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Bob Bennett on the Role of Technology in Smart Cities and the Benefits for Citizens
Lily Maxwell10. July 201916 min read

Bob Bennett: the Role of Smart Cities Technology and their Benefits

Bob Bennett, the former Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) of Kansas City talked in our Smart City Leader Interview Series - while he still was the CIO of Kansas City - about the importance of smart cities and smart citizens. He emphasized the role of technology and the benefits for citizens.

Bob Bennett - Former CIO of Kansas CityHow did a military man like you become the Chief Innovation Officer of Kansas City?

I was teaching at the army staff college in Kansas City and knew I was going to be getting out of uniform at some point, so I started doing a lot of volunteering work in the community. I helped a local NGO with their strategic planning efforts and one of the board members had links with local government. It was through my relationship with him that I heard about the opening at City Government for a Chief Innovation Officer and I decided that the time was right to turn in my uniform and put on a bow tie instead!

How does your previous work inform your work in smart cities now?

We don’t solve tech problems in the cities/smart cities arena: we solve people problems and we happen to use tech to do that. If you’re solving a tech problem, you’ve completely missed the boat. It’s as much about getting people from dysfunctional city departments to get along as it is about tech and strategy. Much like when I was in Iraq and we had to get the state department and all the allied governments and our military and the US AID to work together on one strategy, I have to mediate between the different Kansas city government departments the same way every day! To make a city smart, you don’t need to be tech wizard: you need to know how to get the right people together to reach a consensus. You need to know how to facilitate collaboration. You need to give the great people doing great work in city government the opportunity to share data and do things more effectively together, instead of working separately. It’s about working horizontally instead of just vertically.

How have you gone about building consensus in Kansas City? 

We try to build out planning sessions where we focus less on what each department is bringing to the partnership and more on what they can gain from the technology or knowledge-sharing intrinsic to the project. By doing this, we encourage departments to see the value of the windows being opened up for them to run their operations more effectively. Everyone usually gets that on a theoretical level but it doesn’t always translate to practice. By highlighting the benefits for everyone when they’re all in the same room - and can’t stab each other in the back over the budget - allows them to actually see the value in that collaboration. A good way to consolidate this process is by bringing in a private sector partner. That way, everyone meets the private sector partner for the first time and they all have to be on their best behaviour and look for a solution together. Plus, as it is a partnership model and not a procurement model, bringing in a private sector partner means extra funds above and beyond the existing budget. This means that departments can actually do something new for once - and anybody will open their minds a little bit if there’s money swishing around!

What do you think of the term “smart city”?

We have to be careful with the term “smart city”. Ancient Rome was a smart city because they had aqueducts. Right now, our airport has subsidised cattle-grazing happening on its nearby pasture lands in order to prevent deers from running onto the runways. The point is that cities have never been “dumb” and to insinuate that before modern technologies they were, which the smart city marketing term sometimes does, is disingenuous at best, and misses the point at worst. Cities are not and have never been dumb: not every ingenious solution is technological. 

Here in Kansas City, we acknowledge all the “smart” things that are great about the city - technological or not - and use new technologies as they are made available to us, if they are relevant to us. We explore, for instance, which technologies the water tech developers want to push and we think, how could these be relevant for us and how do we create the right partnerships? We also “kill two birds with one stone” a lot: if I’m digging a hole in the ground for the water tech, I also look to include some public works along the way, like installing fibres. This involves, again, coordinating different departments: the parks department, the public works department, the water board etc. The most essential task for me is to get all these departments to collaborate in such a way that allows me to install the tech I want to use and solves other problems along the way. Ultimately - and this is the true meaning of a “smart city” for me - the goal is to be able to get data out of the whole operation. I only want to install tech that will help me get multiple strands of data - on water quality, air quality, noise levels, traffic, and more - that will then help to inform city-level decisions and make our city better for all. 

In many of the keynote speeches and lectures you’ve given, you’ve established 3 core ingredients of a “smart city”: water, energy and transportation. Can you expand a bit on what you mean by that?

Every human being in Kansas City has to touch all three of these systems every single day  - from the poorest homeless person all the way to the millionaire who lives on Walk Parkway (our Saville row). Every human being on that spectrum wakes up in the morning and probably gets a drink of water or uses the toilet. In most cases, they get on a transit system - a car, or a bus, or a bike. When they get there, someone is going to flick on a light switch or a thermostat and, thanks to Thomas Edison, there will be electricity and light or heat. Everything else is secondary. I can’t guarantee public safety on every single block but I can guarantee you that clean water will be available on that block. I can’t guarantee that there will be a parking space there for you but I can make sure you have access to electricity. I can’t promise every street will be lined with beautiful trees but I can guarantee that you can use those streets to get from point a to point b. If I “smartify” those systems first, I know I will have a smart city for every human being in the city. I can use these systems and I can leverage elements of them to take care of those among us who need help, to support the goals and objectives of those who have a little bit extra that they want to invest, and everything in between.

