Public-Private Partnership

Building a Smarter Philadelphia

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In 2011, the City of Philadelphia bested 200 other applicants for an IBM Smarter Cities Challenge grant – becoming one of only two dozen cities worldwide to earn the distinction. The Smarter Cities Challenge is IBM’s largest philanthropic initiative – a three-year, 100-city, $50 million grant program through which IBM’s top consultants immerse themselves in the studies of specific urban challenges and provide strategic advice to civic and community leaders.

During October 2011, a team of eight IBM experts lived and worked in Philadelphia to deliver recommendations on a key challenge identified by Mayor Michael A. Nutter and his senior leadership team: to develop new strategies to blend, deploy and sustain Digital On-Ramps – a system that will provide the city’s traditional in-person and digital virtual education, digital literacy, and workforce training programs. The goal is to further develop the Digital On-Ramp (DOR) initiative of learning and services to help Philadelphia create a first-of-its-kind integrated system to identify and develop human capital.

IBM team members Ed Blatt, John Evans, Lisa Farnin, Sugandh Mehta, Diane Melley, Mary Olson, Bertrand Portier, and Martha Vernon shared their thoughts on Philadelphia’s initiative to become a Smarter City.

Based on your conversations with Mayor Nutter, what are some of Philadelphia’s most pressing problems and the outlook for managing them?

Mary: “While the City of Philadelphia is the birthplace of the United States Constitution, it has a growing population that is unable to read that document. Put simply, these citizens lack the skills to participate in today’s global economy. And even though many public and private organizations work tirelessly to improve skills and enable economic participation, they will never achieve the scale needed to truly solve the problem unless they work together.”

Martha: “In addition, the vision is to create a learning delivery system that is flexible enough to allow anytime, anywhere learning. Such a system would allow for personalized information and customized learning interventions based on each citizen’s needs.”

Sugandh Mehta, Martha Vernon, Bertrand Portier, Diane Melley,
John Evans, Ed Blatt, and Mary Olson

How did the team identify and coordinate existing city resources, and which new resources needed to be developed?

Mary: “The good news is that the resources, institutions, and programs to address Philadelphia’s skills gap already exist. The Smarter Cities Challenge is all about effectively coordinating these efforts to the benefit of all citizens. We feel that providing a collaborative learning environment with a comprehensive profile of the individual will make all participants successful in the long run.”

Ed:  “Providing a collaborative learning environment is going to be key. While Philadelphia will almost certainly want to develop new resources and materials, the big challenge in the short term will be organizing and coordinating the resources that already exist. In addition, the city will face significant challenges in convincing some stakeholders to share their resources. Most of the existing programs have traditionally operated in silos because in many ways they have been competitors for city, state and foundation funding. So getting them to start working together and sharing is going to be tough.

Philadelphia will also need to be careful to avoid simply placing existing materials online. What works in a classroom or in a book will not necessarily translate to on-line learning. City leaders will need to think of new ways to approach old problems.”

In your view, what will be the key component of Philadelphia’s ability to effect positive change?

Ed: “This project is all about public-private partnerships. But it’s not just government, nonprofit, and community-based providers that need to participate. Private-sector employers also need to join in the Digital On-Ramp (DOR) project. These employers can play a vitally important role in planning, the development of curriculum and training materials, and teaching. Private-sector employers need to increase their roles and be involved in every aspect of DOR.”

John: “It’ll be important to reach state and federal organizations in addition to groups from across all segments of the city. For example, Philadelphia could foster amazing synergies to increase the effectiveness of services delivery by coordinating proposal efforts among the Free Library, state workforce programs, the school system, and corporate philanthropic programs.”

Martha: “The city will need to remain mindful that the DOR must serve the wide-ranging needs of a diverse population. The system must be flexible enough and customizable enough to deliver value to people who learn in different ways and at different times. The pathways to learning can be varied, but they all must point to the common goal of serving the citizens of Philadelphia.”

Mary: “Philadelphia’s myriad nonprofit organizations, government workforce development programs, educational institutions, and charitable organizations need to work together to build synergy and achieve more than each can on its own. No single entity can overcome challenges of this scale by working in isolation.”

Philadelphia already has begun implementing some of IBM’s recommendations, including qualifying literacy providers for the online course catalogue. And the MacArthur Foundation has awarded the city a first-round grant to design a certification, credentialing and badging system that will be recognized by private sector employers seeking qualified job candidates from the program.

Philadelphian Edward Blatt, Ph.D., is Senior Managing Consultant with the IBM Government Center of Competence. John Evans is a Business Consulting and Enablement Manager with IBM Research. Philadelphian Lisa Farnin is an IBM Corporate Citizenship Manager. IBM Distinguished Engineer and IBM Academy Member Sugandh Mehta is an expert on cloud computing. Philadelphian Diane Melley is IBM Director of Global Community Initiatives. IBM Education Solution Specialist Mary Olson helps universities and K-12 clients transform education delivery. Bertrand Portier is a Business Process Management Software Solution Architect. Martha Vernon is the North America Enablement Leader for the East Software Sales team.

Further Resources:

How Philadelphia’s Institutions Came Together to Address a Skills Shortage

Read the City of Philadelphia press release

Smarter Cities Challenge/Philadelphia Summary Report

Smarter Cities Challenge/Philadelphia Full Report


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