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Navigating Smart City Pilots:
A Roadmap for City Planners

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by Emmy Park and Laura Frances

Emmy Park (she/her) is a reformed engineer and second year student in the Master of City Planning program. She focuses on transportation planning and the impact of infrastructure on how we experience our cities.

Laura Frances (she/her) is a second-year Master of City Planning student concentrating in Smart Cities. She is most interested in how to leverage technology to make cities more climate resilient and energy efficient. Before her time at Penn, Laura managed digital equity programs for a new
national non-profit and before that started an innovation consultancy called Built Interest that worked as owners’ representatives to develop alternative real estate products
from hyper-local food halls in Toronto to zero-carbon coworking in Berlin. 

[1] “Smart Loading Zones: Programs and Initiatives.” City of Philadelphia, October 3,

[2] “Frequently Asked Questions: Programs and Initiatives.” City of Philadelphia.

The term “smart city” often conjures images of futuristic landscapes with biometric sensors and autonomous vehicles ruling the streets. In actuality, contemporary smart cities have a simpler aim: leverage data and technology to improve the quality of public services. But the simplicity of the concept is complex in execution. Pilot programs can be an effective way to experiment and see whether a new technology is worth the effort and resources required to deploy city-wide. But, as we saw in our exploratory analysis of Philadelphia’s curb management pilot, even small-scale pilots come with their own set of challenges.

    Curbs are a seemingly small-scale slice of cities. However, curbs are an essential space that serve a wide and often unpredictable range of uses - loading, unloading, parking, paying, dining, and charging. At its best, we see efficient shared use of space and plenty of availability for vehicles and people to flow in and out. At its worst, we see double parking, vehicles continuously circling the block, buses backed up, and bicyclists put in the path of danger. Despite the need for innovation, the curb is still largely managed by parking meters and parking attendants issuing paper tickets. As cities look to solve their problems with the help of technology, smart curb management is rising to the top of the list.

     In March 2022, the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT) launched a six-month Smart Loading Zone (SLZ) pilot to meet unmet demand for loading zones spurred by rideshare apps, set a new data standard, and convert fines into fees [1]. The pilot required drivers to book and pay for curb time via a third-party app at 20 SLZs in Center City [2]. In response to this Request for Proposals, the winning tech vendor pitched a future full of sensors and big data. When the vendor’s technology was not ready to live up to the city’s ambitious goals, the scope of the pilot was reduced to a reservation app just for commercial truck drivers. While this could create an additional revenue stream from reservation fees and potentially reduce instances of illegal parking and the time delivery trucks spend searching for parking, it was all on a much smaller scale that the city originally planned.

    Curious about OIT’s SLZ pilot, we reached out and offered to do exploratory data analysis. From the outset, it was clear that the vendor was only able to capture data on a small portion of truck drivers using the curb and would not provide enough information to inform a management strategy for all loading demand at the curb. As we began our analysis and compared our work to other smart curb management studies, we noticed a recurring problem with these pilots. Pilots’ original research designs are often misaligned in their stated objectives and tech vendors overpromise what they can deliver. Additionally, we noticed that too many pilots try to isolate the curb from actual users that already rely upon access to the curb, such as rideshare drivers and local businesses. As cities continue to push for more smart city solutions, planners can advocate for pilot designs that realistically consider what the city will accommodate and the tech vendor can deliver. We propose three guiding questions for planners to consider before launching a smart city pilot.

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Figure 1: Map of Philadelphia's Smart Loading Zones

1) Are the goals of the pilot aligned with the capacity of the vendor?

    Tech companies come to cities with silver-bullet software and applications concepts. They pitch solutions to grave and urgent challenges - like gun violence and flood mitigation - where the inaction is consequential. It’s understandable, then, that cities can fall prey to these tech-based solutions.  But when each city has unique issues and needs, how could one technology offered by one vendor address them all? Pilot programs can adapt these technologies to cater to a city’s specific goals. However, before diving head-first into these pilots, cities need to come with their goals defined and remain committed to those goals when negotiating with vendors. From there, cities need to verify that the vendor’s data collection and processing capacities are publicly available, reliable, and usable. Otherwise, planners may end up needing to justify pricey technologies with lackluster results.

    In the case of OIT’s pilot, the vendor tried to deploy unproven technology that may have worked in a lab but failed in the streets. The city made the most of it, but the incomplete pilot design only produced data on how long trucks booked loading space in a few key commercial locations. This is not the same as understanding the parking demand or curb usage as a whole. Furthermore, much of the data was also proprietary and unreliable. 

    The following questions address how to mitigate mismatch between the pilot’s goals and the vendor’s capacity: 


  • What is the primary goal of the pilot?

  • What issues is the pilot aiming to address? Who is most affected by these issues?

  • Can all the goals be achieved with one pilot?

