Here’s how to make it happen, says former CTO Allan Frank
By Todd R. Weiss
PHILADELPHIA – (Editor’s note: Allan R. Frank, the former CTO of the City of Philadelphia, was scheduled to speak here last Thursday at the 6th annual Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise Conference (ETE). A sick child at home, however, canceled his plans for the day. Frank was kind enough, though, to talk with me by telephone to describe his vision for technology in Philadelphia – which was to have been the subject of his talk. Here are his thoughts.)
From July 2008 to this past February, Allan R. Frank worked as the City of Philadelphia’s first-ever Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Yes, the city has maintained a separate Chief Information Officer post for a long time, but the CIO is in charge of the city’s IT systems and staff and running IT for its government agencies and processes.
Instead, Frank was brought in to help find ways to use technology to make the city a better place to live, work and do business. His vision, he said, was to find ways of using technology in the city to bring business people, educators, residents and other movers and shakers together in the common good.
Frank took the CTO post after talking with Mayor Michael Nutter and convincing Nutter that someone was needed to help connect the area’s technological capabilities with the issues that were central to the mayor and the city. To Frank, that meant showing Nutter how a technology-focused CTO could help the city solve its most pressing problems, from economic development to solving poverty to improving education and more.
“I started explaining to the mayor that I saw a tremendous opportunity for the city to take its place as a cornerstone of a regional technology center,” he said. By bringing Frank in as CTO, he told Nutter that the mayor would finally have someone “sitting at the table to focus on all of his goals.”
“The mayor obviously shared my vision around the opportunity for how technology plays a role in everything in a city,” Frank said. “He saw the importance of that outside role.”
Frank’s vision was to continue what Philadelphia has always been – a city of firsts. Since the 1600s, the first library was set up here, as well as the first hospital, bank, library, medical school and computer – ENIAC.
With that history in mind, Frank said he envisions the city as the “ground zero” for the next wave of technological innovation in the U.S.
“My vision of what I call ‘Digital Philadelphia’ is asking the question, ‘what should it be and what should it look like? This city must be the national model for urban transformation to the 21st century knowledge economy.”
The tools are here in the region to make it happen, including such things as an urban core that has been again attracting young people to move downtown and work in the city, he said.
“We’re also the home of Comcast,” he said. “We could be the next Silicon Valley.”
Much of Frank’s ideas for the city were born, he said, after President Obama took office, nurtured by Obama’s ideas of creating broadband stimulus efforts to help cities expand their technological infrastructures and abilities.
“In the 1960s, Philadelphia was manufacturing textiles,” Frank said. “Today we should be talking about putting in fiber networks and technology parks.”
There are 154,660 people employed in IT occupations in the Philadelphia region, employing 7.4% of the area’s total workforce, he said. That gives the area the 6th largest concentration of IT workers in the U.S. Adding to the region’s allure as a burgeoning tech center are the world-class universities here that train qualified technical people, he said.
“What about developing tech economic development zones around the city, buildings that are pre-wired for 1-gigabit networks and many more innovations?” he said. “I was trying to frame this vision of Philadelphia as this zone of network incubators, and setting up better ways to work with local tech community.”
All of these things have been part of the regional discussion after he joined the city in 2008 and they will continue to be pursued even after he departed from his post to head back into private industry, he said.
“Government can’t make all of this happen,” Frank said. “It takes the community at large. And it takes the government to be supportive. Digital Philadelphia needs to have executives, citizens and tech companies involved.”
Now all of those ideas will be the responsibilities of others. Frank, who has more than 35 years of experience in technology and business leadership, left his CTO role in February to return full-time to The AKA Group LLC, a strategic consulting firm that he founded.
Frank remains, however, on a steering committee to help continue these efforts and he believes in the city and the area, he said. His passions and energy will continue to help push for these changes, he said.
“Over the last couple of years, you can feel the energy here,” he said. “Our kids should be staying here in Philadelphia to create for technology companies” so we need to help create a vibrant tech community here to employ thousands of people. “The future of the world is cities.”
The power to make it all happen here is right in the region’s hands, according to Frank. “What we really have to do is create a freaking wave.”
Todd R. Weiss is a longtime technology journalist who worked as a staff writer for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. Now a freelance tech journalist, Weiss contributes regularly to Computerworld, PCWorld.com and other publications. He has also written extensively for Linux.com, ForecastingClouds.com and TechTarget on a wide range of enterprise IT topics from Linux and open source to disaster recovery, cloud computing, virtualization, application development, IT education and mobile and wireless technologies. He began writing about computers in 1996 after a newspaper editor he worked for told him that “no one cares about technology.” Apparently, the editor was wrong. Follow him on Twitter.com @TechManTalking or contact him at toddrweiss at gmail dot com.