There’s a difference between innovation and invention, said Herb Sih, managing partner and co-founder of Think Big Partners.
“Invention is a good idea in search of a home — or, as someone said this morning, a solution in search of a problem,” Sih said. “Reverse that: Innovation. It’s a problem in search of a solution.”
Sih urged a packed room filled with city government leaders from all across the country to support their local entrepreneurs and to continuously look for problems to solve, while simultaneously providing access to resources that can provide pathways to solutions, commercialization and pilot projects.
Leaders of five innovative companies demonstrated no shortage of ideas during a panel discussion Wednesday afternoon at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo in the Kansas City Convention Center. Finding data-based solutions to make cities smart is important, said Martin Zhang, owner and founder of LED2 Lighting, a Kansas City-based lighting manufacturer of light emitting diode technology.
“We’re here to provide affordable, beautiful lighting products and also create a new platform — it’s called ‘artificial intelligent lighting system’ — for roadways because these roads need to be safer and they need to be more affordable,” Zhang said.
Zhang’s pilot study to create a smart roadway system encapsulates LED2 Lighting’s current work for Kansas City, Missouri, he said. The firm also donated 97 streetlights to Kansas City, Kansas, to attract businesses to its “depressed downtown where things are falling apart,” Zhang said, adding that LED2 is also setting up a manufacturing site in KCK to create jobs, training and skills for low-income families “so that the community will be more stable.”
Connectivity and IoT is critical for a city to get “smart,” said Mike Mainthow, chief marketing officer of Smart City Media, a New York City-based media technology firm focused on citizen engagement.
Smart City Media — in partnership with Think Big Partners, Cisco and Sprint — deployed the installation of 25 kiosks two years ago along the streetcar line in downtown Kansas City. Coupled with the kiosks was Smart City’s launch of kcitypost, a complimentary mobile app to keep citizens informed with city events, social services, restaurants and arts and culture, to name a few.
“The success of what we’ve done is paying off because we’re going to grow to over 100 kiosks in the next 12 months,” Mainthow said, adding that those new kiosks will be installed at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Kansas City International Airport and along the public transportation system.
Oracle is pursuing similar goals, striving to apply technology to “reach people where they live in a positive manner,” said Wes Geisenberger, public sector account manager of citizen service for the California-based tech giant.
“From a kiosk perspective, we want to be in touch with people as they’re going by kiosks,” Geisenberger said, adding that Oracle seeks to reach people while they’re crossing different modes of public transit, as well as in autonomous vehicles. “We’re looking at not just making that frictionless across the modes, but being able to make it easy interaction with a customer service-oriented experience in mind.”
One Kansas City-based tech startup is working to bring this kind of innovation to citizens and property owners, said Blake Miller. Homebase aims to bring smart connectivity into homes and apartment buildings, said Miller, who is founder and chief executive officer of the Kansas City-based tech startup.
“People spend over 90 percent of their time inside of a building, especially in urban environments,” Miller said, adding that Homebase integrates with commercially-available smart devices, such as thermostats, lighting and locks. It also incorporates features to increase such community engagement as campus events, alerts and payment platforms for rent. “We tie all those things together, ultimately to provide better living experiences for the residents [and] make buildings more efficient [for property owners and managers].”
The key for cities that want to get “smart” is figuring out how to finance projects and bring them from concept to reality, and also guarantee savings, said Joe Fahrney, national director of local government at Energy Systems Group, an Indiana-based energy services provider focused on sustainability and energy efficiency.
“We like to put everything out there on the table; we like to look at the master planning documents, and we like to be the adviser,” Fahrney said.
Energy Systems Group will look at a public entity’s budget and develop ways to find savings while providing new services such as public Wi-Fi, he added.
“When we look into the city, we look inward at the customer,” Fahrney said. “We look at extracting insights from what they are trying to do, what they’re trying to solve and how they are trying to get there, and we try to take those dots and connect them all together to create real-life solutions that aren’t just pilots in the market, that are real-life conceptual solutions.”
Smart city efforts bring many positives to Kansas City, Sih said, as panelists from LED2, Homebase, Smart City Media, Energy Systems Group and Oracle confirmed: Their work saves money and generates revenue for Kansas City and improves the quality of life for residents.
“You can bring local and regional and national public or private partners together to be able to solve problems,” Sih said, “which, again: Solving problems is good business sense and all for the quadruple bottom line.”