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Why Kansas City leaders want a smart city (and how they're doing it)

Submitted by doug.peeples on August 16, 2016

There's no single blueprint for how a smart city upgrade should be done because cities aren't the same. They have different needs and different strengths and weaknesses to consider. However, starting small (and scalable) is a practical approach for minimizing risk and possible losses. That's the
route Kansas City leaders chose when they added a street car line, free public Wi-Fi and smart LED streetlights to a small part of the downtown core.

The progress report below outlines phase two, which will expand the area served and incorporate new services. There are also takeaways other cities considering a smart city upgrade. Kansas City's public Wi-Fi and the street car line will provide increasingly connected services for residents — and data that will be valuable for monitoring future needs, economic development and traffic management. It's also yet another valuable lesson in partnering with the experts. When Kansas City was sketching out its plans for the streetcar line three years ago, Council Lead Partner Cisco suggested integrating the capability of adding smart cities technologies as part of the project. — Doug Peeples

With phase one of Kansas City's pilot project deemed a success, the city is ready to move on to phase two. The original project affected about 20,000 with the addition of a 2.2-mile streetcar line, Wi-Fi, smart street lights and 25 kiosks that provided information about local restaurants and events.

The expansion will add Wi-Fi to a larger area and additional kiosks will be added. Also, a mobile app will be linked to sensors initially installed to help with street car navigation . The app will alert drivers about available parking spaces. As Kansas City Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett explained to Tech Republic, "Our goal right now is to be the smartest city on planet Earth in five years." He anticipates the public Wi-Fi service area will cover 180,000 more residents within 18 months. And looking further ahead, he commented at a Cisco Live event in July that the city's strategy is for the new services to be so popular the city's other residents will want them.

As the major piece of the project, the Wi-Fi installation offers not only increased connectivity for users, but also the opportunity to collect valuable data. For example, residents and visitors are using the Wi-Fi often enough that data on where and when they travel through the district can be tracked. Bennett referred to one street corner a large number of people walked by in the morning. Realizing there were no restaurants in the area, he informed the city's economic development council — which secured bids for a new restaurant. The streetcar line also provides useful data.

The city's interest in technology upgrades sparked when it installed Google Fiber five years ago. It got city leaders thinking about how increased connectivity and services integration could better understand what services citizens wanted and needed, and provide them.

Cisco's role
Cisco not only suggested building in smart technology capabilities during the streetcar line construction, but has been working with the city throughout the project. Cisco local and education VP Kim Majerus noted "The amount of data and information they're collecting from that streetcar and the usership and the opportunities, I think that itself has paid for the project in gold from the city's perspective."

Bennett said work on the phase two expansion could begin as early as October if the city receives federal funding.

Related reading...
The Telecommunications and Transportation chapters of the Smart Cities Readiness Guide on discussions, explanations and insights on developing strategies for increased mobility and connectivity options for your city. Both chapters also include case studies that explain how other cities developed and deployed their initiatives.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.