There’s more to Kansas City than barbecue and baseball, as the metro area digs in even deeper to become a smart city.

In May, the Missouri city heralded the first phase of its plan to become a smart, connected city by creating a 2.2 mile smart district with 20,000 residents in the heart of downtown. The core area includes a streetcar line, free public Wi-Fi, smart LED streetlights, and 25 digital kiosks as part of an infrastructure overhaul. The first phase has been limited to the area covered, as it’s served as a living lab for smart city Internet of Things (IoT) technology.

“We want to take this smart district and prove that it works,” said Bob Bennett, Kansas City’s chief innovation officer, speaking to an audience at Cisco Live in Las Vegas last month. Bennett said the plan is to prove that it works so well that the other 470,000 residents in the area will “clamor for it.”

The digital kiosks give information about restaurants and events in the area, and can sync with a smartphone to provide updates and data as needed. The smart streetlights automatically dim when there is less foot traffic in an area, and brighten when a group gathers. Sensors have been put in place at each parking spot to help manage streetcar navigation.

SEE: Smart cities: The smart person’s guide

The city is gearing up to begin the second stage of the smart city project by expanding the services and features to a broader area. As a next step, parking will improve, with the existing sensors along the streetcar line to be connected to a mobile app to allow drivers to know, in advance, which parking spaces are available. More kiosks will also be added down a 10-mile route that follows the city’s bus line, and the free Wi-Fi will expand its coverage area.

“Our goal right now is to be the smartest city on planet earth in five years. I think we’re going to get there,” Bennett said. “In 18 months, I figure we’ll have another 180,000 people under a Wi-Fi umbrella.”

The free public Wi-Fi is the core component of the project, in that it touches the most people’s lives by improving their connectivity. The city initially thought that residents in the area would get the most impact from the free Wi-Fi. But it turns out that visitors are using it, and using it repeatedly. This means that the city can collect data about the visitors, such as their area codes and, through sensors in kiosks stationed throughout the smart city district, the pattern of where they are going while they are in the area, Bennett said.

For instance, “There are 48 people who walk past the corner of 9th and Broadway between 9 and 10 am each day. There is not a single restaurant in that entire two-block area. Once I figured that out, I talked to our economic development council. We talked to two people who bid, and they put a new deli in,” Bennett said.

Kim Majerus, local and education vice president for Cisco, worked with the city on the project. “The amount of data and information they’re collecting from that street car and the usership and the opportunities, I think that itself has paid for the project in gold from the city’s perspective.”

How the city began its transformation

Kansas City had Google Fiber installed in 2011, and that was when the city started thinking about other technology improvements, said Bob Bennett, in an interview with TechRepublic.

In 2013, the city began plans to install the $100 million streetcar line, and Cisco approached Kansas City in 2014 with the concept to adding smart technology as the streetcar line was installed. It made sense to do it all at once, Bennett said.

“When the opportunity came to do the streetcar, we said, ‘here’s our chance, here’s our shot.’ When you tear up the street and put in the 3-inch conduit for the streetcar, you put in an extra 12-inch conduit and you can have all your smart city stuff,” Bennett said.

By integrating city services such as public transportation, utilities, and public safety into a seamless fabric where they’re all connected, it provides contextual data so that urban services become more meaningful and efficient as the city learns what residents and visitors need by how they move around a city and work and play.

“That’s how the conversation started. Kansas City wanted to rejuvenate. The mayor had said he wanted Kansas City to be a place for people to stay, not for a place to stop over,” Majerus said.

“That really got us excited because, in order for people to be aware of what’s available, they have to be connected. When you think about the kiosks they’re putting up there, the kiosks help direct people to different places. Those kiosks are used for different opportunities, advertising what’s best in a city,” she said.

Cities are realizing the value in IoT, and putting the technology into practice, and it has accelerated in the last year, Majerus said.

“It’s no longer telling people why they should be smart and connected, but it’s telling the city leaders that you have an asset that you can monetize to the benefit of your citizens. Once you get that piece done, the rest is easy. Once you show them the value of the assets they have, it makes it a little easier for the city leadership to get behind it,” she said.

If federal funding is received for the next stage, Kansas City could be “turning dirt by October” on the second phase of the project, Bennett said. “The overall feedback has been positive. People like living in the most connected city on planet earth.”

Three takeaways for TechRepublic readers:

  1. Kansas City recently completed the first phase of its smart city project, and is looking toward beginning the second stage to add more of the same features in a broader area.
  2. Cisco partnered with Kansas City to add the smart city features, which include free Wi-Fi, smart streetlights and smart kiosks.
  3. Kansas City is using the data gained from the connected technology to improve the lives of residents and visitors.

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