Kansas City Blazes a Trail Toward Smarter, Better Services

KC’s Smart City Initiatives Aim for Greater Connectivity and Economic Development, Bridging the “Digital Divide”

Kansas City’s smart city initiative has drawn attention and admiration from around the country.

  • Purpose: To increase connectivity in order to improve quality of life, generate economic development and bridge the digital divide
  • Scope of Project: The initiative so far has included the extension of public Wi-Fi to 54 blocks along the city’s downtown streetcar line, along with smart street lights and interactive kiosks
  • Project Investment: Includes approximately $20 million worth of infrastructure
  • Project Timeline: Began in 2011. An expansion contract, which the city hopes to award by the end of this year, envisions a 10- to 30-year timeframe for building and maintaining additional smart city infrastructure.

Main players include:

Cisco Systems Inc.

Sprint Corp.

In the 19th Century, pioneers seeking a better life gathered in the area around Kansas City and joined wagon trains heading west along the Oregon, Santa Fe, and California Trails.

In the 21st Century, technology pioneers are striving to make Kansas City a better place to live, visit, work and start a new business.

Gordon Feller

In a public-private partnership that includes Cisco Systems Inc. and Sprint Corp., Kansas City has extended public Wi-Fi to 54 blocks along the city’s 2.2-mile downtown streetcar line that opened in 2016. Smart street lights monitor vehicle and foot traffic. Interactive kiosks provide information about attractions in the corridor – and generate advertising revenue for the city.

“Kansas City was an early mover and an early adopter around the smart city revolution,” said Gordon Feller, founder of Meeting of the Minds, a nonprofit knowledge exchange network. “The leaders in the city, from the mayor on down, realized that KC had to try some new things that hadn’t been tried by other cities. It did extremely well in building the partnership approach around project opportunities.”

Bob Bennett

Kansas City, Mo.’s smart city initiative has earned it national recognition, such as the 2018 “Smart 50 Award” at Smart City Connect and a Gold Award (Collective Disruption) at the 2017 Edison Awards.

“Right now we have the smartest 54 blocks on the entire North American continent,” said Bob Bennett, Kansas City’s chief innovation officer. “It’s about $20 million worth of infrastructure. It’s 328 Wi-Fi access points. Sprint owns those; they are manufactured by Cisco. The city owns about 8,000 miles of fiber.”

Larry Jacob

Larry Jacob

But that infrastructure is “not just technology for technology’s sake,” said Larry Jacob, vice president of public affairs for the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurship. “It’s technology geared toward making a more inclusive, more equitable, and more sustainable economy for Kansas City.”

Rebecca Chisolm, who directs Cisco’s state and local government and education sectors, said Kansas City “is one of the first big cities with a grand vision to go out and start executing on this. What we were able to deploy in Kansas City is an enterprise platform that sits on top of the connectivity and security we already provide.”

“Right now we have the smartest 54 blocks on the entire North American continent,” said Bob Bennett, Kansas City’s chief innovation officer.

This has allowed Kansas City to pull different sources of data together, Chisolm said. “It gives the city the ability to look at data in a different way and come up with insights they didn’t have. This enables them to provide a richer experience for their citizens, helps drive increased economic development, and addresses fundamental areas like crime and pollution.”

But with all its accomplishments and accolades, Kansas City feels that it’s journey along this trail has just begun. It has issued a request for proposals (RFP) to expand the smart city program throughout the entire city, which encompasses 318 square miles in four counties.

“Kansas City is going to be the smartest city on planet earth within five years,” Bennett said.

The Drive to Become Smarter

Feller said debates about the smart city “revolution” began percolating in the mid-90’s, and significant technology deployments began kicking in about 15 years later.

“Most cities start from the operational efficiency and productivity standpoint, which is to say reducing cost and increasing the impact of dollars spent,” Feller said. “Then they realize there are new services they can deliver, connected services, that can also generate new revenues beyond their traditional tax base.”

Cisco is engaged in more than 120 smart city initiatives worldwide, Chisolm said. “What we sometimes see is that cities will do just a parking solution or just a lighting solution. There’s nothing wrong with that. But Kansas City and their vision enabled us to provide a broader reach and broader approach.”

Kansas City’s smart city initiative began in 2011, around the same time that Google Fiber began providing service to the metropolitan area.

“It was the realization at that point that we live in a digital society,” Bennett said. “Our citizens and people who visit Kansas City have certain expectations. My daughter, who is 16, is not going to live in a city that is not digitized. We’ve got to prepare our city for that generation.”

Economic development plays a crucial role in Kansas City’s smart city program. “If you’re going to run a business in the 21st Century you have to have broadband, because of the sheer volume of data you’re going to have to file or manage or leverage,” Bennett said.

