What Makes a Smart City Truly Smart?

Kansas City, Missouri, may have lost last year’s DOT Smart City Challenge to Columbus, Ohio, but that hasn’t slowed its momentum toward becoming “the world’s most connected smart city.” Nor has it curbed the enthusiasm of its chief innovation officer, Bob Bennett. When CityLab caught up with Bennett last week at the U.S. Commerce Department’s Global City Teams Challenge Expo, he exuded a kind of energy that would otherwise be hard to find on a dreary Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Already, Kansas City has teamed up with Cisco and Sprint* to cover 50 blocks of its downtown district with public Wi-Fi, and it’s got 125 smart streetlights with sensors to monitor both vehicle and foot traffic. In the heart of to downtown, interactive kiosks dot the streets to deliver information about nearby attractions and other city information (not unlike the LinkNYC kiosks that replaced New York’s phone booths). Meanwhile, its extensive data portal has earned the city accolades from the likes of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for open data.

Next up, the city’s department of transportation is dipping its toe into the future of driverless cars with a pilot project to turn a 1.5-mile stretch of pavement into a smart road that may pay for itself. Yet despite all the the futuristic tech in the works, Bennett says none of it is actually smart. “It’s not about the gadgets,” he tells CityLab in an interview during which he spoke about the city’s latest projects and his plans to loop Prospect Avenue, a predominantly black neighborhood that’s been largely been neglected, into the smart city plan.

It’s easy to get fixated on all the “smart” innovations out there—roads that talk to you, cars that talk to the road, and all kinds of sensors. But if it’s not the gadget that makes a city smart, then what does?

What we have learned over the course of last year is that all these tools, these technologies, they’re cool but there’s nothing smart about them. The heart of a smart city is actually the data and the brain is using that data to change your decision-making process, to make you react faster in cases where the city needs to react, to make you predictive where you can be to save money or provide a better service, or to give you a better appreciation of what’s happening in your city.

We’ve figured out that 85 percent of the data that you need to run a smart city, you’ve probably already got. Any city can be a smart city, or a smarter city, just by getting better control of their data and by understanding what it’s saying to them. And it’s going to say something different to every city, because every city has different needs and requirements, and different governance structures.

What’s next on your agenda?

The next thing we want to do is expand [our smart cities approach] to the neighborhoods in the part of the city that’s been disaffected for the better part of the last 30 years. The expansion is a seven-fold increase in terms of space, which would be a grand total of about 12 square miles when all is said and done. It is going to [have] public Wi-Fi, which we already have in the heart of the downtown right now. We will have sensorization throughout that zone so we can have ShotSpotter there, which allows us to use an acoustic radar to triangulate where a gunshot came from. We’ve learned that frequently, where it’s a crime of passion, the first gunshot is relatively ineffectual. It’s the second shot that’s tragic. So if the data can quickly get police to the scene, we can prevent that second gunshot.

One of the things we’ve discussed at CityLab in regard to putting sensors in low-income and majority-black neighborhoods is this concern about racial disparity in surveillance. How do you ensure the community that these sensors aren’t here to invade their privacy?

We had a smart city data privacy policy six months before we turned on the first sensors, in October 2015. We modeled it after Seattle’s and as a city, we have to tell people what data we’re collecting, why we’re collecting it, and we have to share it with them. So that helps us to improve the trust issue.

We’ve also had several public meetings in the community to ask what they wanted. ShotSpotter actually was a local initiative that they wanted to see—they as in community activist organizations, the school district, and business leaders on the East Side because there is a burgeoning small business community over here.

Which brings us to these kiosks that that the city has mentioned in its proposal for the Smart City Challenge. What’s the goal in planting them along Prospect Avenue?

We did not come to them and say, “Here’s a kiosk, it’s yours.” Instead we said, “How do you want this channel to work for you?” The content going in them reflects a great pride of place along Prospect Avenue. That’s where jazz came of age in the Midwest. A lot of musicians would come up from New Orleans, and Kansas City is where they would stop on their way to Chicago or on their way east. Ella Fitzgerald played there, as did Louis Armstrong and Charlie Byrd—I mean lots of amazing musicians played in that neighborhood. So they want to be able to highlight the pride and the place, and make sure folks know there is history here.

The kiosks are going to be integrated into the bus structure itself, because residents told us that that way, they’re not going to be mishandled or mistreated. They become part of the structure that offers a public good. So we got that from the community who told us what they want, and we’re doing it.

Meanwhile, the Integrate Roadway project, for which construction could cost billions, has been making a buzz. The startup founder Tim Sylvester recently said he expects construction to begin next spring. How will it pay for itself?

There will be conduits embedded into these road segments, which he will lay them down on the road like Legos. Inside, there are sensors and bluetooth beacons, and some other things that advertisers can [use] to purchase ad space. So if you’re driving down the road in a connected car and your gas gauge hits a quarter tank, it can tell you you’re running out of gas. The beacon underneath you would say, “Oh by the way, the next exit has two gas stations, and the price of gas is this.” And it can tell you about other amenities like restaurants, and boom, you get advertising.

What’s really enabled Kansas City to launch all these different initiatives?

It’s about $20 million worth of infrastructure in the 51 blocks today; the city paid $3.8 million. Everything else is paid for by our public partners, and they now have a stake in this. So we are getting be best effort from some of the most technologically advanced firms in the country and a couple of entrepreneurs who are just absolute big-idea thinkers.

So this city is part of the ecosystem, as opposed to us trying to manage the ecosystem or telling people how we’re going to run our city. It’s now a much more collaborative environment. And that’s really fun.

*CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the partners for Kansas City’s public Wi-Fi initiative in its downtown district.