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Kansas City presses on with emerging 'smart city' corridor

Matt Hamblen | Sept. 30, 2015
While some ROI is expected from US$102 million streetcar project, it's unclear whether overall tech push will pay off.

KC station sign
Kansas City, Mo.'s 2.2-mile streetcar line, coming next year, sits in the center of an innovation district that will include smart city elements like free Wi-Fi, station interactive kiosks and sensors to guide traffic and control streetlights. Credit: Matt Hamblen

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The upcoming 2.2-mile downtown streetcar line in Kansas City, Mo. will be the focal point of an ambitious smart city project involving Cisco, Sprint and smaller app developers who plan to combine their engineering talents in new ways.

The value of the smart city project is clear-cut in some ways—including the more efficient use of streetlights and better city services. In other ways, the project's expected return on investment is vague, albeit promising.

There's an intangible pioneering technology spirit in Kansas City at play. It's almost as if a massive Internet of Things petri dish has been plopped down in the heart of the city to help incubate new ideas, apps and tech services.

Other U.S. cities are in the throes of similar downtown conversions—seeking ways to mash-up large-scale housing and commercial redevelopment in older areas with mass transit, wireless technology and Internet of Things sensors linked in a massive network.

Kansas City, Mo. may have a slight edge over other cities, partly because Google picked this metro area for its first Google Fiber three years ago, igniting a flurry of interest in all things tech in what's often called Mid-America.

Streetcars and high tech

Coming to 13 of 16 new KC Streetcar stops are large-display interactive kiosks that operate over Wi-Fi and with wireless beacons. There will also be smart streetlights and traffic signals, as well as video sensors for measuring everything from parking to snowfall to help local officials know where to dispatch snowplows.

kcstreetcar
The Downtown Streetcar line under construction along Main Street in Kansas City, Mo. will serve an area of accelerator and incubator office spaces for tech startups. Cisco plans a smart city network in the area along the line. Credit: Matt Hamblen

Cisco and the city also hope to harvest a variety of opt-in data gathered from the visitors' smartphones, local businesses and residents about what they like in restaurants and points of interests as well as any problems or complaints they have. Aggregate data will tell the city where it needs to consider expanding the planned Wi-Fi zone and other services—and even whether the streetcar project should be expanded.

The current $102 million KC Streetcar project is nearing completion and will open in mid-2016; it will offer free rides to residents and visitors along Main Street from the restored Union Station northward to an inviting market neighborhood near the Missouri River. Sleek, new streetcars are expected to arrive for testing in October.

 

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