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Society & Culture

Drexel Seeking New Ways to Tackle Critical Urban Challenges

By: Ben Seal

October 27, 2017

Philadelphia City Hall

In its quest to find new ways to solve the critical challenges facing Philadelphia and cities around the country, the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University has invited three community leaders to dig deeper into their research with the backing of the University’s vast intellectual resources. The inaugural class of Urban Innovation Fellows, whose work spans public health, the arts and community engagement, will be introduced at the first Urban Innovation Summit beginning Oct. 30 on Drexel’s campus.

The summit will culminate Nov. 1 in the first Drexel Dialogues, a free and open conversation at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University on “Urban Innovation in the Age of Trump.”

“Cities are engines of innovation. Philadelphia has been an urban lab since William Penn launched his Holy Experiment,” said Harris Steinberg, executive director of the Lindy Institute. “Today, with the opioid crisis ravaging our neighborhoods and inequality threatening to upend our social fabric, Drexel’s commitment to Philadelphia and civic engagement is as timely as it was when A.J. Drexel set out to create an institute 126 years ago designed to prepare Philadelphians, regardless of race, sex and class, for jobs in the Industrial Revolution.”

The Drexel Dialogues event, co-sponsored by the Office of International Programs, will mark the debut of the fellows, who will share their plans to help improve their communities. The fellows, selected from more than 100 applicants, are Priya Mammen, MD, director of public health programs and clinical associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University; Michael O’Bryan, director of youth and young adult programs at The Village of Arts and Humanities; and Chris Spahr, executive director of the Centennial Parkside CDC. Each sees an opportunity to expand upon the ideas they tangle with in their work and open up avenues to get deeply impactful projects off the ground.

“All three fellows are working across boundaries — social, environmental and economic — as well as across disciplines,” Steinberg said. “They are tackling deep, entrenched urban issues that require multidisciplinary, team problem-solving approaches.”

For O’Bryan, whose interests lie “at the intersection of individual and community wellbeing,” the fellowship is a chance to bring a behavioral economics approach to workforce development as he seeks ways to improve the professional outlook of people between 14 and 26 years old. Too often, mental, behavioral and social health are left out of conversations about people’s economic livelihood, he said. As the onslaught of automation and shifting labor market trends rush toward young men and women entering the workforce, he wants to find ways to mitigate the potential danger by developing a shared understanding of desired skills and character traits among employers, potential employees and organizations carrying out training and development.

“One thing I believe in wholeheartedly is that an ecosystem needs to change and come up with some common language and values to communicate with one another,” O’Bryan said. “At that point you now have the space for collective intelligence and creativity to emerge, and collective problem-solving can happen.”

During his fellowship, O’Bryan plans to use national information to develop ideas about how the local economy might be able to proactively protect its citizens from falling behind in a changing labor market.

Spahr is focused on helping his community development corporation implement a community-scale solar energy system to power local cultural institutions. The CDC has a concept in place and wants to ensure residents play a decisive role in the planning and implementation

“I felt the Urban Innovation Fellowship would offer an injection of expertise and some resources to take our efforts to the next level,” Spahr said. “I have always respected Drexel University as an institution that strives to pursue true engagement with its community, and I was excited to formally connect on this innovative project.”

Mammen is interested in harnessing the power of Philadelphia’s network of emergency departments to improve population health. She plans to focus on the opioid epidemic, specifically in South Philadelphia and the Northeast, to assess community needs and uncover gaps in and barriers to care in order to develop ideas on how to intervene.

“Using fellowship resources, I plan to integrate harm-reduction concepts with urban innovation techniques and social policy strategies,” Mammen said.

For his part, Steinberg is looking forward to seeing what the fellows can accomplish, and continuing to push forward the conversation about urban life in the 21st century.

“We are most interested in how Drexel can play an active role in identifying and incentivizing urban innovation,” Steinberg said. “Drexel is very much of the city, and this program is about an institutional commitment to urban problem-solving.”