Driving equity through innovation – interview with Ellen Hwang

The Future of Cities Leaders Series This interview is part of The Future of Cities Leaders Series. In collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group and the Center for Urban Innovation at The Aspen Institute. We're surfacing trends in city innovation and extracting lessons from city problem-solvers to explore how they are using innovation to achieve greater public impact.

Innovation must drive value for all

SmartCityPHL is an initiative started two years ago as part of the City of Philadelphia’s innovation portfolio. We asked Ellen how she would define a smart city and if she could explain the overall approach the initiative is taking.

“It’s been a challenge to define what we mean by smart cities and where to go with the work, but we are taking what we hope is a very community-centric approach with the launch of our roadmap and projects that tie in. Of course, there’s a focus on technical infrastructure, but we also have to ask ourselves, ‘Whose city is it?’ For us, it will always come back to people: Who are we thinking about? Who are we bringing to the table? Who do we want to impact?

“If we harness innovation and technology thoughtfully they can help us support equity and build relationships with the city’s diverse community of residents. The conversation is not solely about engaging with startups and embedding them into city government (although that’s an interesting idea); it’s about looking at our processes and engagement and ensuring we are connecting our goals and projects with the neighborhoods that need innovation the most and have historically been left out. Co-creation and working alongside our residents is the ideal, but our bottom line is about inclusion, so that marginalized communities are at the forefront of what we do, not simply included as an afterthought.”

Co-creation and working alongside our residents is the ideal, but our bottom line is about inclusion, so that marginalized communities are at the forefront of what we do, not simply included as an afterthought

When we asked what this approach looks like in practice, Ellen told us about the Philadelphia bike share scheme. While most large cities have similar schemes, Philadelphia’s version has some key differences in terms of development, access and follow-through. Ellen was keen to point out that the scheme illustrates not just the approach of SmartCityPHL but a broader culture change that’s happening across the city government and among citizens.

“The City’s Office of Infrastructure, Transportation, and Sustainability (OTIS) outsourced data and did a lot of outreach to make sure people voted on where the bike share should be – it was important that we didn’t rely solely on the planning department or on our gut feeling, as we wanted to ensure the bikes would be available in neighborhoods that were not necessarily on our radar. We also wanted to ensure that no-one was excluded. As a result, I believe we’re the only bike share that people can access without a credit card. We partnered with corner stores and markets in key neighborhoods to set up a voucher system so access was as equitable as possible.

“Finally, in the follow-through stage, we noticed that utilization rates were low in some neighborhoods. It transpired that although residents had voted for the scheme and welcomed the new transport option, many people felt unsafe cycling on the streets or didn’t know how to ride a bike. So several City departments, led by the Office of Adult Education, came together and pitched to our Innovation Fund to receive funding to develop a digital literacy program that would teach residents both the digital literacy skills as well as how to safely ride a bike in the city. We hosted these workshops in our KEYSPOT locations -public computing centers- that were near the bike share stations for help learning to ride a bike and navigate the streets safely. This effort started off as an Innovation Fund pilot project and now has become a sustained and regular part of the City’s program offerings. We’ve graduated over 8 cohorts of new bike share riders and will be launching the 9th cohort in Spring 2019.  

 

Making innovation the life-blood of city government

While projects like this are extremely valuable, there is also a need to foster the next generation of innovators within city hall – to ensure everyone has the ability to innovate to continue to drive change. Ellen explained that there is currently a two-track approach to doing this. The first is a training academy, The Academy for Municipal Innovation, co-hosted by a local university (Jefferson University), which aims to help people develop the skills they need to innovate.

“Through the Academy for Municipal Innovation, we are teaching people innovation techniques. However, the skill-building does not stop there.” She mentioned her colleague Eliza Pollack who is working to provide on-going support to provide on-the-job training to Academy graduates so that they can strengthen their leadership and facilitation skills. These skills are necessary components to effectively utilizing the techniques taught in the university setting. This is how we ensure graduates have a voice and meaningfully use the tools they learned in the Academy in their job and ultimately effect change. Eliza developed Innovation Consulting to provide internal on-the-job training for Academy graduates. We believe that innovation and leadership skills can be taught.

You need patience and a desire to build relationships with people so that you can build trust and partnership to encourage others to work toward common goals with you

“A culture of innovation can be extremely uncomfortable for some people – you need to be okay with ambiguity and with taking an open-ended approach because it’s not always clear what shape a new initiative will take until you work through a process and series of conversations. You need patience and a desire to build relationships with people so that you can build trust and partnership to encourage others to work toward common goals with you.”

Underlying the City’s approach to municipal innovation is a foundation built on cross-departmental collaboration. Ellen says, “We feel strongly that this is essential to the innovation. So much of what we do is about connecting people to build capacity and synergy with the hopes that commons goals might be better achieved. Even though the Innovation Management team is seated in the central IT department, we add the most value when we help people to work outside of departmental walls and build cross-departmental relationships both on behalf of the department as well as for others.

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The Future of U.S. Cities

This case interview is part of our Future of Cities Leaders series. We are launching a handbook, in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group and the Center for Urban Innovation at The Aspen Institute, to explore how city problem-solvers are using innovation to achieve greater public impact. Our handbook surfaces trends in city innovation, and extracts lessons from conversations with city leaders all over the US on how cities can innovate with intention to address the biggest challenges and create more livable, equitable, and resilient cities. Learn more about the U.S. cities leading the charge.

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