Kansas City: A Model for Smart City Innovation

Kansas City Streetcar

While attending MOVE 2019 in London earlier this year, we witnessed an informative and inspiring talk by Bob Bennett, the Chief Innovation Officer of Kansas City, Missouri on smart city initiatives. People tend to think of Kansas City as flyover country or where the KC strip steak comes from. But what many don’t know is that Kansas City has the ambitious goal of becoming the most connected smart city in the United States, and has already made significant progress. We reached out to Mr. Bennett to understand his vision of the city’s future: “Smart city programs reflect both the growth in our tech industry and employee base, and the expectations of our residents. Digitized cities will be ubiquitous in 10 years.” The hope is that these smart city initiatives will help drive economic development to communities across the city, and improve the quality of life and opportunities of its citizens.

There is a noticeable wealth divide in Kansas City, and still some lingering segregation. Troost street has historically been seen as something of a dividing line in the city. The mayor of Kansas City, Sly James, has noted that “people treat Troost Avenue like it’s the demarcation line in a war zone… They won’t go across it.” In the area east of Troost, inhabitants will on average earn $20,000 less than those living just one block to the west of Troost. Another telling statistic is that households earning less than $30,000 per year were 42 percent less likely to have internet service at home. While any city’s problems are complex and myriad, the hope is that the smart city initiatives the city is undertaking will help level inequality and provide more opportunity and social mobility for its citizens.

One initiative that has been instrumental to Kansas City’s efforts of regeneration and reducing the wealth and digital divide has been the extensive implementation of Google Fiber throughout the metro area. Kansas City was the first city to win a bid for Google Fiber adoption in 2012. To date, the metro area has approximately 8,000 miles of fiber cable laid, offering customers gigabit-capable internet speed, a dramatic improvement over what was previously available. This has benefitted Kansas City enormously. Over the course of four years since Google Fiber came to the city, 84,000 new jobs were created, many through startups benefitting from the 290 percent increase in available investment capital. “Fiber has changed the perception of Kansas City as a tech center,” says Tim Cowden, CEO of Kansas City Area Development Council.

Internet is no longer viewed as a utility, but as a necessity in our modern, digital world. Ron Farmer, vice president and co-founder of CHES, has noted that “homes with internet access have a much greater rate of financial success… and the impact will be felt through generations.” When lower income families have internet access it can offer them tangible benefits, such as providing access to banking resources and nonprofits, which aren’t often accessible outside of business hours. With more affordable broadband options being made available, internet adoption has risen significantly.

Another signature smart city initiative in Kansas City has been the ambitious downtown KC Streetcar line project. Completed in 2016, the streetcar is free to ride and encourages citizens to visit downtown shops, restaurants and events. The streetcar begins in City Market, a farmer’s market and shopping area. It runs along the downtown corridor, home to the bases of major corporations such as H&R Block and Sprint, and through another bustling district of shops and restaurants called the Power and Light District. It continues on through the Crossroads district, a funky, gentrified area of art galleries, high-end dining and cool loft buildings, before terminating at Union Station. The streetcar route covers 54 square blocks, and the entire length of it has free public wifi, smart kiosks and smart lights. The streetcar line will continue south to the UMKC campus with the ultimate goal of reaching several hundred ‘smart’ blocks within 5 to 10 years.

View of Kansas City

The streetcar has helped increase activity and drive revenue in the downtown area. According to data from the KC Streetcar website, 83 percent of business owners reported higher foot traffic, while 80 percent also reported higher revenue. Kansas City is somewhat unique in that its downtown is less inhabited than the suburbs, and the vast majority of people work outside of the city center. By incorporating this free streetcar, residents can now easily travel downtown, with the added benefit of reducing traffic congestion. This benefits the businesses in the area, but also provides greater mobility and flexibility for the city’s residents.

Google Fiber’s presence has boosted the profile of Kansas City, helping to attract innovative talent who can continue to foster the development of the local tech scene and its smart city ambitions. The next phase of initiatives involves building a fully integrated suite of next generation sensors, networks, and data and analytics platforms that will enhance security, safety and efficiency. Further steps include the extension of the smart city network from downtown along a bus transit route on Prospect Avenue. This would include approximately 1,000 wifi access points, 600 traffic sensors and 60 information kiosks along a proposed nine mile route. Prospect Avenue is on the eastern side of town, even further east than Troost, which has historically higher crime rates. Through this new phase of development, the city is actively working to improve the quality of life in a part of town that will benefit from regeneration and economic development.

Kansas City’s smart city initiatives are helping to create a more appealing location for outsiders and, most importantly, its local residents. This has helped drive economic growth and development, but there is still much to do. As Bob Bennett, Chief Innovation Officer of Kansas City, points out, “the progress we’ve made to date in KC shows that our residents are ready to embrace that future today.” This Midwestern City has revealed itself as a model for other cities who have the willingness to embrace the opportunities that smart city technologies offer.