When Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent Alphabet, decided to create a smart city, CEO Dan Doctoroff explained why the company was looking for a location with as few buildings and residents as possible. “There is an inverse relationship between your capacity to innovate, and the actual existence of people and buildings,” he said during a talk before the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association.

Existing cities come with baggage that Sidewalk Labs wants to avoid — limited budgets, traffic jams, pollution, archaic zoning regulations, neglected infrastructure and no end of political divisions. But it’s the ability to address these kinds of issues that has made the concept of smart cities so attractive to so many people. The goal of smart cities is not to create showplaces for technology but, the Smart Cities Council said, to use information and communications technology — smart sensors, the Internet of Things and machine learning—to enhance “livability, workability, and sustainability” for the residents of major cities like Miami, New York and Philadelphia.

By highlighting the work underway in the City of Brotherly Love, a recent Wharton conference, “Smart Utilities: A Bridge to Smart Cities of the Future,” helped clarify what it will take for Philadelphia to realize its potential as a smart city. From the beginning in 2016, the city approached the challenge strategically. Rather than tackle individual projects piecemeal, as so many cities have done, Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT) decided to create a roadmap that would guide and ensure long-term coordination of its wide-ranging projects.

The first step, said Ellen Hwang, the city’s program manager for innovation management, was to take stock of what was already happening. And in Philadelphia, a lot was indeed happening.

In concert with residents, business associations, institutions and other city agencies, the City Planning Commission had developed a comprehensive blueprint, Philadelphia 2035, to guide public and private investment in the city’s physical development. A collaboration of governmental agencies and community and advocacy groups had developed a three-year Vision Zero action plan to eliminate traffic fatalities. The water department was deploying advanced metering infrastructure; the Office of Sustainability was working on an automated building management system; Philadelphia-based Comcast was rolling out its smart-city networking service, machineQ; and entrepreneurial students from Wharton were jumping into the smart city space. By assessing all this activity, OIT hoped to minimize redundancy and identify promising collaborative opportunities.

“There is an inverse relationship between your capacity to innovate, and the actual existence of people and buildings.” –Dan Doctoroff

As in any big city, siloed departments were a potential stumbling block. So during the first year, said Hwang, “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.”

Focus on Inclusion

Greater Philadelphia is home to more than 20 Fortune 500 companies and several of the nation’s leading universities. It is also the poorest major city in America, according to the latest Census data. Such socioeconomic diversity is common in big cities, of course. What is far less common is Philadelphia’s commitment to developing a roadmap that reflects the interests of everyone with a stake in the city’s future.

“We didn’t want to specify Philadelphia’s vision as a government and then impose that on our larger community,” said Hwang. “We have been very intentional in wanting to bring different folks along as we’ve been conceiving and thinking about this, including those who normally aren’t at the table.”

During his opening remarks at the Wharton conference, co-sponsored by the school’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL) and Suez, Charles Brennan, the city’s former chief information officer, explained that Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, each of which has its own view of what a smart city means. Poorer neighborhoods, said Brennan, ask for surveillance cameras to help reduce crime, while wealthier areas are eager for better parking. To ensure that smart technology addresses everyone’s concerns, OIT chose to take an inclusive path. Rather than risk exacerbating inequality and division within the city, Philadelphia decided to solicit input from all stakeholders.

One of only five urban centers to win a Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge grant in 2017, the city used the additional resources to launch an inclusive workshop. A statement announcing the event invited broad participation. “Whatever your background, if you have an innovative idea on new uses for city assets, we want to hear from you,” the city’s chief administrative officer wrote.

The day-long event, which took place shortly after the IGEL-Suez conference, attracted about 160 people, including city leaders, businesses, civic organizations and other groups. The goal was two-fold. To ensure a productive discussion among all the diverse stakeholders, OIT wanted to foster a common understanding of what a smart city is all about. According to Hwang, “We also wanted to get folks who don’t normally collaborate in the same room, learning and sharing together, planning and thinking about what a smart city in Philly would look like.”

To facilitate these conversations, OIT focused discussions on the real issues people in and out of city government are grappling with on a daily basis. Public health, public safety, the opioid crisis and affordable housing were among the topics being discussed, as were government efficiencies, internal business processes and access to services in city government.

Experts added valuable perspectives. Emily Schapira, vice chair and executive director of the Philadelphia Energy Authority, was invited to present an overview of the Philadelphia Energy Campaign – the city’s $1 billion, 10-year effort to reduce poverty, create jobs and fight climate change. As she explained during the IGEL-Suez conference, the program has an important role to play in enhancing livability, workability, and sustainability in Philadelphia. Among other things, while working in municipal buildings, schools, low-and middle income housing and small businesses, the Energy Campaign can acquire data that will help the Health Department identify asthma triggers and possible areas of lead paint contamination.

Next Steps

The initial workshop was just the beginning of a more in-depth conversation now underway among all those involved in the smart city effort. “There is much more work to be done to uncover and understand the nuances of each neighborhood,” said Hwang. But the conversations have started.

“We have been very intentional in wanting to bring different folks along … including those who normally aren’t at the table.” –Ellen Hwang

Both technologists and neighborhood development groups are talking now, for instance, about how smart technology and Big Data can help meet the needs of neighborhoods where basic literacy and internet access are pressing problems. While Philadelphia has long been a leader in digital inclusion (the city has a network of more than 50 community-based public computer-access centers located across the city), bridging the digital divide is high on the list of smart city goals.

Another key issue is workforce development. Smart city projects need the hands-on experience of long-time workers, but they also need the fresh thinking of younger staff. To be successful, city departments have to find ways to meet this dual demand. David Stanton, president of Suez in North America’s utility operations and federal services division, discussed at the conference how his group confronted the challenge of integrating experienced workers who are often resistant to change — what he called “the crusty layer” — with younger staff who have a much more intuitive grasp of smart technology. Suez launched a “hug a millennial” program. “We had to find someone with the millennial spirit, and we had to make that person part of the leadership team,” he said, adding, “It was shockingly effective.”

In Philadelphia, OIT and the talent development unit of the city’s Commerce Department have been working intensively to ensure that city departments are aware of the trends and ready for the changes that are coming up. Many departments are already seeding their teams with tech-savvy staff who are eager to think differently about long-standing problems. The Water Department, in particular, has hired people (Hwang calls them “civic hackers”) to rework outdated technology and improve the quality and efficiency of the city’s green storm water infrastructure.

Once all the conversations have taken place and all the groundwork has been laid, Philadelphia will set about turning the ideas and information that have been generated into a strategic plan. With the help of $200,000 from the Knight Foundation, the city has contracted with the consulting firm PwC to assist in the process, which is scheduled for completion in the second quarter of 2018.

If all goes as planned, by that point Philadelphia will have created a thriving Smart City ecosystem of interconnected groups representing city departments, major utilities and corporations, entrepreneurial start-ups, university researchers and students, community groups and others, all focused on a shared vision of what Philadelphia can become as a smart city.

“We’re excited about our approach to the strategic planning process,” said Hwang. “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 for our city.”