There’s a new hand at the helm of Kansas City innovation, and it belongs to that of Bob Bennett.
A 24-year veteran of the U.S. Army, Bennett kicked off his tenure as the second-ever chief innovation officer of the City of Kansas City, Mo. on Jan. 1, taking the lead on an array of civic tech initiatives.
Most recently an instructor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, the 47-year-old brings a diverse worldview to the position, having never lived in one place for more than five years. Despite a nomadic lifestyle — he called Italy, Bosnia, Russia, Iraq and more than half a dozen states home at one point or another — his Clay County, Mo. roots run back to the 1840s.
With the City of Fountains, Bennett will be tasked with finding innovative ways to solve city problems and improve citizen satisfaction. Among the programs that Bennett will lead for the city are: the KCStat initiative; the implementation of the KC Digital Roadmap; the Cisco Smart City initiative; work with the Mayor’s Challenge Cabinet to enhance civic engagement; and “create a culture of innovation within City Hall.”
Startland News recently sat down with the openly optimistic and energetic Bennett to learn about his life, philosophies and plans for the city’s tech future. Here are a few highlights from our conversation with the self-proclaimed bureaucracy breaker.
“When we drove to the hospital when my wife went into labor, we went past the Pentagon, which was still smoking.” – Bob Bennett
What attracted you to the CIO position?
A lot of things. Throughout my military experience, the jobs I enjoyed most and I performed best at were the ones where I was able to meld the theoretical planning side of life with the operational implementation side. The CIO job does that. I have a dual reporting structure where 50 percent of the time I report to Mayor Sly James and 50 percent I report to City Manager Troy Schulte. I get to do the long-range thoughts and the big muscle movements in coordination with mayor, but also with the city manager, I get to do the implementation and operations piece. It feeds both of my passions of not just doing good, but doing it well at the same time.
How will your military service translate to the public sector?
In 2008 and 2009 I worked in Baghdad — my second time for General (David) Petraeus — my job was to synchronize all the elements of the federal government into one strategy, one effort across the entire government and all its capabilities. When I look at the city, I see a lot of departments that do a lot of great work and what I’ve been tasked to do is make sure that work complements each other. It’s the synchronization skillset and the ability to figure out where the touchpoints are, finding the sweet spot where everything comes together. In city or federal government, it’s the same thing. In any project, there are 15 people that interact with it. If they all see the common goal in the middle, they’ll all work toward it because everyone’s natural goal is to succeed. Nobody wakes up and says ‘I want to screw up.’
What are Kansas City’s innovation strengths?
Places like the Kansas City Startup Village, Think Big, the Blue Valley CAPS program and all the activities that bring together the collaborative spirit in the Midwest, with our advanced technologies, is an incredible strength. You don’t have the destructive competitiveness that exists in other centers around the world. Here, it’s a truly collaborative environment with all the tech requirements to do what you want to do.
“In the end, my guiding principle is in the faith that we’re going to get this done and we will succeed.” – Bob Bennett
What are Kansas City’s innovation weaknesses?
One area that I would like to make progress on with the rest of the city is getting rid of the digital divide. We have a whole section of this city that is not benefitting from technical innovations and the innovation space because they either don’t have the skillset or access to the Internet. The city is starting to do a lot of that stuff now and I’d like to continue that and expand that if possible. In my dream world, I’d like to see a kid grow up east of Troost with access to the Internet, to get the opportunity to become computer savvy, to gain access to potential employers from local startups or bigger tech corporations and become a CEO of a major corporation, and to do it all here. My dream would be to see that kid on the cover of Fortune magazine.
What’s a guiding philosophy you’re taking into this position?
Being persistent to the point of obnoxiousness, being able to reach out to everyone that frequently others cast off and to maximize their contribution has been something I’ve been able to do. … I’m a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, and every single year before Spring training starts I send a mass email saying how we’re going to win the World Series. I’ll be damned if last year I wasn’t close. Eventually, I’m going to be right and I honestly believe that. In the end, my guiding principle is in the faith that we’re going to get this done and we will succeed.
“But until I engage the population, it needs to be a two way thing so I can hear what some of the good ideas are that we can integrate. … I’ve been breaking bureaucracies for 24 years.” – Bob Bennett
What are your first steps with the Smart City project?
The first thing is creating a positive experiences by folks visiting Kansas City in early March, probably for the Big 12 tournament, so that when they arrive, they can truly experience the Big 12 tournament. If they want to know everything about a kid playing guard for Kansas State — even if a thousand people hit a website at once — everyone will be able will successfully hit it for free. I want everyone that goes home after that tournament to be blown away by just how connected they are in our downton spaces and leverage from that all the other things that a smart city is.
Does the bureaucracy of city government intimidate you?
I know that this is going to be a significant transition in terms of the language and lingo and the personalities involved, but as far of the system goes it looks like something I’ve done in the past. But until I engage the population, it needs to be a two way thing so I can hear what some of the good ideas are that we can integrate. … I’ve been breaking bureaucracies for 24 years.
You have a remarkable story during the September 11 attacks. Can you tell us what happened?
I woke up that morning in Fort Belvoir, Virginia — south of the Pentagon. I had a meeting scheduled that day at the Pentagon that got cancelled. I was working for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. … When the first plane hit, I was due to do a monthly inventory of my fly-away kit anyway and I thought ‘That could be a problem.’ When the second plane hit, I was in the middle of (the inventory process), which was when we were called to go to New York. I finished my inventory and got on a loading dock to go to New York. The truck was late and I was madder than a wet hen. The non-commissioned officer I was working with comes running down the hall and he said ‘Sir, change of mission. We got to set up a command post. The Pentagon just got hit.’ So we spent the next six days going 16 hours on, eight off, in an operations center during the initial response to 9/11 at the Pentagon. Because I was in the threat reduction agency, I was in conference calls all day about the threats from the asbestos and stuff when the buildings collapsed and went airborne. … We were doing a whole bunch of contingency planning for six days and on September 18, my twins were born. When we drove to the hospital when my wife went into labor, we went past the Pentagon, which was still smoking.
You’re in the Cubs’ batting rotation — what’s your walk up music?
My favorite artist is Jimmy Buffett, but I don’t think that’s going to create the right walk-up atmosphere. Maybe Garth Brooks’ Do What You Gotta Do or Alice Cooper’s No More Mr. Nice Guy.
What are some of your hobbies?
We like to travel. One of the benefits of my great Army career is that my kids have 13 stamps in their passports and that’s awesome. I do a lot of scouting stuff with my kids. I’m a den leader with my younger son and with my older son I help out with their troop and with their camping. I’m also a Girl Scout volunteer with my daughter. A lot of my free time ends up being scout time. When I get a chance, I love listening to music and hanging out in a hammock in the backyard.