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By Laura Adler

Since becoming the site of first Google Fiber installation in 2011, Kansas City, MO, has been in the spotlight when it comes to urban innovation. With the Kansas City streetcar project, slated for completion in May of this year, the city aims to bring to life the promises of a digitally-enabled urban environment.

As cities begin to implement the Internet of Things to manage vast citywide systems, Kansas City is among the frontrunners. The technology is still new, and little is known about the challenges that will arise from implementation. Testing the limits of today’s technologies, the city has partnered with Cisco to develop a 2.2-mile corridor in the city’s downtown. Centered on a new streetcar line, the corridor will feature kiosks with transportation and local service information for residents and visitors, free WiFi for public use, and an extensive system of sensors to monitor traffic flow and automatically adjust lighting to conserve energy.

Beyond the infrastructure, the project involves the creation of new partnership models for the city and its technology partners, including Cisco and Sprint, and the creation of local IoT-focused start-up incubators to foster local businesses. Projects like these will help cities understand just how far IoT can go, and where dreams may exceed the capabilities of today’s tools.

The KC Streetcar: A Comprehensive Smart City Corridor

In 2012, citizens approved funding for a two-mile streetcar through the center of downtown Kansas City. The $102 million investment in infrastructure aimed to increase mobility and support local tourism. Serving 16 stops from River Market to Union Station, the stretch of public transit will be free to all riders.

As the project has evolved, it has become much more than a transit project. As former CIO Ashley Hand explained, the transportation project has involved extensive trenching along the two-mile route, which provided an opportunity to enhance the local network without the cost of additional digging. Taking full advantage of this opportunity, the city’s plans now include a $15 million investment in a network of sensors, kiosks, and smart parking, which is expected to launch with the opening of the streetcar. Once the project is live, the corridor will be one of America’s first urban areas truly enabled by the Internet of Things.

The route, known as the KC Streetcar, is slated to open later this year. The project will showcase a network of connected devices meant to enhance sustainability, engagement, and security. A network built and operated by Sprint will provide public WiFi throughout the area. The route will be dotted with 25 Community Kiosks, developed by CityPost, which will feature transportation information, city services and announcements, emergency alerts, and information about local amenities, along with digital art and historical information.

The city is deploying 200 cameras on lampposts will that serve a variety of purposes in support of transportation safety and efficient energy use. These cameras, operated by Sensity, will register the presence of pedestrians and brighten or dim the lights to ensure safety for residents while conserving energy when the streets are empty. The cameras will also track streetcars and other vehicles to help the city understand traffic flows, optimize smart traffic signals, and allow streetcar operators to anticipate road conditions. Video feeds will monitor weather conditions, helping the city plan weather response such as snowplow deployment. Sensors embedded in the street will share information with residents about available parking spaces, through a smartphone app, reducing congestion from circling drivers.

The city has anticipated concerns about privacy and security that attend many IoT deployments. With rapidly-expanding programs for data collection and environmental surveillance, citizens may worry about government collection of personal data and the security of data storage. Looking ahead to these issues, the city has pledged to follow data security best practices as it rolls out apps to citizens. Perhaps most importantly, the city’s plans for street surveillance are limited to a video feed providing real-time analytics, but no long-term storage.

Fostering a Technology Ecosystem through Partnerships

The IoT component of the Kansas City Streetcar corridor is expected to cost more than $15 million over the course of 10 years, but less than one-third of that will be paid for by taxpayers: with $12 million in funding from partners, the city plans to spend only $3.7 million. The primary agreement, developed with Cisco, is a public-private partnership that sets out ambitious goals to expand connectivity, improve infrastructure efficiency, create new revenue, and spur economic development, in line with Cisco’s broader Smart+Connected Communities program.

While Cisco has served as the primary partner, the project draws together many others: Fastpark will provide the in-street parking sensors, Sensity delivers the lamppost technology, and Black & Veatch are expected to further enhance the project with a smart water system for leak detection and infrastructure asset management.

Aside from creating a digital-enabled downtown environment, the purpose of the investment is to foster the local tech industry. Although some observers argue that the return on investment in city apps and extensive sensor systems is not yet clear, the city expects that the new infrastructure will be an added incentive for the blossoming tech industry initially spurred by Google’ 2011 fiber investment. By building strong infrastructure for IoT and enabling data collection through sensors and cameras, Kansas City, Cisco, and their partners hope to attract businesses to the region that are interested in experimenting with IoT, and provide direct access to new infrastructure for homegrown startups.

While Kansas City expects that the infrastructure alone will be a resource for tech companies, the city and its partners are also investing directly in fostering the local industry. Sprint, which is already based in the region, is investing in the local industry by building an accelerator program to support startups that are interested in leveraging the WiFi network and the data it helps to collect.

A second initiative aims directly at supporting IoT companies. The entrepreneurship firm Think Big Partners is working with the city, Cisco, and Sensity to launch Living Lab, which will provide a development data portal and program to support new companies developing commercial IoT products. With access to the Kansas City corridor, participants will be able to test their ideas in a real-life IoT environment.

Starting at the Right Scale

The Internet of Things holds immense promise, but we do not know yet exactly how it will evolve. Kansas City’s approach involves intensive, local technology deployment that will allow it to learn at a relatively small scale before launching complex citywide networks.

Kansas City’s approach may be successful in some cities, while other strategies will be a better match for others. Kansas City has strong partners in this venture, but developing a fully enabled IoT environment from scratch is costly. The ambitious project comes with a hefty pricetag, and other cities are exploring low-cost—or no-cost—alternatives for experimenting with IoT. In San Francisco, for instance, the city has partnered with Sigfox to develop a wide network of limited infrastructure that will be open to application and security developers: rather than investing heavily at the outset, they plan to see what the private sector develops and build from there. Whether implementing intensive infrastructure in a small area, or a bare-bones foundation citywide, US cities can start to explore what IoT means for them, and engage their citizens and local businesses in the process.

Kansas City’s localized approach constitutes a major step towards broader implementation. It will allow the city to learn the benefits and test the limits of new technology, and plan next steps strategically, based on lessons learned from real experience.

About the Author

Laura Adler

Laura Adler is a PhD student in Sociology at Harvard. She received a Bachelors from Yale University and a Masters in City Planning from the University of California, Berkeley. Laura's research interests include urban planning and social policy in the US and abroad, with recent academic work focused on the relationship between urban governance and technology. Prior to beginning graduate study at Harvard, Laura worked for the City of New York's Department of Information Technology, where she focused on long-term technology strategy in support of the city's operations and expanding broadband access for New York City residents.

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