Smart City Victory: Meh
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Smart City Victory: Meh

By Bob Bennett, Chief Innovation Officer, City of Kansas City, MO

Bob Bennett, Chief Innovation Officer, City of Kansas City, MO

Twenty-first century infrastructure is in its final stage of development, and Kansas City is committed to joining with other communities and private sector partners to define and implement improvements that will empower twenty-first century citizens with the opportunity to thrive. Frequently I’m asked, “What does the city of 2050 look like in terms of technology or function?” And, just as frequently (regardless of the context of the discussion), I argue – sometimes with myself - for hours and eventually realize that no one will notice when a city is truly “smart.” Victory will be totally meh.

Solving big issues that impact an entire city is an exercise influenced by a plethora of factors including social, technological, and policy evolution. To succeed in a smart c ity journey, city ecosystems require a systems approach and a fundamental change to the way local governments and society interact, not a series of software upgrades or apps. Smart cities are neither driven by nor powered by technology, they are driven by a community-wide understanding of residents’ problems. City staff, corporate partners, and non-profit organizations then use technologically advanced equipment or analysis as one (of many) tools to solve those problems. You cannot solve twenty-first century citizens’ problems by sitting in a lab or a Silicon Valley garage. You have to get out in the community, understand needs and apply tech to meet those needs. And it has to generate results in the field. 

"Smart cities are neither driven by nor powered by technology, they are driven by a community-wide understanding of residents’ problems"

In Kansas City, our airport is located in a sparsely populated area of the city. The woods, streams and lack of people near the runways make the area a perfect habitat for hundreds of deer. Deer are physically capable of jumping fences and running onto runways and threatening the safety of aircraft on the field. One method our city uses to control the deer, in addition to physical barriers like tall fences, is to host cattle at the outer perimeter of the airport. The deer, as a species, abhor cattle because they eat all the grass. The deer’s superior sense of smell drives them to avoid cattle areas and move to areas where food is more plentiful. By allowing farmers to feed their cattle on the outer perimeter, we keep deer off the runway. Smart— yes, technologically advanced—not so much.

In other sections of Kansas City, we are working to reduce the number of childhood asthma and diabetes cases. Incidents of these diseases subsequently cause many other health issues, and there is a correlation between the number of these cases, especially on the east side of Kansas City, and a 13-year life expectancy difference in the same geographical region of our community. We can isolate scientifically the causes of these diseases, and we can start to focus down to the block level where we need to allocate resources to address causes of the life-expectancy gap. Advanced technologies like air quality sensors or data analysis of eating patterns can give us insight and are a great use of smart city technology. Old school tools like one-on-one education, greater availability of fresh fruits and vegetables as part of support packages, and improved transportation networks that decrease emissions in the atmosphere are also part of the solution.

In the end, the smart city succeeds when deer don’t hit airplanes, kids don’t get sick, teachers have the expectation that all kids can do their homework (WiFi/broadband connectivity gaps–a really cool and simple technology solution), potholes are less frequent and businesses locate close to the talent that the system helps develop. There is no parade or ribbon cutting associated with any of these things from a resident perspective; the city just works. This was true in days of Roman Emperors, and it remains true today; the major difference is simply the manner in which residents express their satisfaction or lack thereof with the city staff. In an advanced society where gratification is generally instant and reportable on a cell phone, “just working” is an expectation, not a reason for a ticker tape parade.

When people stop calling the integration of technology and good government as a “smart city,” then the movement will have been a success. Of course, the next evolution beyond 6G or 7G will likely be in development then, so a new buzzword and industry will likely grow from that. So, what does the smart city of 2050 look like? It works. Meh.

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