Civic News
Communities / COVID-19 / Digital access / Municipal government

How Philly’s smart city director thinks about the local tech ecosystem during the pandemic

What's important to keep the work moving forward? "Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration," said SmartCityPHL Director Emily Yates.

Center City at night. (Photo by Flickr user Michael Righi, under a Creative Commons license)

A city becomes smart when it fosters economic growth, makes life better for its citizens and relies on data and information to inform decisions. 

That’s the definition of a smart city, according to SmartCityPHL Director Emily Yates. Yates and a handful of other folks in the tech and innovation space joined the conversation, “Making Philadelphia a Smart and Resilient City,” during the Philadelphia Heroes and New Normal forum held virtually on Thursday.

But how does a region think about being a smart city during a pandemic?

Yates said that she and her colleagues focused on tech and innovation in Philadelphia’s city government have largely been “responding” for the last two months — figuring out how 20,000 employees work during a pandemic and collect massive amounts of data about the ongoing pandemic.

While city government has been slowly pivoting to the new normal, the Office of Innovation Management has still been paying attention to key initiatives, like updating city lighting to LEDs, Yates said, especially as the city faces budget reductions. 

Yates oversees programing like the SmartCityPHL roadmap, and the Pitch & Pilot program that encourages the collaboration between private sector businesses to help aid civic projects (the first project looked at solving waste problems). She said that collaboration will continue to be key during pandemic times and moving forward. 

“Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration,” she told attendees Thursday. “We need to be thinking about innovating resources, thinking more creatively about what we’re doing.”

Also key will be thinking of resources in terms of circular economies, or looking at efficiencies within typical models of resources and waste.

The thinking is, “How can you make resources as valuable as possible in that loop?” Juliet Fink Yates, the department’s digital inclusion fellow, continued.

This can be applied to lots of systems, including water or energy systems. It can also create new job opportunities or revenue streams if traditional systems start operating differently, Emily Yates said.

The director pointed out two of the major challenges the city is currently facing when it comes to technology — the lack of available computers to distribute to those who need them and the digital divide that the pandemic has amplified for residents.

“It’s not just about kids having access, but adults too, people who need to look for jobs, etc.,” Emily Yates said. “We need to be looking through that lens moving forward.”

For folks looking to collaborate with the Office of Innovation Management or who have supplies like computers that they’d like to donate, Emily Yates said to reach out to her at

Companies: City of Philadelphia
Series: Coronavirus

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