Why You Should Care About “Smart City” and What the Opportunity Means for Kansas City

Robot City

Urban Robot by Nikolai Lockertsen (Flickr Creative commons)

Smart phones. Smart watches. Smart thermostats. Smart homes. Smart TVs. It seems like everything is smart these days. Smart and getting smarter. Heck … why stop at all the things, why not just go for a smart city? Smart state? Smart universe?

It’s easy either to get overwhelmed by jargon and buzz words or to roll your eyes at the coming technotopia that accompanies the talk of a “smart city,” but if you do, you may miss the real opportunity that Kansas City has in front of us. And it’s a big one. But we have to unpack some of the language and history in order to put that opportunity into perspective.

Boyd Cohen—a leading academic who ranks smart cities every year for Fast Company, who developed the Smart City Wheel taxonomy, and who keynoted our Gigabit City Summit last January—cited Kansas City last week as an example of a city moving from Smart City 1.0 to Smart City 3.0, a city that…

Embraces changes that explore not only how the government can improve digital service delivery via the gigabit infrastructure (Smart Cities 2.0), but how this infrastructure can serve as the impetus for citizen co-creation and the organic growth of the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

This means, essentially, that technology on its own doesn’t accomplish much. “Build it and they will come” doesn’t work for smart city technology or digital infrastructure. And more than that, how the technology is shaped needs to be driven by the people who live in the city, and the communities that make up a city, not just those elected or hired to manage it.

We’re already on Smart City 3.0? Yeah, we’ve been at this for a while now.

Smart City Wheel 2

Smart City Wheel by Boyd Cohen (click to enlarge)

2012: KC’s Smart City Odyssey

When KC Digital Drive was asked to start working on our Digital Playbook in 2012, we looked around the world at other cities with gigabit fiber and noticed that this thing called “smart city” was a priority in many of them. So we took Mayor James and then-Mayor Reardon down to the Cisco Telepresence facility in Overland Park to learn more.

Over the room-sized videoconference system, we connected with leaders in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Singapore, and Moscow to explore a trend that was growing quickly in Europe, Asia and South America but was having a hard time gaining traction in the U.S. These early telepresence roundtables grew into the Gigabit City Summit event we hold each year. From these sessions, KC Digital Drive began to learn lessons that would shape our unique approach to smart city building. This was advanced when Mayor James, Mayor Reardon, and I spoke at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona, inserting Kansas City into a global conversation and beginning to extend our tech reputation beyond simply gigabit fiber, and taking a first-hand look at the 22@ Innovation District.

How is KC unique? The Smart City movement circa 2012 was highly tech-driven by sensors, networks, efficient algorithms and automated systems. Our Playbook, on the other hand, clearly put the human factor at the heart of our work and how we leverage technology infrastructure. And this became a central theme of Kansas City’s voice in the global conversation.


22@Barcelona by Eurecat (Flickr – CC)

Smart City: WTF?

So what do people really mean when they say “smart city,” and why is it such a polarizing phrase? It’s important to remember that the term was first used in branding by large infrastructure companies. Smarter Cities was a technology application engineered by IBM’s Colin Harrison (also part of our roundtables) back in the mid 2000s.

This large scale system was designed as enterprise software and hardware that could help a city more efficiently manage its resources and sustainability goals. Cisco developed a Smart+Connected City brand and product line in parallel. The idea was that an integrated system of sensors, devices, and equipment, all connected by the Internet and managed by software, could make the city more effective in managing energy, water, waste, public safety, and the like. Traffic lights could adapt to traffic patterns. Water leaks would be more easily detected. The energy grid could be re-routed to avoid power loss.

IBM's Colin Harrison (NY Times)

Rio De Janeiro’s smart city control room (NY Times)

Rio de Janeiro was a flagship test market for IBM, while Cisco was working to build “greenfield cities” from the ground up like Songdo, South Korea or Skolkovo in a Moscow suburb. And frankly, the approach was a little bit weird—cool no doubt, but highly engineered, of uncertain impact, and strangely lacking the human factor. The promise of efficiency was tantalizing, but our approach was measured.

Over the past couple years, as “smart city” has become more generic and less branded, we’ve investigated a growing number of consortia, movements and organizing principles that get at some variation of the same idea. KC Digital Drive has joined the City Protocol Society and investigated the Intelligent Community Forum. We’ve worked with the leaders of the Living Labs movement, which fosters a sense of experimentation, and explored the Legible City concept pioneered by Bristol, UK, which strives to make the city readable to its citizens. More recently, we’ve brought teams from Kansas City to the Global City Teams Challenge and participated in workshops as part of the Responsive City Initiative out of Columbia and Harvard Universities. And we have an opportunity to have the largest cluster of Next Century Cities in our region.

