Take a look at the streetlight outside your window. Now imagine that streetlight as a hub of information—a WiFi hotspot, a sensor that transmits to various departments data about crime, transit, street usage, biking info and other bits about the neighborhood. And then imagine that all that data is used to make decisions about where jobs will go, how busses will traverse the city, how policing should take place, where bike lanes are needed, how neighborhood economic development could best thrive.
That would be a pretty smart streetlight.
This, in essence, is the vision of a new project by the City’s Department of Innovation and Technology, which last month launched a citywide conversation about how to use Smart City technology to alleviate much of what ails Philadelphia. It is the start of an ambitious strategy that the Kenney administration hopes might finally turn around the city’s staggering poverty rate, and also boost Philly into the annals of Smart Cities that are using technology to create equity among residents.
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The mission speaks to a priority of Mayor Jim Kenney, who during his candidacy declared poverty the chief ill in Philadelphia. “We have to address poverty,” Kenney said in August, 2015. “The poverty issue in the city is the issue that drives every negative aspect of city life in Philadelphia. [It] affects education, our policing, our prisons, our job opportunities.’’ Nearly two years into his first term, the needle hasn’t moved at all; just this fall, another report declared Philadelphia still the poorest big city, with the poverty level still virtually unchanged.
Can technology really be the answer? Maybe.
Philly is well behind other cities when it comes to utilizing technology through the Internet of Things, a network of physical objects embedded with sensors and connectors that allow for greater automation, connectivity and communication among each other and human users. In the United States, New York has turned old phone booths into hotspots and information kiosks; Boston has apps that connect citizens and City Hall and smart streets technology that’s starting to change traffic patterns. San Diego has already installed smart streetlights that can send data to different city departments; and San Francisco (of course) has a whole digital network to manage energy efficient vehicles.
In Europe, cities are even further ahead, with Barcelona, the poster child for Smart Cities leading the way: It has smart meters that optimize energy consumption, smart trash bins that reduce collection costs, smart parking that help drivers find empty spots, and smart lights that dim when no one’s near and are more efficient.
In Philly, on the other hand, we have still not recovered from the disastrous fumble of the mid-2000s attempt to create citywide WiFi; that we still don’t have it contributes to a lingering digital divide. Then there was the disastrous collapse of smart parking meters; here today, gone tomorrow, maybe back again? In the last couple months, the City has announced plans for some discreet Smart Cities projects, like installing 100 freestanding kiosks to serve as hotspots, phones and charging stations in commercial corridors. And it is set to launch Atlas, an all-in-one app designed by the Office of Innovation to allow for easy access to property information, including borders, square footage, ownership, zoning and tax assessment.
The City is looking at technology as a solution, not a perk, acknowledging the elephant in the room: that the poorest big city in America has so many basic problems to solve—hunger? poverty? struggling schools? widescale WiFi?—that shiny new technological trinkets do not feel like vital needs—unless that technology will also fix those basic problems.
But, its slow start is indicative of what makes Philly different from those other cities—its poverty. Cities like New York and Boston have had the money and the means to pilot technologies that often serve middle class neighborhoods like Center City—those, in other words, who least need it.
Philly is looking at technology as a solution, not a perk, acknowledging the elephant in the room: that the poorest big city in America has so many basic problems to solve—hunger? poverty? struggling schools? widescale WiFi?—that shiny new technological trinkets do not feel like vital needs—unless that technology will also fix those basic problems.
“Conversations around this have always been about what are the new technological advances?” says Ellen Hwang, program manager for the City’s Innovation Management department. “What isn’t as strong is looking at civic impact, issues close to people who work in city government and communities. We want to make sure the issues are leading the technological conversation, not the reverse.”
Philly’s foray into the world of Smart Cities began in earnest last August, when—under then Chief Administrative Officer Rebecca Rhynhart—the City released a Request for Information on “Using Technology to Create a Smart City.” Hwang says 106 ideas came in—an ”unheard of” amount—which had the counterintuitive effect of making the Innovation department put the brakes on and start over, in a methodical manner that would combine efforts among departments and with residents.
With a $200,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, Hwang is now heading up the creation of what she calls a “roadmap” to help the City decide how best to deploy Smart Cities technology in Philadelphia. Over the next several months, her department will convene neighborhood groups, businesses, technologists and city workers to talk about the needs of residents and government, and how technology can meet that need. She expects to have the roadmap completed by early next year, so by the end of 2018 some initiatives will be launched.
