As 'Smart City' Technology Expands In Kansas City, Critics Question Who Benefits

Sep 15, 2016

Just what is a “Smart City?” 

If you've been paying attention since Google rolled out its first-in-the-country high speed internet in the Kansas City area five years ago,  you're probably familiar with smart city technology.

As the city prepares to roll out the second phase of the project, we wanted to see wanted to see what's happened so far.

What we found  are a lot of questions from  citizens and even the project's promoters.

Downtown: The epicenter

I met Bob Bennett outside his favorite coffee shop at 12th and Main, where they know him by the same espresso drink he orders every day.  A peppy, former strategic planner for the U.S. Army in Iraq, the city brought him on as the Chief Innovation Officer just last year. Cities across the country are creating CIO positions to be, basically, the chief tech cheerleader.

Casting his gaze toward a new, meant-to-look-old street light, Bennett points out a little  grey box in the shape of an “H.”  Anyone standing near one of these boxes, he says, gets free Wi-Fi.

"There are 328 of those here in downtown," Bennett says excitedly,"108 along the two and a half mile streetcar line and the rest are two blocks east and two blocks west." 

Also on the streetlights are tiny blue sensors that track every person who walks by, like a bouncer clicking people into a club.  

Pointing to a sign on the door of an empty storefront, Bennett says a new restaurant, Plowboys, is using the data to make a business decision.

"Plowboys is coming fall of 2016," he says. "Right now, they're less than a block and a half away. Why move a block and a half? Well, we know there's greater foot traffic here because that blue sensor counts people that walk by."

A symbiotic relationship

California-based tech company Cisco Systems and Sprint were among the companies that saw an opportunity to get in on smart tech: providing private funds to support the Wi-Fi corridor, streetlight sensors and 25 digital kiosks along streetcar stops. The kiosks provide information on the streetcars, local entertainment, activities and restaurants, as well as advertisements.

In exchange, the companies can mine the data for marketing purposes.

Between Google Fiber and smart city innovations, Aaron Deacon of KC Digital Drive says Kansas City's tech landscape rivals that in cities three times its size.

"Not that we have all sorts of stuff figured out that other people don’t," Deacon says, "maybe some, but the quality and nature of conversations are on par with those in most of the other major cities in the U.S."

Who benefits from smart tech?

Residents along Prospect Avenue are looking forward-with some concerns-to the new Max rapid transit bus line.
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3

Some feel the city has paid too much attention to how it compares with other other cities, and not enough to how the benefits of these innovations will be fairly spread out.

Erika Brice in one of them. She's the interim executive director of Blue Hills Community Services.

She brings me to the bus stop just outside her offices at 50th and Prospect, where traffic moves quickly along Propsect and faster still along Highway 71 just to the east. 

This is the old fashioned kind of bus stop: no shelter, just a little black Metro sign on the pole.

Brice is working with Bob Bennett and others who will design the smart city features that will go along with the expansion of the Max rapid bus transit along the Prospect corridor, scheduled to arrive soon.

She’s concerned that sexy new aspects of the smart city -- like the giant touch-screen kiosks -- won't address the needs of her community.

"Downtown (they have) conventions,things going on. People want to know certain kinds of information," she says. "What is information people want here? Is it the sale, the new business opening up down the street because of all the new development that will be happening along Prospect!"

Doubters

Some skeptics believe the hype around smart cities outweighs the benefits.

MIT Urban Planning Professor Amy Glasmeier studies smart technology in cities around the country.

She says urban centers today are really gigantic laboratories in the wake of the digital revolution; laboratories that raise new and difficult questions.

"We’re trying to sell something called 'Smart Cities' and we don’t even have a definition of what they are," she says.

She worries, for example, that the data about foot traffic from sensors can be used to spur investment already privileged communities while perpetuating a lack of investment in poor communities.

Aaron Deacon from KC Digital Drive agrees that the smart city movement raises vexing new challenges.

Aaron Deacon says we abdicate control of technology if we take a "wait and see"approach.
Credit Laura Ziegler KCUR 89-3

"My hope is that we can turn that to our advantage, and create a culture where people are really thinking about the technology we adopt and make the way we adopt it lead us to a place we want to live and have our children live," he says.

So whether it’s hype or our smart city is really happening may not be the question.

Rather, we need to accept that the internet-driven environment is here to stay and the question is how do we deal with is?

This story is part of KCUR's series called 30/30 Vision, in which we examine Kansas City's past to reimagine its future.

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer at KCUR 89.3. You can reach here on Twitter @laurazig or at lauraz@kcur.org.