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Philadelphia Sets Goals, Looks Ahead with Smart City Plan

Last week, the city released a strategic plan detailing accomplishments, future goals and the advancement of smart city approaches for residents and vendors to understand the priorities of the Office of Innovation and Technology.

Philadelphia leadership unveiled a report last week highlighting IT accomplishments and plotting the city’s course for future innovation.

The 42-page strategic plan lays out six broad themes, which are broken out into goals that the city has either already accomplished or will soon undertake. The themes include the support and development of the local technology ecosystem; striving for digital access and equity; the improvement of government efficiency and effectiveness; the enhancement of online public service delivery; the promotion of community-driven technology; and the strengthening and advancement of internal operations and infrastructure.

Philadelphia CIO Mark Wheeler said the report was developed with the help of six focus groups, from academia, technology companies, nonprofits, civic tech leaders and two city government contingents.

“It has both an internal facing focus, that’s the final theme of the strategy, and much of it is about work that is going to be done across city government, not just what the Office of Innovation and Technology [OIT] would be doing,” Wheeler said during a press conference announcing the report. “It covers a whole spectrum of technology, the evolution of technology in government and how we’re trying to support both our infrastructure and meaningful interactions around technology.”

Wheeler said it’s his hope that the strategic plan will engage the public, civic tech and technology communities in the city. He credited Andrew Buss, deputy CIO for innovation management, with developing the methodology behind the report.

Buss said the focus-group-oriented approach is an effective model that requires a significant investment of time before it can come to fruition. He said he began working on the report in Spring 2018.

“Then it was a matter really of looking at the hundreds, maybe 1,000, ideas, across the focus groups,” he said. “Looking for commonalities across those so that if all five or six focus groups all came up with a similar idea that was probably something that we pulled out and thought about putting into the plan.”

According to Buss, he queried participants on what they thought worked well in the city, what officials should focus their efforts on and an aspirational goal for the future of the city.

Wheeler said the opportunity to take stock of potential projects opened the report to the incorporation of the city’s Smart City plan, which was released in February.

“That’s a very powerful initiative because it has a lot of interest in it,” Wheeler said. “We have a lot of the technology community, research providers and our colleagues around city government who really like this idea of putting smart technology, Internet of Things, real fast data analytics all together to try and solve some city problems.”

He said the strategic plan clarifies ideas that weren’t explicitly articulated in the initial Smart City announcement, such as Pitch & Pilot where the city is able to approach the private or academic sectors with a problem to solicit solutions. The goal is for the city to have the opportunity to pilot a solution rather than committing to a contract that may not meet the needs of residents, he said.

Wheeler said the city can learn much from the processes in place in the vendor and academic communities, such as how to successfully deploy large IT projects.

“What we learned is that decompressing means breaking out a large project into smaller ones and owning how those small processes should integrate and managing that process well,” he said. “That’s new to a lot of people in government, especially our project management office.”

Buss said in addition to defining the priorities of Philadelphia and where officials plan to focus resources, it’s also a tool to increase transparency. He said he wrote the report in a manner that residents could easily grasp.

“I think a lot of these plans are released internally, and you lose that opportunity to tell people what you’re doing and what your directions are and where your thoughts are,” Buss said. “I think the more that you can really inform whether it’s vendors or residents around what you’re doing the more opportunities you have to deal with.”

The concept of Pitch & Pilot to incorporate new smart city technologies isn’t unique to Philadelphia. An established example is Cary, N.C., which features a “living lab,” a test bed of city-owned buildings where companies can demonstrate their technologies. The city can use innovative solutions at no cost and the vendor community is able to showcase products to potential customers in a real-world setting.

According to the strategic plan, Philadelphia will look to the academic sector to test potential solutions from entrepreneurs and startups, among others.

“A second component of the Pitch & Pilot program will develop a model for working with local universities on research issues and testing theoretical concepts in a real-world setting,” the report states.

Philadelphia joins Phoenix; Columbus, Ohio; Montgomery, Ala.; Racine, Wis.; Boulder, Colo.; and more as cities foray into optimizing government services. Montgomery has also deployed a living lab in its downtown area, whereas Phoenix is implementing strategic partnerships with nearby universities to modernize the entire region.

Editor's Note: An adjustment was made to reflect the correct name for Philadelphia’s plan in the headline.

Patrick Groves was a staff writer for Government Technology from 2019 to 2020.