrastructure that allowed connectivity throughout the local government, from the building department to the police department.
Beyond just addressing the traffic problem, the stage was set for a chain reaction of innovative ideas.
Innovation Breeds Innovation
The fiber-connected traffic system opened the door for new projects and partnerships that wouldn’t have been possible without the right infrastructure.
Cranberry’s connected traffic system caught the attention of nearby Carnegie Mellon University, which was experimenting with autonomous vehicles. University researchers tested on Cranberry’s roads, and pulled data from the traffic network to make adjustments to their vehicles. Cranberry was even the site of a test drive with local representatives.
But things didn’t stop there.
As they were on the roads and using the fibers, the CMU team noticed some gaps in the system. Says Dailey:
“They said that a few of our signals had some gaps. So they brought us this Ethernet radio technology — they’re military grade wireless radios, and they’re able to transmit very large amounts of data, including video, over radio.”
Cranberry installed the radio technology at traffic intersections. Then a new idea formed:
“We took that technology and said, you know, we could transmit water meter data the same way CMU transmitted the vehicle data, using the same radios.”
This approach had never been tried before, says Dailey, but the town took a stab. They installed new meters, and used the radios and an open data portal to monitor their usage.
Suddenly, the town’s water meters didn’t need an employee to do a reading on them every other month — a task that took about 120 hours of monthly manual labor. Data was monitored constantly, and citizens could check their usage down to the gallon … no more estimated payments.
Dailey says the cost savings have been significant, as has the success of the project.
“The fact that we took the idea from the vehicle program CMU brought in, and we were able to apply it to a utility system that we use now … it’s just a really neat concept.”
The CMU-Cranberry partnership, paired with a strong town IT-Public Works partnership, has been a continued source of groundbreaking concepts.
In fact, the town now acts as a sort of incubator for new programs and products, especially when it comes to traffic. The AI-powered Roadbotics product grew out of a university professor’s work with Cranberry stop signs. The town is also partnering with CMU for an experimental approach to traffic monitoring, in which Waze and regional traffic data is aggregated and analyzed to predict congestion and slowdowns 20 to 30 minutes earlier than current technology. And a new effort is underway to construct a tunnel under the busy Route 228 corridor, to provide better access to businesses and ease traffic.
Empowering a creative community
Cranberry’s inventive Public Works department has been a source of new products and processes. But the creative spirit extends throughout the local government here, from the way the town communicates with its citizens (they will begin podcasts and are considering SnapChat), to the way they bring the public into the decision making process.
Each year, Cranberry Township, along with the Cranberry Township Community Chest, identifies a “Project of the Year” that would benefit the community. Then the community pitches in, volunteers, and donates to make it a reality.
The grassroots approach to community programs gives the initiatives lasting power, with strong support among residents who have helped fund it. Says Tina Fedko, Communications Manager:
“The projects are always an enhancement to the community, and the donors are residents and companies in Cranberry and the surrounding region. The projects range between $300,000 to $1 million, as we stay within our capacities to build and then sustain them.”
In 2019, the featured project was the creation of a Makerspace with 3D printers in the Cranberry Township library — one of only two such library spaces in Western Pennsylvania. Beyond providing a creative outlet for citizens, the Makerspace project had additional benefits during the COVID-19 crisis, says Fedko:
“We were able to pull our 3D printers from our local public library and print hundreds of masks for the town’s first responders during the pandemic.”
A Recipe for Innovation
The vision for Cranberry’s forward-thinking approach may start at the top, but it doesn’t end there.
Dailey notes that while some small and medium sized-communities have a top-down, paramilitary approach in their organizations, that can stifle innovation:
“I think we have a really good culture here of being open minded to anyone at any level within the organization being able to elevate a new idea.”
In fact, bringing in people with new ideas is the key to innovation, says Dailey, even if they don’t come from local government.
“We have a lot of young professionals who come in, and we have positions where we’re able to move people around in the organization. That really helps us see things differently. People look at a problem and say, ‘Oh I just did this in my business class’ or ‘I did this in my last job in retail.’ It might be something you think is not relevant in public works. But it’s that different type of thinking and being open to that.”
Everyone looks at a problem differently, he adds, and these different approaches are really what has moved the town forward.