Cities have become veritable technology ecosystems where data is amassed from almost everything, from air quality and rainfall patterns to traffic flow and the availability of parking spaces.
As we become more familiar with the all-encompassing term “smart city,” we can begin to experiment with the futuristic-but-practical applications for all this data, creating the concept of cities as digital laboratories.
The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece that may sound familiar to followers of the Kansas City tech and innovation space: As World Crowds In, Cities Become Digital Laboratories. The article takes a look at New York’s smart city transformation, from which we can glean insights for Kansas City’s own “digital lab” future.
Kansas City is developing a culture of digital experimentation, triggered most visibly by the launch of Google Fiber and reinforced by civic leaders in Kansas City’s Digital Playbook. The playbook asserts that Kansas City needs to “drive innovation through demonstration,” a mandate reflected in programs like Digital Sandbox and Think Big’s soon-to-launch Living Lab, which works in conjunction with Cisco and KCMO’s Smart+Connected City initiative.
In the WSJ digital labs article, author Robert Lee Hotz notes, “Hundreds of aging cities have embraced digital technology, but few are moving as quickly as New York to link municipal computer networks, develop novel applications, make digital data public or install so many thousands of sensors to monitor urban life—from water quality, traffic and power use, to the sound of gunfire.”
While Kansas City is not New York, one can make a good argument that it is one of the few cities moving quickly to experiment with digital technology, not only in municipal governance, but also in homegrown companies. In fact, we can see local analogs for many of New York’s smart city digital applications.
Municipal computer networks: Our fiber connectivity is well-documented and will get a smart city boost this fall thanks to the Sustainable Ecosystem of Smart Applications grant announced as part of the White House’s Smart City Initiatives. With this grant, we’ll be able to ensure that our local fiber networks are connected to a next-generation Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI) rack located at UMKC, as well as to the other 14 communities participating in the grant. GENI technology is a type of network infrastructure that allows greater flexibility in gigabit fiber network usage, enabling more access and experimentation with smart city applications.
Development of new applications: New apps get a lot of coverage, but our local city governments don’t always get enough credit for being early adopters. Burns & McDonnell’s Public Way and Draw Architecture’s PlanIT Impact are just two examples of a tech-enabled, data-driven approach to more efficiently manage construction and city projects.
Publicizing digital data: Tools like Public Way and PlanIT Impact rely on publicly accessible and high quality data, and Kansas City is a leader here as well. KCMO is at a respectable 14th place on the latest US City Open Data Census and continues to underscore its commitment in national forums. KCK is on-board as well.
Installing thousands of sensors: The upcoming Cisco installation gets a lot of attention when we talk about smart city sensors, but it isn’t our first foray into sensor-enabled management. The Board of Public Utilities in Wyandotte County installed smart utility meters to monitor water and energy starting in 2011. KCMO’s traffic lights have had their own fiber connectivity for years. MARC helped coordinate the installation of 5,700 smart streetlights in 25 different communities between 2010 and 2013. And Shotspotter has been active in KCMO since 2012. This list just begins to scratch the surface. Area governments have demonstrated a commitment to smart innovation for years.
Hitting the road with the smart city concept: Several local companies are leading the way even beyond the metro. Black & Veatch, for example, plays a leadership role in Cleantech San Diego and was hired by the City of Chula Vista to advance its smart city platform. The company is also providing engineering support for the much-anticipated LinkNYC wifi kiosk project. Then there’s fast-growing Rhythm Engineering out of Lenexa which has received several awards for completing smart traffic projects across the country.
These technology applications for Kansas City’s evolving digital laboratory are just a handful of examples among many more. With the collaboration between Kansas City corporate and innovation giants focusing on the essential elements of a smart city, there’s little sign we’re slowing down. It can be easy to lose perspective of why these kinds of projects are worthwhile, especially when comparing ourselves to smart city titans like New York. But when you see your own city reflected in the profile of a widely-recognized digital leader, it makes it a little bit easier.
Aaron Deacon is the managing director of KC Digital Drive, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to making Kansas City a digital leader to secure economic prosperity and improve the quality of life for all people in the region.