Tech in the Commons: A Toolkit for Place-Based Nonprofits
Smart Cities projects matter for nonprofits, too.
The concept is about "understanding the various challenges in a community and identifying ways technology might support a better solution."


  1. Ask yourself, How does technology help me connect with my city? What tech resources do I wish I had to do so better? What role can government play in making that happen?
  2. Look at how other cities are using Smart Cities technology. What similarities and differences do you notice to your own city?
  3. Connect with your local government’s innovation office to ask how they can partner with your community-based group. In Philly, that’s the Office of Innovation and Technology.


It benefits us all when local governments use new technologies to improve city services. We call that concept Smart Cities.

Smart Cities includes:

  • Increased broadband access, machine learning, efficient transportation, sensors for parking meters
  • The Internet of Things, aka any physical device that’s connected to the internet, such as Alexa
  • LinkPHL, a forthcoming network of kiosks for Center City and University City outfitted with free Wi-Fi and more digital perks

Philadelphia’s implementation of Smart Cities initiatives will help people get around faster and help itself manage city assets, such as streets, more efficiently. But where do nonprofits fit?

The City of Philadelphia’s Ellen Hwang was recognized on Generocity’s 2017 civic tech realLIST as being a leader in the city’s efforts to increase digital inclusion and civic engagement via technology. As the city’s assistant director of strategic initiatives, she’s in charge of SmartCityPHL, “a strategic initiative developing a comprehensive plan to guide investment and implementation of smart technology for government service innovation.”

The city is convening consultants, startups, corporate partners, universities and others to weigh in on that plan. And place-based nonprofits?

“So much of the work in [Smart Cities] is about understanding the various challenges in a community and identifying ways technology might support a better solution to addressing that challenge,” Hwang said. “As the City of Philadelphia continues to build its roadmap, we would look forward to connecting with the nonprofit community to help us prioritize what types of solutions are most important to them and partner with us on projects to implement in their communities.”

Dr. Ken Steif founded consulting org Urban Spatial to help governments, businesses and nonprofits address their challenges “at the intersection of data science and public policy.”

Urban Spatial, with the help of Steif’s University of Pennsylvania grad students, developed a foreclosure warning system project for community nonprofit Philadelphia Legal Assistance. The project used all open source code so other orgs can replicate it.

Rather than Smart Cities, “the real innovation we should care about is ‘civic technology,’” Steif said. “Philadelphians should know that their City has been an international leader in the use of civic technology for decades and that when deployed in concert with policy makers, community members, domain experts, designers and other stakeholders, these innovations can lead to a City that is more productive and inclusive.”

Whatever the term, these initiatives have the capacity to impact Philadelphians’ everyday lives — and could help nonprofit pros do their jobs better.

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