How exactly do you “smartify” these systems?

Mostly, through installing sensors - for our sewer systems, for instance, it’s sensors. For what I want to do with air quality sensors and traffic sensors, those types of things, I’m actually using the water system to do that. For public wifi, I’m using streetlight poles as a platform on which to install all the small cells. There’s power and fibres there because I’ve fibred up all of the intersections - that takes care of my backhaul. Thus, without having to put any more infrastructure in, I get all the data I need!

How are you funding these initiatives?

Through public-private partnerships (P3s). For example, Sprint owns and operates my wifi network: 50% of the bandwidth available on that network is exclusively for sprint customers. The good news for Sprint is that they have increased market share in Kansas City. They also have a densified network of small cells to improve the signals and service quality that they provide for their existing customers. This again helps them with the greater adoption of sprint over other companies in the region. The other 50% of the bandwidth goes to me. I give 40% of it away as public wifi and then I use 10% of the bandwidth for all my IoT communications, which again is how I get my happy little air quality sensor to talk to my water meter. It’s a great network.

Do you collect this data and gain insights from it using one platform?

Yes: the data flows into Cisco’s Kinetic for Cities. My vision is to go beyond where we are at the moment though: I want Kinetic for Cities to eventually become a platform that is transitional to other cities as well. This way, any development work we do can be transferred to other cities and vice versa, so we can all build this thing together. The idea would be that you would eventually have a measures of performance engine on Kinetic for Cities. It would probably give very binary yes and no answers with some gradations of performance in there. It would be easy to install across cities because many indicators are already agreed across cities -  for example, traffic management is a function of the number of cars per spot per time. This would help to answer a lot of the the questions we currently have, like: am i doing my public works operations, or my water delivery, or my traffic management correctly? If we could create this engine, it could become standardised and Kinetic for Cities could run it. Then, if enough cities used it, the price would go down to the point where we could all afford it.

We could also even go one step further than this. At the moment, I have all the sensor data living in the Kinetic for Cities platform and then, in another location, I have got all my existing cities data, and then there are all the third party data sets. We have a lot of valuable information, we have just never leveraged it fully. If I combined sensor data with third party data with existing city data into a different engine, I could figure out ways to start predicting how the city will behave. This would allow me to go beyond asking “am I doing a service correctly?”: with this type of engine I could answer a different question: “am I even providing the right services?” This would require an engine that measured not performance but instead effectiveness. This is essentially a policy question, not something that Kinetic for Cities will ever be able to or should really do. This is because this kind of data aggregation piece is a very city by city thing: it needs to be implemented by a data scientist who knows our cities, our mayors, the weirdness of our different streets and zip-codes. It requires someone who already knows which zipcodes are already going to behave in a certain way and can account for that in their model. 

To summarise, although I currently use Kinetic for Cities, I have ambitions above and beyond our current situation. I envision using a two-tiered system sometime in the future: Kinetic for Cities will run the “am i doing things right” department and then another company - be it Xaqt, My Sidewalk or someone else - will cover the “am i doing the right thing” front. So in the end, it’s not about the tech: it’s about the data. That’s a smart city.

There are a lot of smart city critics who are concerned about the role of big technology companies in designing cities. Many have questions over who owns the city’s tech infrastructure and how municipalities and local governments can actually use that in future if they have to keep paying a subscription or don’t actually own it. Do you see this as a problem or not?

This is something we have to consider, of course, but I would not use the word “problem”. First of all, the statistics tell us that the people most concerned about data privacy and sovereignty are my generation - not young people. Most of the “common sense” approaches being recommended by our younger staff members integrate data privacy and sovereignty concepts into the policy recommendations or draft ordinances they develop. 

Secondly, we have a very restrictive data policy in Kansas City. I’m not allowed to have any data at the level of fidelity that a private company would be interested in having anyway. I can’t know that Joe’s phone from London was walking my streets: all I can know is that on this block at this time, there were x number of phones that have a local area code designation and y phones without it. I have sufficiently detailed data to allow me to make big decisions but much of what we have access to is not usable if you’re doing advertising, for instance. Yes, it’s useful for, say, coffee shops who want to know the raw number of humans walking past their store on the street. That’s about as good as I’ve got. In my mind, this can be a useful bargaining chip when creating partnerships but the private data that we have is not at risk of being exploited - it’s simply not detailed enough. 

