In a recent interview with Kansas City Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett, we explored smart city initiatives in the heartland and the challenges that come with leading the charge.
(LB): There’s a lot of buzz around what it means to be ‘smart’. What does that mean to you?
(BB): In Kansas City, we believe that technology, in and of itself, is not smart. Sensors that are not connected to a decision may make headlines, but they don’t help a city make progress in solving its problems.
To be “smart,” a city must understand its citizens’ needs, develop a comprehensive plan where all departments collaborate to solve issues and have policies that govern what role data collection, use, privacy settings and sharing will play. When these governance and policy decisions are made, the city can focus on collecting the relevant data, much of which already exists in city offices. Only then should sensors be deployed to collect specific data required to better understand the community.
(LB): In your community, what is the holy grail of ‘smart’. In other words, what is the highest and best thing that could result from growing as a smart community?
(BB): We have learned that data is the heart of the smart city. About 85% of the data we need to make better decisions already exists in city data; we just needed to build a platform where it could be combined with data from third party users and our array of sensors. By combining all these data sets, we can predict many problems before they become a crisis. This enables the city to intervene when it is both convenient and less expensive for the city to take action. Providing a public facing picture of the data also helps us build trust with our citizens; they know as much about their community as we do.
(LB): What keeps you up at night? What challenge still has you stumped?
(BB): Cybersecurity concerns me; our partnerships with Cisco, Sprint, Verizon, AWS and others allow us to mitigate those concerns, but I remain concerned. I also remain very concerned that our partners at the federal and state levels of government, which have decreased their actual support to cities while remaining supportive from a rhetorical perspective, will commit errors of commission or omission that limit our ability to be innovative at the citizen level.
(LB): You’ve already accomplished a lot in Kansas City. Of what smart cities work are you most proud, thus far?
(BB): One of our departments which started as an opponent of smart cities work now sponsors an annual “smart infrastructure” event and is increasing its interactions with vendors across the entire ecosystem. This tells me that the transition of “smart city” as a trendy marketing word is now making its way into the daily routine of our city staff.
(LB): What advice have you been given that really hit home and made a difference for you as leader of smart city efforts in KCMO?
(BB): Early in my Army days, I had a platoon sergeant who mentored me by reinforcing my role in the organization. He told me that “our task and standards will never change. We win, and we win decisively. It’s the leadership’s job to understand the conditions and change them in such a way to enable us to win.” Our cities are not too different conceptually from that Field Artillery platoon.
(LB): If you could hand pick a partner for a future dream project, who would you select and why?
(BB): Our ecosystem of big companies, startups, academicians, government employees and community groups is our preferred partner. I don’t think that smart city solutions have a future partner – the technology is too complex and the needs of citizens are too diverse. We will continue to rely on teams of partners that bring several strengths to bear on a problem. It’s quite feasible that two firms that compete for one aspect of what we are doing today will be partners in a slightly different project 12 months from now.
(LB): If you could wave a wand and educate citizens in your community about a single thing, instantly, what would you have them know?
(BB): The best match for a young person’s capabilities, opportunities and procedures to get the education they need to propel them forward into a 21st century career track. From that base, we can do anything. Being able to identify which kids can thrive in specialized educational programs and get them enrolled and physically there every morning is a smart city program. Hiring the right teachers to meet the educational needs of digital natives (based on data) is a smart city problem. Ensuring that we have not only tech-skilled workers but mechanics and service industry workforces to meet our needs is a data-driven forecasting problem, and therefore a smart city problem. Our entire smart city initiative is based on identifying and meeting peoples’ needs.
(LB): Why is Kansas City the right place for Smart Cities Connect Conference & Expo, and what – beyond the conference itself – can attendees get excited about seeing and experiencing when they arrive?
(BB): Kansas City has earned numerous accolades for its efforts to transform government concurrently with the many physical changes that have occurred in the city over the last ten years. The metro area has grown by almost 14% over the last 10 years to 2.34 million people. A once vacant downtown is now vibrant with nightlife and entertainment anchored by the Power & Light District, Sprint Center and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The most modern and connected streetcar binds the 2.2 miles of the downtown together with service and entertainment options. Gigabit connectivity links citizens and visitors throughout the metro area with over 38,700 route miles of fiber (5.5 million miles of fiber) deployed today and more being installed every day by virtue of a public/private partnership. Kansas City is on the smart city journey focused on solving real problems for real people. We use our existing data to understand our world better and gain wisdom; we use IoT sensors to fill out data gaps and get predictive. Finally, we also have the best BBQ in the world, and, for those who doubt it, we have about 50 places for you to sample and prove us wrong.