Tuesday, July 19, 2016

"Smart City Challenge"

Philadelphia's Office of Innovation & Technology recently launched "Smart City Challenge," a website designed to field innovative ideas from residents and tech pros through a lengthly and legal-laden government .PDF, ultimately asking innovative geniuses to email their thoughts to the city's Deputy Chief Information Officer. 

If that doesn't sound very innovative to you, welcome to 1995. 

To say this effort is at the very least an earnest one is gracious. The "Challenge" was launched by the stagnant Office of Innovation & Technology after Mayor Kenney reconfigured it, pressuring its staff to innovate something. It's a little depressing that after years of employing allegedly innovative minds, the best the Office could come up with was outsourcing their jobs to the general public, along with an amateur website.

The Office has been nationally decried as a failure, its only notable product being the defunct Wireless Philadelphia, a citywide broadband initiative that neither Comcast nor Verizon wanted any part of. Wireless Philadelphia hired EarthLink, because that's where you go when Comcast and Verizon shut you off, and Wireless Philadelphia found itself a bit too reminiscent of AOL 4.0 for its users.

None of that says Innovation & Technology.

Despite all the press that the "Smart City Challenge" is receiving, it's really just proving how ineffectual the Office of Innovation & Technology actually is. And the minuscule research the media has done regarding the Office is indicative of a time when the same publications were lauding Wireless Philadelphia. In fact, PhillyMag.com didn't even bother to mention that "Smart City Challenge" was launched by the Office of Innovation & Technology, only that it's being overseen by Chief Administrative Officer Rebecca Rhynhart.

CAO Rhynhart wears a lot of hats, overseeing everything from Human Resources to Public Property. Innovation and city bureaucracies are notoriously at odds, so new technology will certainly take a backseat to anything else that comes across her desk.

There's no question the "Smart City Challenge" will field some great ideas, but good ideas for streamlining cities are made over cocktails at dive bars across the country all the time. The city will still have to do something with those ideas, and the Office of Innovation & Technology hasn't proven itself capable of producing anything innovative.

It's unfortunate, but even cities synonymous with technology - be it San Francisco or Seattle - are saddled with bureaucratic entities struggling to catch up, even in departments solely dedicated to innovation and technology. You can hire the best and the brightest to innovate your city, but if City Hall doesn't prioritize those efforts, a city becomes saddled with a bunch of high priced bodies pushing paper, and posting .PDF documents on a website that could have been made in Geocities

The truth is, Philadelphia can innovate, and it will. But it won't come from City Hall. It will come from the same places that made a name for other innovative hubs: universities, hospitals, and private technology companies. It will come from the Pennovation Center, Drexel's Schuylkill Yards, the Navy Yard, even Comcast. It won't filter into the city through an email that the Office of Innovation & Technology won't even bother to read. Like too many bureaucratic paper-pushers, those people are just trying to keep a cushy job doing as little as possible. It's going to come from places where innovation is the bottom line, and then - hopefully - spillover into the streets. 

It will come from places like this.

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