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Philadelphia's smart city journey has helped COVID-19 responsiveness

Submitted by scc staff on May 11, 2020

Philadelphia has used the ‘smart city journey’ to pro-actively solve city-wide issues with agility and innovation. The smart city journey has helped COVID-19 responsiveness.

Trust and stakeholder engagement

Evidence has shown that governments that trust their citizens and concurrently when their citizens trust them - have managed the COVID-19 crisis better, as reported in and The Guardian. In this same vein, Philadelphia began advancing new ways of engaging its citizens and increasing their quality of life. These  efforts are fueling Philadelphia’s current responsiveness to the COVID–19 crisis.

As COVID–19 is altering the way we live, Philadelphia is finding itself in a better position to advance smart technology to improve the lives of its citizens.  “The Readiness Challenge was the pathway we needed to let us assess our readiness to develop new initiatives and track their progress,” says Philadelphia Smart City Director, Emily Yates.  With over 16,600 COVID-19 cases and 800 deaths, Philadelphia continues to update its citizens using Phila.Gov Announcements.

Being smart is not a destination, it is a journey

The 2017 Readiness Challenge, sponsored by the Smart Cities Council at the invitation of the Obama Whitehouse provided a nation-wide, programmatic approach encouraging cities to start their ‘smart city journey. (See: 2021 looks good for smart cities in the US.) Since, 2017, Philadelphia issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a comprehensive and strategic Smart Cities roadmap using technology to improve quality of life, environmental stewardship, and economic development.  The Philadelphia Smart City roadmap now points to three (3) core strategies:

  • building a policy and infrastructure foundation,
  • creating a process for engagement and partnership, and 
  • supporting the implementation of projects and programs with funding.

 The Readiness Challenge served as the catalyst that enabled the city to bring together various departments to discuss what a smart city is and work toward getting the buy in that is so crucial to be successful in implementing new initiatives.  “It really allowed us to build a cohort of champions to move plans forward,” says Yates. Part of this work includes keeping the city’s residents informed and connected.

 For those interested, the Council will be re-launching its 2020 Global Readiness Challenge in late 3Q, early 4Q 2020. Register here.

COVID-19 accelerates digital transformation

Yates stresses that “This (COVID-19) brought about the need for the city to have more conversations about being able to provide services to the forefront,” Yates says. “It is highlighting not only the issue of the digital divide in the city’s communities, but also within city hall, [and] the challenge we have around providing the tools for individuals to work, as well.”

ConnectivityThe pandemic is moving technology needs into the forefront like so many other cities across the nation.  Virtual learning and meetings are the “new normal.” Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology swiftly reacted ensuring citizens could remain connected to the internet. Additionally, the city created a fast-track digital literacy grant cycle that aims to support Philadelphia by providing funding to create Digital Navigator roles in high-capacity community organizations. The Digital Navigators will provide remote one-on-one support to the community by helping residents identify their digital needs, offering technical support, and more.

Governance - Developing an external advisory committee and a working group with internal colleagues who represent key departments, has also been a focus for the city. “We have a lot of non-centralized technology initiatives deployed in the city, working on their own individual projects,” Yates says. “The thing we thought was really critical in creating a successful smart city for people is establishing our governance framework.”

 Remote work

  • Government - In April, Philadelphia, like many cities, faced a new, pressing need—preparing government employees to work from home and establishing remote learning capabilities for students to maintain social distancing guidelines.  This meant smart technology needed to be a priority. Laptops needed to be secured for government employees, according to Yates, who typically rely on desktop computers in the office and as they were working remotely.
  • Schools - Access to Chromebooks and improving connectivity for children without a computer or Internet access to complete schoolwork became a priority. The Philadelphia school board voted to authorize $11 million for the purchase of up to 50,000 computers to make distance learning possible for all students during an extended school closure forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital access is a topic her department reviews continuously in relation to smart tech planning; the city, Yates says, is examining how more bandwidth can be provided.

Continuing the journey to smart

Philadelphia is currently implementing or considering several additional types of smart technology. The city issued an RFQ for smart streetlights earlier this year; and its water department is in the process of deploying smart meters that will provide a more granular look at water usage in the city. “They’re rolling them out to houses now,” Yates says. “The ultimate goal is real-time updates for a better understanding for things like malfunctions, leak detection—also to help the city better manage its water services.”

Public-private partnerships to mitigate budget cuts

With the expectation some efforts may be put on hold due to potential COVID-19 related budget cuts, Yates’ department is examining potential partnerships with NGOs, private companies and other organizations to help implement future smart technology projects. “The government is going to be stretched even thinner in respect to some of the challenges COVID has created.  Adapting our city to address those challenges,” she says, requires leveraging smart city technologies. So, we must start thinking about another layer as we move forward. It creates an opportunity to partner with organizations—and [for them] to research and develop in a living lab that is Philadelphia.”