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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 light
City officials are working with Cisco to install various sensors, including controls from Sensity Systems, for new LED streetlights to improve operating efficiency. Various other smart city sensors could be added later. Credit: Matt Hamblen

Cliff Thomas, managing director for Cisco smart and connected communities, called the Kansas City effort a "sandbox for new urban services," where inputs from citizens and even small app developers will enrich the process. It helps that Kansas City has a "pioneering spirit and a can-do attitude that is unique," he said.

Ad revenues and data privacy

As with just about anything connected to the Internet, there's potential ad revenue for the city. In addition to getting free Wi-Fi along the streetcar route, smartphone users might also get useful, targeted ads -- even real-time promotions for restaurant specials — assuming they opt-in to share their location and other personal information.

The city has pledged to follow data privacy best practices and in April, the City Council passed a resolution reaffirming that commitment.

Tom Gerend, executive director of the KC Streetcar Authority, is also chairman of the city's newly created Smart City Advisory Board. The board plans to offer guidance on user privacy concerns, along with a raft of other questions touching on the ROI from the project's components.

"We know, generally speaking, what's being installed [in the smart city area], but the conversation is how do we leverage it?" Gerend said. "How do we utilize it to achieve outcomes that the city is striving to achieve in terms of customer satisfaction and services and to do so in a cost-effective manner that allows these systems to pay for themselves over time? It's all new. There is no road map."

In one potential smart city app, a driver could find a parking space from a car console or smartphone, then pay for it wirelessly and only be billed for the precise time used. "Why feed a meter for more time than I'm going to use?" said Herb Sih, managing partner of Think Big Partners, which is working with Cisco and the city on the project.

Think Big recently opened a collaborative office space for developers and entrepreneurs in a renovated historic 1903 warehouse just steps from the streetcar line. The building is within a short walk of the Sprint Accelerator, another site for innovative tech startups.

The Living Lab

One way Kansas City expects to capitalize on startup talent and freelance developers is through a public-private partnership called Living Lab, which will create and test applications to solve a multitude of urban problems. Living Lab hopes to take advantage of the "power of citizen innovation," as Sih put it.


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