HomeInternet of Things (IoT)A Q&A with Philadelphia on the current state of smart cities

A Q&A with Philadelphia on the current state of smart cities


Enterprise IoT Insights talked with Emily Yates, smart city director at the city of Philadelphia, to discuss the evolution of the smart city concept and the main challenges currently faced by cities willing to implement smart city initiatives as well as the impact of innovative technologies such as IoT, AI and 5G.

Q: After years of talk, and years of tests, are we any closer to realizing the dream of a ‘smart city’ – where everything is interconnected and geared around a concept of collective intelligence? Is this any closer to reality?

A: I think of smart cities as a continuing process rather than an end state. It’s more complex than just some box you can check once you’ve purchased all the trendy, shiny objects. It’s about identifying challenges, goals, or priorities and developing partnerships to identify relevant tech or data.

But, even more so, you need to look at who is able to access this new tech that is supposed to improve quality of life for all residents. If a significant portion of our population doesn’t have access or the proper technology to access these services, then we aren’t any closer to the reality of being a smarter city.

Q: How has the concept of the “smart city” changed recently, with new digital technologies, new business models, and new experiences? What are the most notable smart-city initiatives, currently, in your opinion – offering clear functional benefits and financial returns, and a model that scales across towns, cities, and regions?

A: If you’re looking for a current initiative, smart streetlights is one that a lot of cities have already done, but there are still a lot of cities that could benefit from it. By transitioning to smarter light fixtures on street poles, a city is able to reduce their energy costs and provide opportunities to expand services like public Wi-Fi, which is important as the city works to address the challenges of the digital divide. The opportunity to add environmental sensors will also help cities better gather data around air quality, temperature and humidity. This is important because we know that individuals in our communities that were impacted by Covid, will be impacted by air quality in their recovery and this type of data will allow us to make better informed decisions as a city around projects and investments that might impact the quality of air in critical neighborhoods.

Q: There is new excitement in the smart city space, it seems, with the rise of 5G and AI, offering improved networking and processing performance compared with traditional low-power IoT-based technologies. How important are 5G and AI for smart cities?

A: AI is critical for smart cities and creating opportunities for efficiencies—it can be applied in many ways to solve municipal challenges.  We’re using AI to collect micro-scale urban data from images of the built environment that will help the city better determine what infrastructure investments should be prioritized.  We’re using AI to improve data around paving and creating a 5-year paving strategy which will better align with the capital budgeting process. Additionally, we previously partnered with SEPTA, the Penn State University AI Alliance program, and Accenture to develop an AI-driven algorithm that illustrated the “teleworking risk” to SEPTA and helped inform how SEPTA adjusted services.

I think 5G can have a big impact on smart cities, but the infrastructure demands to make it fully functional are still fairly unclear.  For now, we’re able to achieve  success with existing infrastructure.

Q: What are the main challenges for smart city implementations? Many get stuck at the trial phase. Are they advancing quickly enough, in your opinion? What can be done to accelerate deployments of replicable and scalable smart city solutions?

A: There are a handful of challenges that cities must navigate. The first is figuring out the appropriate procurement mechanism to scale up a project beyond the pilot phase. A request for proposal (RFP) process can take a lot of time and energy, so is there another process that allows the pilot to be scaled up more quickly and effectively?

Change management also needs to happen in parallel with implementing a pilot or project. If you don’t have the necessary buy-in throughout the process, you will not be able to successfully deploy projects at a larger level.

Managing partnerships —internal and external —is also key. Your partners are also your fellow champions for the work at hand—you  need their support and input throughout the whole process.

Q: Governments are experiencing challenges around quantifying returns (ROI) on their smart city investments. What should be done to prove smart-city business cases? Do the public and private sectors need to be more aligned? Are more creative ROI calculations required?

A: For standard projects, like transitioning to smart street lights, demonstrating value is fairly easy and standardized. But, for new or emerging tech or projects that have more of a holistic approach, it can be hard to determine the ROI.

Developing projects with the end goal of proof of value in mind is really important —this will lead you to immediately identify the most important metrics, use them to design the project, and also engage with the stakeholders. It’s also important to look at the quantitative data points, but also to ensure that the qualitative data points highlight the benefits for the community.

Q: What approaches should be adopted by city managers and technology vendors to facilitate a better, more collaborative working relationship to really get momentum going?

Cities need to figure out how to align procurement processes and innovation. Fundamentally, they are at odds. The procurement process is in place to minimize risk for cities, but with successful innovation is determined by the ability to accept and navigate risk. This is a recurring issue that city governments face and continue to try to navigate. For tech vendors, there is often a lack of understanding of how cities work.

Enterprise IoT Insights recently published an editorial report in which smart city managers, technology vendors and analyst discuss the progress already made in the smart city field, the main technologies being used in smart city projects and the key challenges that are currently impacting these initiatives. You can access the report here.


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