If I asked most of you what cities you think are in the running for the smartest city in America, I imagine that very few of you would pick Kansas City as the frontrunner. Talk about Kansas City seems to get drowned out in the cacophony of smart city self-promotion. Other areas like Los Angeles, Austin, Toronto and New York tend to grab headlines because of their flashy projects and skyrocketing property prices. But this midwestern modesty might be the exact thing that will make Kansas City a contender in the years to come.
If anything, Kansas City has been in the press for all of the wrong reasons. Earlier this week they became the poster child of privacy concerns in this New York Times article. But these concerns are not unique to Kansas City, they affect any city that is trying to smarten up. If anything, I would argue that the reason that Kansas City is the focus of these conversations is because it is pulling ahead of the rest of the pack.
The city’s technological progress seemed to accelerate when they appointed a new CIO in 2016. The person chosen for the job, Bob Bennet, seems to embody many of the traits of the city’s culture, approachable, pragmatic and maybe a bit quirky. He came to the job after a long and illustrious career in the army and from what he said in a previous interview, there are a lot of similarities between improving a city and war:
“In the Army, I often had to bring together groups that had potentially competing priorities. In Iraq, for example, it was the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. We had shared objectives, but we also often had independent needs.
I envisioned those relationships in the context of a Venn diagram, with the goal of maximizing the space where we could pursue mutual objectives with a minimal allocation of resources, all achieving more in the process. My job was to figure out how to make the shared space in the Venn diagram as big as possible.
There is a similar dynamic with a smart city project. Private partners have to make a profit, while government organizations face budget constraints. Community action groups focus on business development for underserved areas experiencing a digital divide. There can be diverse interests, but also a shared objective of expanding access. It’s all about finding ways to maximize that shared space and take care of each other.”
True of many service members, taking care of others is something that he seems to genuinely prioritize. Rather than pursuing sexy projects for his city to tout his initiatives, such as free wifi to thousands of homes and free public transportation, aim to bring help to the citizens that need it most. This type of “biggest impact first” triage is something that military training seems to sharpen.
If Bennett is able to overcome privacy concerns anywhere, it might be a city with the no-nonsense, salt of the earth attitude like Kansas City. It is also might be the benefactor of its real estate. It is at the top of the list when it comes to affordability in major housing markets.
When I interviewed the founder of a Kansas City-based smart home service provider Zego earlier this year I remember his exuberance about the kind of value he got by running a company in “the city of fountains” (yes, this is the nickname for KC, don’t worry I had to look it up too). He told me that the affordability and work ethic that he got from the talent pool was one of the main reasons that they was able to scale his technology as fast as they have. When it comes to cities and developers, it is often better to be good than flashy.