Civic News

Mayor Kenney and the tech scene are in that awkward, getting-to-know you phase

Tech is worth courting. And Kenney keeps showing up — even though it's not really his thing.

Mayor Jim Kenney gets interviewed at the Tomorrow Tour kickoff, January 2016. (Photo by Juliana Reyes)
Mayor Jim Kenney was being a good sport.

He had made a quick stop at the kickoff for the Tomorrow Tour, a and Comcast initiative to highlight tech scenes across the country, and as soon as he finished his short speech, Comcast’s Danielle Cohn grabbed him to be interviewed by the company’s camera crew.
Standing behind a Tomorrow Tour backdrop and bright show lights, Kenney answered questions about the importance of the day’s event. He seemed a little ill at ease. Talking about fledgling tech communities? It was definitely out of his comfort zone. After the third question, Cohn cut it off. “Thank you,” she said. “I think the Mayor has to go.”
But by then, Kenney had found his groove.
“Give me one more,” he said to the camera crew.
The question was, “Why Philadelphia?” And this time, the mayor didn’t stutter. He talked about the city’s affordability and livability, its dedication to urban issues, the new bikeshare, etc. Then the camera guy undid Kenney’s microphone and the mayor and his entourage hurried out.

The interaction mirrored Kenney’s speech at the event, which he began by stiffly reading from a script about the city’s investments in technology but finished by addressing the crowd with ease, thanking them for their “faith in Philadelphia” and encouraging them to work to make sure that the tech scene’s riches reach beyond Center City.
The tech sector is not Kenney’s wheelhouse. During his keynote interview at’s civic innovation conference Rise, he described the tech scene as the “exciting, fun part of the economy,” with a touch of remove, the way your uncle might describe Twitter. His economic development strategy focuses more on manufacturing and Philadelphia’s ports. This is a man who knows shipping logistics. He hired Harold Epps as commerce director, who’s said he wants to revitalize commercial corridors in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.
And yet, we’ve seen Kenney’s repeated willingness to engage with the tech scene.
It’s true that Kenney was more comfortable speaking about ports than software at Rise, but we should point out the fact that he even agreed to keynote a civic tech conference in the first place. Same goes for the Tomorrow Tour kickoff, the angel investor event, the sustainability hackathon. (He later told us that the hackathon went completely over his head.) He shows up, he told us in an interview, because “part of being mayor is about being enthusiastic about all the possibilities.”
It reminds us of Michael Nutter in that way — Nutter’s place as a champion of the tech scene was largely based on him showing up. That’s not to undermine his administration’s efforts like the StartUp PHL seed fund and grant program, but we always felt like it was Nutter showing up (and cracking a dry joke) at the Philly Startup Leaders Entrepreneur Expo or a startup ribbon cutting that really solidified his role as a tech booster. Time is valuable. Nutter offered his to the tech scene. Kenney seems to be doing the same. Should we be surprised?

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

“I want to thank you for your faith in Philadelphia,” said Mayor Kenney. (Photo by Juliana Reyes)

We’ll note that what Kenney does seem comfortable talking about is pushing the tech scene to create opportunities for the rest of Philadelphia. And that’s an important push the tech scene needs to hear.
We’ll be interested to see if that plays into any Kenney administration policies or if local technologists use Kenney’s call to action as a way to engage his office.
For now, we’ll enjoy watching Kenney squirm a little under the tech scene’s microscope. (For the record, the audience yesterday seemed to love him.) You’ve gotta give the guy some credit for venturing into unfamiliar territory. He could have just as easily dismissed the tech scene as a Nutter pet project. Or, has the tech scene grown so powerful that Kenney had no choice but to engage it?

People: / James Kenney / Michael Nutter

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