Blog by Joanna Hecht, Pitch and Pilot Fellow, Office of Innovation and Technology

After months of public consultation, the SmartCityPHL program officially launched in February 2019. A roadmap and mayoral executive order began Philadelphia’s transformation into a smart city.  The City of Philadelphia basedSmartCityPHL on the principles of equity, innovation, collaboration, and local inspiration.  

The SmartCityPHL Roadmap declares that a truly “smart” city strategically incorporates technology to benefit Philadelphiansinstead of allowing technology to set the agenda.  While technology-enabled products are often billed as “solutions,” technology cannot solve problems on its own. These solutions need thoughtful application, community design and feedback, and rigorous monitoring and evaluation. The SmartCityPHL program focuses on improving the quality of life for all Philadelphians. 

One program outlined in the Roadmap came to life in late 2019. Pitch & Pilot leverages the insights of policymakers, entrepreneurs, and innovators in and out of government to highlight key challenges facing the city. With support from City departments, academics, researchers, and private sector leaders, the SmartCityPHL team issues a Call for Solutions that asks for innovative ideas that help the City progress towards its goals. Through Pitch & Pilot, people across city government are engaged to pilot new technology and critically examine the proposed technology. Evaluation consists of whether the tech’s data and process can save money or help municipal government provide critical services more efficiently. 

To date, SmartCityPHL has supported four pilot projects with the common theme of using technology to serve residents better. From reducing waste to automating street surface inspection, the goals of each project are unique. However, they all have the potential to help build a more sustainable, economically resilient, and equitable city. Each pilot is an exploration of technology’s role in assessing where Philadelphia is now and informing interventions that impact the city’s future.  

Pitch & Pilot’s first challenge was around reducing waste and increasing waste diversion. We identified two partners for this effort: Metabolic and Retrievr. Metabolic uses an “urban mining” tool to predict the amount of waste from demolished buildings that could be reused in new construction and where construction demand exists to use those materials. Retrievr offers doorstep pickup of unwanted clothing and electronicsitems that can be recycled but are not part of the City’s curbside recycling program.  

Two other pilots, with partners State of Place and GoodRoads, use artificial intelligence to examine images of Philadelphia, provide detailed analysis of the city, and connect that analysis to measures of equity. State of Place uses street view images already collected by the City to process over a hundred and fifty micro-scale built environment data points, from crosswalks to park benches State of Place then uses data to provide potential interventions that optimize resources, drive consensus, and build trust between the community and the City.  GoodRoads provides low-cost devices that attach to City vehicles and collect images of the roadways; this helps the Streets department get a comprehensive view of needed repairs much more quickly and routinely than it would through manual inspections. When combined with data about race, income, and historic patterns of investment, this data can help prioritize upgrades more equitably.  

As the City continues to deal with the impacts of a global pandemic and works to address the structural inequities highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, SmartCityPHL will work to apply its principles to support recovery and equity. The SmartCityPHL team will use the knowledge gathered from prior pilots and analyze results to decide which pilots to expand.  By carefully analyzing pilot results, we can build the city’s capacity to support and benefit from technology.  

The broad principles that underlay SmartCityPHL mean that the “smart city” can become an overarching theme across sectors and departments. In its third year, SmartCityPHL will continue to use technology in new ways to help City government enhance its decision-making processes. Keep an eye out for a new round of Pitch & Pilot to help direct private-sector innovation to address another big challenge facing the city.