Philadelphia leaders prioritize community while developing a smart city roadmap
The City of Brotherly Love is placing a strong focus on community needs instead of simply pushing government agendas or technology trends.
Philadelphia is launching itself into the smart cities space, but right now leaders are most intent on devising a roadmap to effectively navigate through emerging smart technology and policies.
It’s a unique approach, considering many municipalities add smart projects piecemeal as they see fit without an overall structure or guidelines. The City of Brotherly Love is also placing a strong focus on the community and meeting the needs of residents and business owners, as opposed to simply pushing government agendas or prioritizing technologists’ ideas.
Last month, SmartCityPHL had its first community engagement workshop, held by the Office of Innovation & Technology (OIT) — which launched the initiative last year and serves as its oversight body. The city was one of the five winners of a Smart Cities Council Challenge Grant earlier this year, and the council helped to organize Philadelphia’s inaugural readiness workshop. The city has partnered with PricewaterhouseCoopers for assistance with drawing up the roadmap based on the information it gathers from the workshops and other forms of outreach.
Although OIT serves as the cohesive element, it’s working to bring all of the city’s departments together to collaborate on the greater smart city effort. It’s also reaching out to other prime stakeholders in the community, as well as the citizens themselves. OIT hopes to have the first iteration of its strategic plan drafted by the end of Q1 2018.
Smart Cities Dive spoke with Ellen Hwang, Program Manager for Innovation Management, who handles Philadelphia’s smart city initiatives. She and Chief Innovation Officer Charles Brennan have been instrumental in spearheading the SmartCityPHL initiative. Hwang offered perspective on what’s being done to maintain an inclusive process and what the initiative hopes to achieve.
The following interview has been edited for brevity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: What have you learned from the early phases of launching the SmartCityPHL initiative?
HWANG: We conceived the SmartCityPHL initiative last year with the new administration, under Mayor Kenney. We noticed that there were a lot of assets we are talking about — whether it’s streetlight poles or the different networks that are already built into our city underground … We were trying to basically piece all these different things together and realized there was such a need for better collaboration.
We have folks in our water department who are going to be deploying advanced metering infrastructure to better manage the water usage for residential properties. We also have folks in our Office of Sustainability who are trying to bring on an automated building management system. These are all different things that are infrastructure related, they’re all sitting in different departments, but they’re all impacting the same communities and our larger city of Philadelphia.
As we’ve been talking about smart cities, looking at these different assets and putting our project together, we almost need to take a step back and really take a look at the bigger picture. What’s happening in our city? Where are there redundancies happening? And how can we make sure that all different partners across the city — both inside and outside the government — are working together to understand the different projects that are going on. Also where can you partner and collaborate on these initiatives?
There are shared goals and outcomes and assets that we need to coordinate on a much higher level. When you talk about smart cities there’s a lot about data — data integration, data analytics — that comes with it. How do we do that better and faster? How do we share that information with each other better?
Over the last year, we’ve been making sure first and foremost that our colleagues in the city are on board with what we’re doing. We’re still building and strengthening those relationships across city departments, and we are establishing an internal working group to make sure that city government projects are going to be better coordinated moving forward.
Our vision behind our initiative is to coordinate and collaborate and build an ecosystem around what we’re calling a smart city. It was really important for us to acknowledge that a smart city in itself is a vision for a lot of cities, but we didn’t want to specify Philadelphia’s vision as a government and then impose that on our larger community. We have been very intentional in wanting to bring different folks along as we’ve been conceiving and thinking about [this] … who normally aren’t at the table in these conversations and really need to be.
What takeaways do you have from your first workshop, especially relating to your larger goal of including the community?
HWANG: I think that some of the things that were highlighted at the event were a real need to coordinate amongst both internal and external groups across Philadelphia. This was a really great way to get that conversation started.
The digital inclusion and digital divide conversations are really, really important to us. We’re really talking about equity and inclusion as we’re conceiving these larger infrastructure projects.
“We know we have a litter problem and we have a public safety problem, and we took those topics of public safety and litter as entry points to talk about smart cities.”