 However, it’s true that one of the reasons why Sprint operates in my city is because they have access to personal data through this: the wifi user makes the exclusive decision to allow sprint to gather data in exchange for using their wifi services. This is consensual, though - no one is giving away data unknowingly. The derivative data I receive from Sprint is much less detailed than that which they own, so the data that goes on the public record is aggregated and anonymised at the block level. 

Do you think technologies like blockchain could be an effective way to decentralise control over data? Or is it just a fad?

I don’t think it’s a fad. I think it is going to be an interesting way to manage data, in terms of cities maybe coming up with an effective data commons. Blockchain will definitely be useful for a lot of things in future but I, personally, don’t think it’s developed enough right now for me to worry about it. 

You’ve mentioned digital inclusion quite a lot in some of your previous talks. Digital exclusion is obviously a huge problem when it comes to smart cities in terms of who can actually engage in smart initiatives. How exactly does Kansas City tackle digital exclusion?

We wrote our digital equity inclusion plan at the same time as we wrote our smart city plan: the two are fully integrated. When it comes to digital inclusion, it’s all about balancing the public good and private sector interests and investing in the most high-impact areas. 

Our next smart corridor will be in one of our poorest neighbourhoods and the one after will be in one of the most affluent. This sweetens the deal for Sprint while also allowing us to continue to prioritise the equal distribution of new technologies - and their benefits - across all of the city’s neighbourhoods. The data we gather from these corridors also, in turn, helps us to further improve the situation of the more underestimated neighbourhoods.

A lot of people reference the elderly when talking about digital inclusion. For the older people who want to engage and see their grandchildren, we think that’s great and we will help them to “get digital” where we can. To be perfectly honest, though, I am much more interested in their grandchildren. I’m not going to spend money trying to engage the elderly people who do not want to engage - there are plenty of nonprofits who are focused on doing that. My focus is on engaging and benefiting those that need it the most and who already want to engage.

bee smart city has a particular focus on civic participation in smart city initiatives. Does Kansas City place any emphasis on engaging citizens in their “smartifying” activities and, if so, how?

Yes, we do this in three ways. Firstly, through integrating digital inclusion into our smart city strategy. There is a monthly meeting of The Coalition for Digital Inclusion in the city, for example. These meetings take place in the library because they have the network and they are more trusted than city government. There are a range of stakeholders in the room at these meetings: nonprofits, companies looking to write their taxes off by donating to the library, city government (me!) and local citizens. We use the power convening that the library offers to get more public input into policies; I take the ideas that I hear at these meetings and include them in our government decisions and our city plans for the next generation.

Secondly, we are trying to provide public technological tools. We encourage companies to donate their old computers and other technologies to the city’s libraries or directly to folks who need them through The Surplus Exchange . When we upgrade our computers at city government, we also donate our old ones. This means that everyone can access computers even if they don’t own one at home.

Lastly, we have a smart city advisory board. Roughly once every 6-8 weeks, half of the city staff -  from public works, water, general services, you name it - come together with the local community to talk about the smart city initiatives going on and what could be done in future. Some of the attendees are important community representatives. There are educators, people from marketing industry, engineering firms - people from all walks of life. It’s totally open to the public and anybody can come in and give us feedback. This means that we - at city government - get to hear a lot of different perspectives that we may not be familiar with; it allows us to set our priorities and thoughts straight about what we ought to do according to what the people really want. 

What’s your vision for the future of Kansas City?

We are going to be the smartest city on planet earth within 5 years. We will achieve this through more P3s and through the expansion of (what is right now) the smartest 54 blocks in North America to the whole city. There are currently a lot of smart districts and projects across the world urban centres but, at scale, there is no comprehensive smart city. I intend to change that in Kansas city within the next 5 years - we’ve just got to figure out exactly how to do it! For me, it’s all about the data. Right now my data nearly applies to the whole city and soon we will transform the local government procurement process into a more modern system. Once I get data for the whole metropolitan area and implement the changes to the procurement process, I believe that we’ll be able to expand pretty rapidly. The future is bright for Kansas City!


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Lily Maxwell

Lily is a freelance writer, translator and content-creator, specialised in smart cities and urbanism. After studying at the University of Cambridge, she moved to Barcelona and is now based between Spain and England, working with several different urban-focused European organisations. She speaks French, Spanish and English, and aims to tackle German and Italian next!