GCN: What is a smart city?

  • By Sophie Quinton
  • Apr 26, 2016
 This article originally appeared in Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
 

 KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On the new streetcars that will start running in Kansas City next week, there’s a decal that says “KC is a smart city.” As the streetcars clang through the downtown business district on trial runs, pedestrians can watch the sentence slide by.

Along the 2-mile streetcar line, Kansas City is installing video sensors to spot badly parked cars, traffic lights that are programmed to keep traffic flowing and digital kiosks that serve as city guides. All this, the city says, helps makes it smart.

But the truth is that there’s no clear definition of a smart city, a label that many cities are grabbing onto by integrating some information technology into some city services.

“The concept of a smart city is somewhat amorphous, but it’s focused on cities leading with technological innovation,” said Brooks Rainwater of the National League of Cities.

“It’s just using digital technology to improve community life,” said Jesse Berst of the Smart Cities Council.

“It’s a paradigm shift in the way we think,” said Kate Garman, the innovation analyst for Kansas City.

Some smart city advocates emphasize efforts to engage and connect with residents, others emphasize infrastructure. But the general goal -- something no city has yet achieved -- is to collect immediate data on everything from traffic patterns to home water use, analyze it and use that information to make the city work better.

“We have some cities moving in that direction, but a lot more doing little one-offs, really,” said Stephen Goldsmith of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, a former mayor of Indianapolis and former deputy mayor of New York.

Advocates say smart city technology will save cities money and energy, while better connecting cities and citizens. The White House announced $160 million in spending to research and develop smart city technology. British government researchers estimated in 2013 that the global market for such technology would reach $408 billion by the end of the decade.

But as cities like Kansas City are finding, being smart doesn’t just mean installing new gadgets. It really means changing the way city agencies operate and learning to balance that against security and privacy concerns.

Kansas City’s smart corridor

Kansas City has already installed two digital kiosks, the first of 25, near the streetcar line. “They’re in beta testing, so they might not work,” Garman warned recently as she approached a 7-foot unit on the wide and empty sidewalk.

She touched the icons on the kiosk’s touch screen -- it worked. They opened to offer information about local news, attractions and public transit. A related smartphone app will push restaurant deals and other promotions to users.

A few blocks away, sensors wired on top of energy-saving LED streetlights will alert the city to cars parked in the streetcar’s path and brighten lights automatically when more than six people pass by.

Modems clamped to lampposts will provide free wireless Internet. Updated traffic lights will use advanced computing to keep vehicles moving to avoid congestion.

The features along the streetcar line aren’t revolutionary. The kiosks mostly serve as a high-tech visitor’s guide. In a metropolitan area that sprawls across two states, a few miles of programmable lights and Wi-Fi seem very small.

But Kansas City’s latest smart city efforts, to be launched along with the streetcars, could grow into something bigger. “What you see now is technically called phase one. What phase two is, we still don’t know,” said Garman, a part-time law student and half of the city’s two-person innovation staff.

Kansas City will truly become a smart city when it starts using all this technology to find problems and fix them, she said.

The streetcar corridor isn’t the city’s first investment. In 2010, the state-run police department bought scanners that automatically collect license plate data from passing cars. In 2011, the local electric utility finished installing over 14,000 smart meters in homes and businesses. And in 2012, Google installed internet cables with speeds up to 1 gigabit here.