Program Manager for Innovation Management, City of Philadelphia
One thing I want to emphasize about this event is we completely acknowledge that there is much more work that we need to do in terms of engagement. There is much more work to uncover and understand the nuances that each neighborhood has, in terms of what types of access equity do they need, in terms of bringing technology that’s going to support their community goals.
We want to bring in community development corporations who are focused on hyperlocal economic initiatives. … When we were first talking to them it took a few conversations just on the topic of what a smart city is and why does it matter when there are neighborhoods where we’re talking about basic literacy and getting basic access to computers and the internet and broadband.
We know we have a litter problem and we have a public safety problem, and we took those topics of public safety and litter as entry points to talk about smart cities. When you talk about smart cities it’s not just necessarily about these fancy applications and sensors everywhere. That’s definitely part of the conversation, but we are also trying to tackle big problems.
There are folks in the community that really had a gap in the knowledge of what technologists and engineers are talking about in the smart cities space. We realized that what would be the most important thing for us to begin this larger engagement strategy is to use this event as a way to bring the technologists and engineers to the table, but also bring folks in the community who aren’t normally in these conversations.
We want to be able to share some of the baseline challenges we are trying to solve, some of the real needs of the community. And also bring in folks from city government to say here are some of the priorities that we care about.
We had some people from our GIS team who are building our data enterprise system. We had some folks from our commerce department who partnered with our community development corporations. We also had some folks who are close to public safety initiatives. By having them share the challenges with technologists in the room, our hope for the event was to bridge that gap. In Philly we want to make sure that we’re focused on the challenges that we’re trying to solve and thinking about the technology that could support parts of achieving those goals.
When you presented some of your goals at the workshop did it seem like they were in line with the community’s expectations?
HWANG: I think there was a little bit of concern because I think people came into it thinking we were going to be presenting a strategic plan. Actually, this was the first step in our strategic planning. It was to get everyone together so everyone knows what’s going on from the beginning. We want to continue connecting over the course of the process of developing our plan.
We picked a very broad range of topics: public health, public safety, government efficiencies, internal business processes, and then we also hit on different things like social services and access to services in city government. … Now what we need to do is hone in on specific areas where there’s a lot more areas of convergence or shared priorities and goals.
What’s unique to our approach is we’re not looking at a smart city as smart water, smart buildings, smart energy. We’re trying to say that we see all these different groups thinking about smart and advanced technologies, but they’re all talking about it very separately. How do we get them all together at the same table and work through priority areas that are actually shared amongst these different groups?
You’ve mentioned a focus on neighborhoods instead of only on city-wide smart initiatives. Explain that.
HWANG: I think it’s a lot for us to take a bite out of and chew on because we are such a large city. But we are also a city of neighborhoods, and we acknowledge that every neighborhood on many levels — socioeconomically, education attainment, demographically speaking — they’re so different in many ways. We’re very cognizant of that and we want to be very mindful of that.
Each neighborhood might have different priorities. Such as, within public safety what’s more important to them: surveillance? Or is parking and idling or traffic congestion more of a problem? For another community it may be that stormwater management is a mess and we really need to be thinking about that.
We’re bringing people from all different sectors — our community members, as well as our research institutions, the startup and entrepreneur community and of course our corporate community. [They] are completely on board and looking at how to give back and bring along our marginalized communities so investment isn’t just in downtown, but it’s really happening throughout our neighborhoods outside of center city.
There are a lot of strategic plans already in place [such as Philadelphia 2035 and Vision Zero] and we want to make sure we’re putting those really at the forefront of the work we’ve already done. And we’re engaging the community, understanding some of their different priority areas. If we’re going to pilot anything and work on any one specific priority area, how does that align together?
There’s a lot of document review we’re doing at the moment. And thinking about each of our neighborhoods and making sure whatever we decide to implement, we’re keeping each neighborhood in mind so we’re not bringing in technology that’s irrelevant to a certain community. That will help us in terms of investments, in terms of budget and funding.
It’s important to make sure we’re thinking about our tech plan from an agile perspective, making sure we are considering things that are already in place and not just completely renewing with different ideas that are going to be redundant. That’s why it’s so important for us to bring everybody along from the beginning.
We’re excited about trying to approach our strategic planning process in this way. We know it’s a heavy lift and it’s a long-term process, but in addition we also see a lot of promise and opportunity in Philly.
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