The process started a few weeks ago at a daylong symposium with community groups, hospitals, universities, government workers and technology companies that gave a glimpse into what Hwang says the next few months will look like. In one session on public health, an assistant dean at Jefferson University and a couple of tech industry experts looked at how Smart City applications have been used to study and fight epidemics and other health concerns, and then went through an exercise on how that might look in Philly. In another, on public safety, a group of city officials and technologists looked at those smart street lights, and considered how different city departments—from police to public health—could combine their needs to gather data from sensors embedded on lampposts. Embedded throughout was the question of jobs, and how companies using the technology can employ people from the neighborhoods where they are deployed.
“Philly is tying Smart Cities and tech to actual policy and goals from the administration—affordable housing, helping the disadvantaged, mobility around the city,” says Gregory Curtin, founder and CEO of CivicConnect, a digital platform company, who also sits on the Smart Cities Council. “It’s looking at the current makeup of Philadelphia, its immigrants, neighborhoods, small businesses, corporations and asking how you engage them in ways that are meaningful and productive.”
Curtin says Philly is at the start of a new phase for Smart Cities, away from discreet incidences of technology and towards a more citywide approach. He points to Kansas City, Missouri, as an example. The small city has received accolades for its 50 blocks of free WiFi, smart streetlights that monitor pedestrian and vehicle use, and interactive kiosks that relate important information to residents—mostly throughout its downtown. But its Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett recently noted that these gadgets aren’t really as smart as they need to be.
“What we have learned over the course of last year is that all these tools, these technologies, they’re cool but there’s nothing smart about them,” Bennett told Atlantic City Lab in September. “The heart of a smart city is actually the data and the brain is using that data to change your decision-making process, to make you react faster in cases where the city needs to react, to make you predictive where you can be to save money or provide a better service, or to give you a better appreciation of what’s happening in your city.”
Philadelphia’s plan, by design or by dint of timing, is to start with that bigger picture, seeing technology as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Ironically, this could mean, as Bennett suggests, less of the flashy tech and more of the invisible kind. Take those smart street lights, for example. As in other cities, in Philly they would no doubt be hotspots, more energy-efficient and dim when no one is on the street.
But embedding them with lower-tech, less expensive sensors could send data to several different departments at once. ShotSpotter sensors could triangulate gunshots, bringing emergency services to a neighborhood faster, and influence policing to make them safer. Information about how and when people travel could create more efficient transit hubs, which in turn could help locate jobs and retail. The Streets Department could track trash dumping, and litter, to help in its cleanup efforts. And its traffic division could gauge pedestrian and car patterns, to adjust lights, set speed limits and improve safety. All of this would make for more livable, survivable, and healthy neighborhoods.
“The thoughtful approach is the way to do this,” says Dawn McDougall, executive director of civic hacking group Code for Philly. “When you come in with a problem and find a specific fix, often you’re not making the most systemic change that could be. What the city needs is systemic transformation.”
The Smart Cities mission speaks to a priority of Mayor Jim Kenney, who during his candidacy declared poverty the chief ill in Philadelphia. “We have to address poverty,” Kenney said in August, 2015.
The real test for Philadelphia will come after the planning, when it’s time to make the hard decisions about what technology to deploy and, equally as importantly, how. To be sustainable and have a long-term effect on the city requires what Curtin calls a “new business model.” What that means is a pretty drastic change to the normal way of doing politics in Philadelphia.
Installing and maintaining expensive technology will require an array of public-private partnerships, with creative arrangements to benefit both industry and government—if the city has the vision and appetite for it. (In Kansas City, for example, the hotspot network is owned by Sprint.) That means letting go—unlike what happened a couple years ago when City Council refused to even hold hearings on a plan to sell Philadelphia Gas Works to a private company that would have created a windfall, and fixed outdated gas lines. It means making every neighborhood an equal player, outside of politics, and letting go of outdated ideas about who gets to decide what goes on where—otherwise known as Councilmanic Prerogative. It means taking risks in order to reap Philly-sized benefits.
“You have to be able to show private sector companies, agencies, academic institutions, etcetera, that you will bring down the red tape and politics as usual to find new ways of doing things,” Curtin says. “That can be a challenge.”
At the summit a few weeks ago, Curtin says he brought this up to a panel that included Councilman-at-large Allan Domb, and that Domb nearly jumped out of his seat to say they’re ready. Whether or not the rest of City Council, and City Hall, are with him remains to be seen. To Curtin—who, granted, is a Smart City evangelist—the stakes are nothing less than imperative.
“If Philadelphia takes the right approach with this, I guarantee that it will start to have a real impact on poverty, joblessness, homelessness, public health, education,” he says. “That is some pretty exciting stuff.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number and type of hotspot kiosks the city has plans to install. It is 100 freestanding kiosks.Header Photo: Bruce Emmerling for Pixabay