Quest Moffat

The initiative is considered crucial to bridging Kansas City’s digital divide, or the lack of broadband access that stifles low-income minority neighborhoods. “Broadband only works if you can plug into it, Bennett said. “Ninety-seven percent of the homes in Kansas City today have fiber right at the edge of their driveway or the edge of their apartment building. But if I don’t have the cash to plug into it, I’m still divided.”

Bridging the digital divide is a goal that strongly resonates with Project United Knowledge (PUK), a nonprofit organization that helps budding entrepreneurs launch and grow businesses. “What Smart City is doing is of extreme benefit to the people here in Kansas City,” said Quest Moffat, PUK’s founder and chief technology officer. “It creates jobs. We have benefitted from public, free Wi-Fi that everyone can use.”

Light and Knowledge

Smart street lights – 178 of them – perch on the same poles that host the Wi-Fi access points along Kansas City’s smart city corridor. The lights monitor how many people walk by during five-minute intervals.

“Essentially it’s like a little person sitting on top of the street light with a clip board,” Bennett said. “I can track population flow. If you want to put in a coffee shop, you can now ask the Area Development Council or the Economic Development Corporation where people are between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m.”

If you’re in the vicinity of Kansas City’s streetcar line and you want to know what’s nearby, you can step up to one of more than two dozen kiosks loaded with information.

“It’s a seven-foot tall i phone sitting in the public right-of-way,” Bennett said. “There’s advertising that pops up. If you don’t want to look at advertising right now and you’re looking for a specific shop, you can touch the screen and press the button at the bottom, and it says ‘where do you want to go?’ You punch in where you want to go, and it tells you how to get there.”

The kiosks also play a public safety role. “When there’s a tornado warning, I take over the network,” Bennett said. “I tell people to seek shelter in the nearest large building and get out of the danger zone.”

About 50 percent of the kiosk content is advertising that funnels revenue to the city, Bennett said. “That’s how I pay for upgrades to smart city infrastructure. It is a self-funding system, as opposed to being a burden on the operations fund.”

Kansas City also is working with Avis Budget Group, which is collecting data from internet-connected vehicles. Kansas City will be able to use the data to make plans for autonomous vehicles in the city.

Public-Private Partnership

The P-3 arrangement has been critical to the success of Kansas City’s smart city initiative, Bennett said. “It’s the city saying ‘we can provide fiber, we can provide access, we can provide right-of-way management.’ Cisco and Sprint said, ‘we’d like to be on your street light poles. We need access to our customers who happen to be your citizens.’ We came to an accommodation. We’re succeeding, and better than we would if we were trying to do things independently.”

Chisolm, with Cisco, said the P3 model lends itself to smart city initiatives. “Our cities aren’t rich in money. They don’t necessarily have the budget to support some of the things they need to get done. Conversely, they have assets like right-of-way, and those things are very valuable to the private side. The private side has capital and is looking to invest money. They can scratch one another’s backs.”

Next Steps

Kansas City’s first taste of smart city success has made it hungry for more. In response, it has issued an RFP to expand smart city infrastructure throughout the entire city.

The RFP states that Kansas City “seeks to partner with a firm to provide a fully integrated suite of sensors, networks, and data and analytics platforms that will result in the city becoming the first true Smart City in the world.”

A pre-proposal conference held May 25th drew representatives of 168 companies, Bennett said. He expects interested companies to form groups that will submit proposals, which are due Aug. 31.

“There’s no one company that makes a smart city,” Bennett said. “You have sensor companies, you have data companies, you have telecoms, you have fiber companies. I expect that six to ten groups will form and come to us.”

The RFP envisions a 10- to 30-year time frame for building and maintaining additional smart city infrastructure,
Bennett said. Besides expanding public Wi-Fi, the next phase is expected to provide benefits in areas such as public health and more efficient repairs and maintenance of streets and water lines.

The city hopes to award the contract by the end of this year, Bennett said.

Moffat, with Project United Knowledge, said Kansas City’s smart city future should include expanded job opportunities.

“If you want to put Wi-Fi on every single block, and make sure every single home has 100 percent access to the internet, we also need to make sure we train people to do installations,” Moffat said. “This should include minority- and women-owned businesses.”

More smart city benefits beckon. “Connecting the unconnected is really vital in the areas of transportation and emergency response, and those things can lead to greater economic development for a city and make it more competitive,” Cisco’s Chisolm said.

Bennett says that in the future, the cities that thrive will be the ones that are smart.

“Smart cities 20 years from now will be a dead term,” he said. “No one will describe their city as a smart city.  It will either be a city that’s functional, which means it will be part of the digital environment, or it will be part of the digital rust belt.”

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