Kansas City, a place long known for jazz and barbecue, now wants to be known as one of the most futuristic cities in America. Last week, the city announced plans to install free public Wi-Fi covering 50 blocks of its downtown, 125 "smart" streetlights that automatically dim when no one is underneath them, and a new, glossy $100 million streetcar.
The city is hoping that, with the help from some bold-faced partners like Sprint and Cisco, the initiative will boost Kansas City's chances of winning a federal "smart city" contest with $40 million in prize money at stake.
Kansas City is one of seven finalists in the challenge run by the US Department of Transportation. Finding itself up against some heavy hitters like San Francisco, Portland, and Austin, KC has gone on the offensive by showcasing a bunch of shiny improvements, while hinting at more to come. The winner will be announced by DOT in June.
The goal, according to Bob Bennett, Kansas City's chief innovation officer, is to make the city's physical infrastructure more responsive to its citizens. "The smart city piece of this has been to augment that physical construction with the 21st century capabilities that our citizens not only expect from the commercial world, but also from the city itself," Bennett told The Verge.
The smart streetlights are the product of a company called Sensity Systems. In addition to using less electricity, they will able to detect large gatherings of people, which can help the city decide where to allocate police resources and help entrepreneurs decide where to open new businesses.
"I can look at an economic development organization and say, 'X number of people congregate on the corner everyday at lunchtime, and there's no restaurant there,'" Bennett said. "We also have the opportunity to protect our street corners with those sensors."
The idea of streetlights that can "see" people may be unsettling to some, especially privacy advocates, but Bennett insists that all data is anonymized and non-identifiable. Still, if someone with a New York area code signs on to the public Wi-Fi, Kansas City's data gatherers will know it.
The Wi-Fi hubs were built and managed by Sprint, which is headquartered in nearby Overland Park, while the network and data aggregation was provided by Cisco, Bennett said. It will be relatively fast — upload speeds of 130 MBs and download speeds of 150 MBs — and users who sign-on will be as exposed to hacking as they are when using a free wireless connection at a coffee shop. (Which is to say, if you are afraid of coffee shop Wi-Fi, you probably won't like this public network either.) Residents in buildings near the hubs will be able to acquire the signal, even as high up as the 10th floor, Bennett said.
But the free Wi-Fi and the smart streetlights are just the tip of the iceberg. Kansas City is also building its own bus rapid transit corridor, as well as three dedicated lanes for self-driving cars.
Public Wi-Fi is quickly becoming the most visible way a city can show off its technological chops. New York City, thanks to Google's deep pockets, recently began installing its own network of Wi-Fi kiosks. And streetcars are also making a comeback, with cities like Washington, DC, Cincinnati, Dallas, and others jumping on the streetcar bandwagon. The federal stimulus of 2009 provided a springboard for the streetcar renaissance, and since then DOT has awarded more than half a billion toward streetcar projects in 15 cities.
Kansas City is no stranger to giant tech companies using it as a test lab. The city of about 2 million people (in the metropolitan region) was the first place in the world to get Google Fiber, the company’s experimental, ultra-high-speed broadband internet service. The city has also hosted some lesser known but no less interesting innovation experiments, such as the KC Freedom Network, a nonprofit wireless internet service specifically designed for low-income households.
Now with the Sprint-managed Wi-Fi hubs and all the other bells and whistles the city has recently added, Kansas City is hoping to gain the official recognition from the feds for its commitment to the principles of a smart city. Bennett said it's not so much about the designation, but about the impact such improvements can have on residents.
"I'm going to work to make that network that we installed on the east side of town penetrable in those buildings," he said. "I want a kid who lives on the east side to grow up and become a CEO of a tech firm because they'll get Wi-Fi from us. That's the dream, and that's so awesome."