  • What information does the city need to get out of the pilot’s data? Will this data be publicly accessible, reliable, and usable? 

  • Does the city have the internal capacity to analyze the data or resources to outsource its analysis?

  • What is the prevailing hypothesis about the data? How might this skew its analysis?

  • What are the pilot’s negotiable and non-negotiable parameters and constraints? 


As cities continue to push for more smart city solutions, planners can advocate for pilot designs that realistically consider what the city will accommodate and the tech vendor can deliver.


2) What is the geographic scope of the pilot’s end goal?

   After defining the purpose and objectives of a pilot, the next step is to determine the specific location where the pilot will be conducted and if that geography can be generalized to the end goal. If the original location does not accurately represent the scope of the end goal of the project, then this data cannot be broadly applied. In order for the pilot to demonstrate how a new technology will improve public service delivery, the pilot’s geography must be representative of the whole city. 

   Philadelphia is a mix of urban and suburban, residential and commercial, low-density and high-density areas. The pilot was limited to Center City, the commercial heart of Philadelphia, where its high-density land use and busy streets are unique compared to the rest of the city. How reliably could data on a curb surrounded by shops, hospitals, and office buildings represent a curb surrounded by single family housing?


    To successfully extrapolate the results from a small-scale pilot to the rest of a city, we offer a few questions to help develop a critical and granular lens: 

  • What is the pilot’s geographic scope? What are the geography’s characteristics (ex. land use, zoning, traffic conditions, pedestrian counts, and future plans)?

  • Are the people who will use and be affected by the technology represented in the pilot?

  • How may the area’s historical uses and urban design affect the technology’s implementation strategy or the study’s performance metrics?

  • Does the pilot need to serve the whole city? Is it useful to invest in the pilot if it focuses on a narrower field of study? 


3) Is the pilot’s technology able to operate with other smart city initiatives? 

    Public space in the city is multifunctional and ever-changing. As new technologies are perpetually introduced into the streetscape, it is important for planners to consider how they can be used to support one another. When countless wires and signals cross, if planners need to navigate a graveyard of unused technology when designing pilots, it can quickly become an insurmountable mess. Planners can demand that technology vendors play nice with one another and create a smart network throughout the city. 

   Given the SLZ pilot’s original goals to tackle a wider range of curb uses, there was a missed opportunity to work with a vendor or group of vendors who could address more than truck loading. For example, Center City is a hub for hospitality and nightlife, but there were no smart passenger loading zones in the pilot. There are existing passenger pick-up and drop-off (PUDO) zones in the pilot’s study area. These are spots on select street corners for rideshare users to safely get in and out cars and reduce double parking. If the SLZ pilot included existing PUDO zones, it could have been an interesting opportunity to see if the vendor’s curb management technology could work for both passenger and commercial loading zones.


    We pose the following questions to help planners develop a smart network rather than a single smart feature:


  • How are current challenges and needs going to change? Does the study area overlap with other city initiatives that may interfere with the pilot?

  • Is the vendor’s tech deployable or is the pilot a testing ground for them to tinker with their product or service? Does the contract’s costs reflect the vendor’s readiness?

  • What is the vendor’s internal capacity to deliver throughout the pilot and beyond? If the pilot is a success, what is the commercial lifespan of the technology? 

  • Does the city have the capacity to manage and resources to maintain the technology beyond the pilot period? 


How reliably could data on a curb surrounded by shops, hospitals, and office buildings represent a curb surrounded by single family housing?


Smart Pilots for Smart Cities

   Pilots can be an effective tool for cities to innovate. But pilots can also fall victim to flash-pan demonstrations of technologies that do not ultimately serve the public.  Particularly in curb management, but other sectors too, tech companies are capitalizing on cities’ willingness to take on pilots, even when the pilot design is less comprehensive than originally intended. That being said, pilots, even when imperfect, are not a universal waste of time or resources, and can still offer insights on how to make cities more resilient, insightful, and productive.

   Pilots are experiments, and experiments require some degree of methodological rigor. While Philadelphia’s SLZ pilot may not have answered all of OIT’s original questions, it’s still a helpful look into how to monetize and optimize commercial loading in Center City. While, on one hand, it’s exciting to see Philadelphia put forth ambitious initiatives to transform how it delivers public services, it would be equally exciting to work with a vendor that strikes a balance between innovation, feasibility, and utility from the start and throughout implementation.

   No matter the scale, analyzing pilots for the good, the bad, and the ‘what’s next’ is essential to making the most of every pilot, for the city that deployed the original scheme and all the others considering doing the same. Ultimately, a good smart city pilot pairs data and technology with a realistic and grounded hypothesis of how to make a city better, even if it is just one curb at a time. 


Image: A curb on Chestnut St. in Center City, Philadelphia

Source: Claudia Schreier

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