The key observation from all this work is that Kansas City has a lot to learn…but also a lot to offer. As we’ve met with city leaders from around the world and compared notes back home, it’s clear that the leadership in Kansas City—our mayors in particular—are out in front, that the problems we’re addressing and the solutions we’re evaluating here don’t feel hopelessly behind the times when we go out into the world. That’s refreshing, and it’s not an accident. It takes leadership.

The Thinker

The Thinker at the Nelson -Atkins Museum by Brian Hillegas (Flickr CC)

What It Means for Us

So what is the opportunity for KC? Are we just one of many cities muddling through the same problems? How do we choose between competing initiatives, perspectives, and opportunities given limited time and resources?

First and foremost, the opportunity is self-determination—how we adapt these frameworks and craft our own future. What all these different movements and initiatives are grappling with is how a city should cope with the transition to digital. And how to do that in a way that is just, equitable, and makes peoples’ lives better. “Quality of life” may seem like a glib phrase used by recruiters and real estate agents, but it means different things to different people. Balancing those competing visions and crafting the collective vision we want for our community is no easy task, but it’s what leadership is all about.

When Harvard professor Susan Crawford spoke here last January, she compared her observations about gigabit fiber in Kansas City with other global leaders in connectivity. She talked about the “rigid hierarchy” of Seoul that proves a constraint for entrepreneurs, and she described Stockholm as “desperate for grit” needed to spur innovation. The US, she said, offers freedom and grit, but “Kansas City’s competitive advantage is not the same as San Francisco or New York City…Kansas City is all about community and family and roots and belonging.” This cultural disposition creates a unique opportunity to consider how man and machine relate to one another in the future.

And Kansas City has a couple more tangible advantages. This may sound self-serving, but one of them is KC Digital Drive. Our mayors saw fit to draft a community vision around technology that drew broadly from its citizens and spanned the digital realm from inclusion to innovation. And they provided the startup resources for our organization to sit outside City Hall, where we can more effectively balance the top-down needs of the city and the bottom-up demands of citizens. An agenda around digital change with a firm focus on the people of Kansas City is a great foundation. Our work is being cited by organizations like Next Century Cities and people like Blair Levin, who wrote the National Broadband Plan for the FCC, as a model for communities around the country.

This process is already being copied in other parts of the country. I was on a podcast with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke just the other day as he described how their gig network didn’t get to work all by itself. The city had to create a plan and then hand it off to an independent charitable organization, The Enterprise Center. OneCommunity in Cleveland and the Smart Chicago Collaborative are among a handful of other peer organizations occupying this unique niche in their cities.

The other advantage we have is the infrastructure. It may seem like other cities are catching up quickly, but there are still only 12 communities in the US where a majority of residents in a community can get gigabit Internet for under $100. Two of them are in Kansas City, and the sweeter of those two deals is the far less famous one. A $300 installation fee in North Kansas City (via liNKCity) gets you free gigabit service for 10 years. Google Fiber has still only announce a handful of US markets, and we know well how much work is required to build the network. AT&T and Consolidated offer competitively priced fiber, and Time Warner and Comcast help create the most competitive broadband market in the country.

And then we have the smart city project, the Cisco Smart City, another infrastructure initiative that is in its infancy. With a first-of-its-kind WiFi backbone by Sprint, and a yet-to-be-unveiled network of sensors and kiosks, we’ll once again have real physical assets in place that create a platform for innovation. Cisco’s partnership with Think Big—our own Living Lab—is designed to help uncover the business opportunities that infrastructure can support. Does any of this infrastructure come with a guarantee? Of course not.

But it all adds up to something big. What it means for Kansas City to be a smart city, therefore, is getting to be a city about ideas, about real work, about being ahead of the curve, about seizing opportunity, about acknowledging our failures, and about an effort to do better. These are the characteristics of people, not technology or gadgets or systems. When we look “forward to the future” at next week’s event, this is the future we are looking toward.

It is a future that offers the people of Kansas City a chance to learn, a chance to build, and a chance to chart our own course. Science fiction author William Gibson made the oft-quoted observation that “the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” We’re on the plus side of that distribution here, and we should all be eager for the opportunity to do something about it.

Further Reading