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Kansas City leads way in building smarter cities

But many U.S. cities are falling behind in the global smart city race — in part, because they don’t treat citizens like ‘customers.’ The National League of Cities offers some advice on how local governments can ensure their networks are ready for smart services.


urban informatization and network technology

Rodgers and Hammerstein must have had psychic abilities when they wrote the score for their blockbuster musical Oklahoma! in 1943.

One of those songs, Everything’s Up To Date in Kansas City, marveled at the high technology in Missouri’s largest city, and wondered what innovations it would come up with next.

Everything’s up to date in Kansas City.
They’ve gone about as far as they can go …
I counted 20 gas buggies goin’ by theirselves
Almost every time I took a walk.
An’ then I put my ear to a bell telephone
An’ a strange woman started into talk.
What next! What next?

A lot more came next. When Kansas City hosted the Gigabit City Summit on smart cities from Aug. 1 to 3, it showed off its Kansas City Living Lab, a 2.2-mile stretch of connected services running along the downtown streetcar route.

The city teamed up with Cisco Systems for the project. It features video sensors to spot parked cars blocking the streetcar route, streetlamp-mounted modems for free Wi-Fi, digital touchscreen kiosks providing local news, tourist info and transit updates, and sensors that change traffic lights based on real-time vehicle flow and road conditions.

As detailed by Stateline, Kansas City has also installed infrastructure for 1GB fiber Internet, 14,000 smart electricity meters, and scanners that allow police to collect license plate data from passing cars. If plans for a self-driving shuttle service pan out, buses actually will start “goin’ by theirselves” between downtown and the airport. It’s all part of the city’s goal to build the largest smart city network in North America.

Jurisdictions around the world, from Dubuque to Dubai, are vying to become smart cities. A smart city uses technology to deliver services to its citizens more quickly, cheaply and energy efficiently. (A study by the U.K. government suggests digital service delivery is up to 50 times cheaper than face-to-face and 20 times cheaper than by phone.)

Smart cities require increased connectivity involving mobile, high-speed broadband, optimized networks and the Internet of Things (IoT). This allows them to collect and analyze data from residents, ranging from traffic patterns to transit use, so they can improve existing services and develop new ones.

U.S. cities lagging?

Despite the flurry of activity in Kansas City, Jesse Berst says “many American cities are falling behind” in the global smart city race. Why? According to Berst, chairman of the Smart Cities Council, most U.S. cities still aren’t catering to the fact that “citizens and businesses expect — and increasingly demand — the same kind of digital convenience they regularly get from Amazon, Facebook, Google, banks, etc.”

A key issue in the U.S., he argues, is that “city governments generally do not think of issuing permits, giving tickets or enforcing regulations as customer service, so staffers must first go through an attitude adjustment.”

Berst says city officials must learn to view citizens as customers, then design public services in a customer-centric way. His organization has created a list of such design principles for smart cities, which include:

• single account sign-on so users only have to sign on once to access all city services

• sharing data across city departments so citizens only have to enter their data once

• giving residents the option of accessing services through the channel of their choice, as well as self-service options whenever possible

• offering transactions, notifications, electronic signatures and other local government processes digitally instead of on paper

Readying smart networks

Local governments should also make sure their networks are ready for smart services. Writing in Network World, Ciena CTO Steve Alexander warns cities that “the network is the key and it better be highly available, resilient and secure.” In his opinion, that means patching ‘dark’ areas of the network, overlaying 5G on top of existing 3G and 4G, and using software-defined networking and network functions virtualization to optimize, speed up and scale service and traffic in an automated, intelligent way.

Yet Alexander cautions cities against jumping into smart services so quickly that they end up with “siloed, proprietary networks being deployed by various agencies and enterprises, which are both often costly and don’t allow for sharing data among one another.” Although most cities partner with multiple private-sector vendors to accelerate smart service development, critics say it could result in disparate systems and apps rife with interoperability snags.

The National League of Cities (NLC) voices the same concern in its 2016 Smart City Development report. It advises cities to consult the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is developing a framework for smart city IT standardization and interoperability as we speak.

The smartest question to ask

The NLC offers another critical piece of advice for cities looking to get smarter: “Rather than looking for solutions first, cities should consider the outcomes they want to achieve. They should find out what their residents and local businesses want to see happen, and turn those desires into clearly defined objectives before proceeding with smart initiatives.”

It’s a classic reminder not to put the cart before the horse, one that private-sector IT managers must constantly consider before adopting or developing new technology or applications: Will this really help our customers or is this just technology for technology’s sake?

If they fail to ask that question at the start, cities embarking on smart projects could end up looking foolish.

Image: iStock

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