The Internet Of Things Is Creating The Smart Cities Of Tomorrow

This article originally appeared on Forbes by Tracey Welson-Rossman.

Millions of  new devices are estimated to connect to the Internet every second. The installed base of the Internet of Things (IoT) is forecast to grow to between 25-30 billion devices by 2020. Spending for the IoT economy is expected to range into the trillions over the next ten or more years.

Against this backdrop, the Smart Cities of tomorrow are taking shape. They take advantage of the devices in our homes and businesses and the data they create to enhance the quality of life for the people living and working within them.

The demand for smart city solutions is expected to reach $2.57 billion worldwide 2025, driving by factors such as growing urban populations, the need to better manage limited natural resources, and an increased emphasis on environmental sustainability.

Ellen Hwang is the Smart City Director/Assistant Director of Strategic Initiatives for the City of Philadelphia, part of the city’s team tasked with managing its technology infrastructure, planning, and policy. In this role, she is responsible for Philadelphia’s technology related governance, policy, program development, and capacity building.

As a Philadelphia resident and the co-founder of a technology business as well as two tech-related non-profits in the city, I’ve had a front row seat to its tech efforts. The city has made incredible advances in the way it leverages and advances tech, even receiving  a “smart city readiness” grant from the Smart Cities Council in 2017. The grant included in-kind financial support from the Council to host a stakeholder event to kick-off the development of the develop a roadmap for applying smart technologies.

Much of this is attributable to Hwang and her leadership in creating and executing the city’s technology roadmap. Her focus is less on end-technologies and more about evaluating how the tech can improve the lives of residents, serve economic development efforts, and advance other civic purposes. Over the years, innovative technologies have been applied in a number of ways ranging from public safety to transportation to energy efficiencies to bridging the digital divide and beyond.

Interestingly, Hwang told me that she did not originally see herself using technologies other than email. From an early age, she saw herself connecting with people and coming up with new ideas, but in low tech ways like whiteboarding and actually interviewing people in person or over the phone.

Similarly, her path to working for Philadelphia was not exactly planned, but she has loved the city since she was a little girl. She always knew where she would be but not what she would be doing.

After majoring in English at Temple University, she took a gap year to study for the LSATs. That experience and some local networking during that year led her to urban planning school versus a career in law. While there, she worked at a community development nonprofit organization and later made the transition into City government, in a position called  “municipal innovation.” She confided to me that she had no idea at the time what that meant, but was open to it and liked the sound of it.

Hwang explained that her job involves having both soft and technical skills. Technically, Hwang needs a deep understanding of data: how to craft data related strategies, discern good data, and how to build infrastructure in service to a larger solution. Beyond tech capabilities, she has to design solutions with an understanding of the people they will serve, create broader and human related goals for her department, and use technology in a practical manner – not just for the sake of using technology. And lest we forget, she has to pitch her solutions to a broad audience of policy makers and citizens before actually implementing them.

As a discipline, Hwang says that Smart City professionals are trained in urban planning. The goal is to seamlessly integrate technology into the daily aspects of a city and ensure that all the systems come together. One has to consider how tech and innovation coexist while understanding the realistic barriers.

She explains that Smart Cities are an opportunity to be strategic. It’s more than sensors and IoT. It’s an opening to interact within a larger world and create a vision for how tech can solve for and accomplish goals on behalf of a municipality. This involves broader, human related goals that are ultimately more important than just the use of technology.

Hwang attributes her success to an innate ability to navigate the complexities of people, place and process. She says that she is naturally a “systems thinker” that loves exploring and understanding how everything connects. This aligns well with her job where she has to account for a wide range of diverse stakeholders, each with her own unique needs and interest. Into this mix, she also has to consider the physical opportunities and constraints of a city like Philadelphia.

Hwang says that designing for a Smart City is fun because it integrates so many technical areas of expertise: data infrastructure and systems, networking and communications planning, transportation and mobility, healthcare, and more. She enjoys creating efficiencies across the municipality or deploying solutions where people normally do not reach, like sewage, lighting or dangerous areas.

While she doesn’t think municipal government is for everyone, Smart City as a larger industry is a fascinating and incredibly exciting space that ties together the interests and expertise of all kinds of people. Ultimately, it’s about solving problems in everyday challenges and leveraging technology to tackle those challenges.

Hwang also believes that more women should be in the disruptive technology space because there is a shared understanding that “failing” is a part of being in the innovation sector.  She believes more women should be open to and welcome this idea that “failing” is not bad and be confident in who we are both in and despite our failures. Rather than striving for perfection, women should strive to become true leaders who are unafraid of sticking up for the ideas and solutions they believe in.