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Philadelphia Kicks Off Smart City Planning Workshop

Philadelphia hosted a SmartCityPHL Readiness Workshop to hear from city leaders, businesses, civic organizations and other groups for feedback as the city develops a smart city strategic plan.

by Skip Descant / October 19, 2017
Philadelphia City Hall Shutterstock
Philadelphia wants to hear from an entire cross-section of the community as it develops a "road map" to deploy smart cities technologies. 
 
To start this listening tour, the city hosted a SmartCityPHL Readiness Workshop on Thursday, Oct. 12. The day-long event brought out roughly 160 representatives representing city leaders, businesses, civic organizations and other groups, said Ellen Hwang, program manager for Philadelphia's Innovation Management office. The workshop was part of its process to develop a road map for applying smart technologies to further innovation, inclusion and investment.  
 
Philadelphia, along with Miami, Austin, Texas; Indianapolis; and Orlando, Fla. were the five winners of the Smart Cities Challenge Readiness Challenge Grant, awarded in February. These cities were chosen out of a pool of more than 130 applicants. As part of the grant, the Smart Cities Council helped organize Philadelphia's Readiness Workshop.
 
The Knight Foundation also awarded Philadelphia $200,000 to help fund a smart cities strategy, which is expected to be complete by the second quarter of 2018. The city will contract with the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to assist with developing the plan. 
 
Cities across the country have begun to think creatively about how to use technology to make government work more efficiently and better serve residents, as they embrace the smart cities movement.
 
Seattle, for example, has taken the step of hiring a smart city coordinator. In July, Kate Garman was named to the position to lead existing efforts underway in the departments of transportation, fire and public utilities.
 
Austin will use its Readiness Workshops to explore opportunities to develop affordable housing, while Indianapolis will grow smart city projects centered in utilities and transportation. Miami is planning a pilot program that will use geographic information system (GIS) data, sensors and other technology to assist in planning efforts as this coastal city grapples with the threat of rising seas. Orlando hopes to develop a smart city plan that involves all city departments as well as “regional stakeholders,” with much of the effort centered on improving the tourist experience through improved transportation.
 
“When we started to go around to the different smart cities events around the country. … What we saw was that a lot of the cities are just building applications, but they never really had a plan. And they didn’t get, I don’t think, the input from all the stakeholders involved in the city,” said Philadelphia Chief Information Officer Charles J. Brennan during a call with reporters Oct. 17. “And one of the things I wanted to make sure we did was come to a lot of stakeholders.”
 
In Philadelphia's case, having a strategic plan built on input from all stakeholders — rather than the usual cast of technology-friendly, government wonks — is important, officials said.
 
“We want to make sure that the groups and the individuals that we have begun engaging, that we continue to build that relationship,” said Hwang on the call. “And then also, expand our stakeholder engagement. We realize that we didn’t bring everybody that we had hoped for. That’s really important to us, that we are capturing our community appropriately.”
 
Some of the conversation points cropping up at the workshop centered — with no real surprise — on cybersecurity and privacy.
 
“Everywhere we go the conversation pops up and it looms large with smart cities, because if you think about what a smart city does, it’s a bunch of applications that collects a lot of information,” said Brennan. “And what always pops up is, how will this information be used? So, it’s a great concern to us, and it will be addressed in our plan."
 
“We want to make sure that any applications in Philadelphia preserve the privacy of individuals,” he added.
 
Past just engaging with as many stakeholders as possible, Hwang said taking a cooperative approach will mean more effective outcomes when it comes to implementing the larger plan. “I think the ‘big picture’ is making sure that our community is working together on these different things, that we’re not all trying do our own way,” she said.
 
“A part of that is looking at internal city government, but a lot of it is also looking at the larger community. I think we have a lot of work to do in making sure that we’re aligning different goals and initiatives together, and making sure that we’re leveraging that together and not on an individual basis.” 
 
The group also discussed how some of these initiatives might be funded, touching on the potential for public-private partnerships and pilot projects that can be developed, Hwang said.
 
Whatever direction the city’s road map for technology takes, officials said the overriding theme of the projects should center on serving Philadelphia’s diverse population — a population that spans a range of socio-economic and educational demographics.
 
“I think what we’ll find out is that the idea of what a smart city is will differ by which part of the city you happen to be in,” Brennan said. “The more affluent section of the city will not have the same concept of a smart city as a poorer section of the city.”
 
When Philadelphia technology officials begin putting together the smart city ecosystem, they will be looking for opportunities to bring greater equity to the city. So, when Hwang and others throw around topics like "smart lighting" or "smart metering" or "affordable housing," the goal with these initiatives is not to only look for ways to make the city work more efficiently, but improve the lives of everyday residents. 
 
"I think a lot of times when you look at where people are deploying and piloting smart technology solutions, they’re often in downtown areas where the infrastructure is already laid out," said Hwang. "And so we’re making sure that we’re not leaving any one community out. We’re thinking about hyper-local economic development."