Wired up and fired up in Kansas City

Let’s face it, most urban leaders claim, or have claimed, that their city is making the most of technology. Talk of new technology and digital progress is inherently positive and forward-looking. It encourages an image that is cutting-edge and advanced, one that plays well with voters and business alike. But talk is one thing, actually implementing digital change is quite another.

The citizens of Kansas City (KC), Missouri should have no such worries, however. Theirs is a city that has, for some years now, enjoyed a leading position in the race for all things digital. In 2012, for example, KC and neighbouring Kansas City, Kansas together became the first metropolitan area to receive Google’s ultra-high-speed ‘fibre to the home’ network. The project prompted the two cities to join forces and seek out new ways for their communities to reap the potential digital dividends. The result was a playbook and subsequently a new digital leadership network, KC Digital Drive, to propel their continuing evolution into a smart city.

As a result, KC mayor, Sly James, is much in demand. Cities across Texas, California and Europe have been in touch to learn from his city’s experiences – “the travel in this job is more than I expected” – but he is keen to stress that digital needs to benefit all of his community, not just those at the top.

“The digital divide has been extremely eye-opening,” he admits, “and so we have set about trying to find strategies to bridge this gap. One of the things we have had with Google was a contractual agreement that they would run fibre to public buildings in the catchment area, such as police departments, fire stations, libraries, community centres and schools. That forms part of what we are doing, but we are also focusing on digital literacy classes and education as well.”

Team up to shake up

This multifaceted approach is supported by a myriad of initiatives, all aimed squarely at ensuring that KC remains at the digital forefront. For example, Google is not the only private sector organisation to participate in this cross-city endeavour. Cisco is installing a new network of smart streetlights through downtown KC as part of a comprehensive Smart + Connected City initiative. Sensor modules embedded in the lights will provide a constant stream of data, supported by a new wi-fi network that is open and available to smartphone users and local businesses.

Connecting for Good, meanwhile, is focused only on digital inclusion. A not-for-profit, it was launched in 2011 to help counter the digital divide through services such as blanket wi-fi networks for communities, a mobile computer lab and a PC-refurbishing operation that can produce 50 computers a month for as little as $50 each. Its operations work in tandem with the Digital Inclusion Fund, which was created to support organisations that provide digital training to the elderly and underserved and to increase technology access to populations across the divide.

Kansas City is also participating in ConnectHome, a White House initiative that draws on the resources of many organisations to close the digital divide, so that people of all socioeconomic groups will have the opportunity to benefit from the city’s technological advantages.

Mayor James says that that the allure of digital technology has led to many partners becoming involved. “For lack of a better word, it is ‘sexy’,” he says, “because it is new and has all sorts of possibilities. This meant that it hasn’t been hard to enlist partners on both the public and the private level to engage in the project.” The pooling of such resources, he continues, has helped KC move into a position of strength, even when going up against other, larger cities.

“One of the things that we have learned is that we are able to compete with cities that are much larger than us, as long as we are bringing all of our resources together,” he says. “When we try and do things as a one-off, then it becomes more difficult. We have learned that to reach our maximum potential and to be most successful and have the broadest possible public impact, we need to work together, and have almost ingrained this in our psyche over the past few years.”

Recent events suggest that the approach is continuing to be successful – in September it was named one of the nation’s first What Works Cities, in recognition of its commitment to data-driven government.

The importance of inclusivity

Mayor James took up the role following his election in 2011, but this was far from his first experience of public service. Born and raised in KC, his CV includes a stint in the US Marine Corps as a military police officer and a successful legal career that has spanned three decades. He has also served as president of the local Bar Association and on the board of law examiners, as well as a rich variety of civic responsibilities, including periods on the boards of the Economic Development Corporation and the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority. “I’ve always been engaged in some capacity,” he admits. “And, frankly, I see the practice of law as a service profession. So, it was not difficult for me to translate that desire to be engaged and to be of service into a political context.”

His is a style of governing that is based on a broad outreach to many different stakeholders. This, in his view, is key to getting things done. “It’s dangerous for a person to put out an idea and stand on it alone because then you’re inviting others to criticise it and then it doesn’t happen,” he says. “But when you bring those who are going to be affected together, then you’ve got much greater chance of success and sustainability over the long haul. All of these stakeholders own a part of it and they own a stake in making sure it doesn’t fail, and this is what we do here every day.”

However, he does admit to encountering the occasional challenge or bump in the road. “The depth and variety of issues we encounter is sometimes staggering,” he concedes. “And it is sometimes difficult to blend all of the voices of the citizenry on significant issues and figure out where that sweet spot is. But the thing that has surprised me the most is how eager people are to feel pride in their city and to feel pride about what is going on in their lives and environment. And so I want ensure we are talking all the time about those things they can be proud of.”

Delivering on these city priorities will, if all goes to plan, create a city that in 20 years’ time will be “wired from stem to stern”, he says. Indeed, it is clear that the use of, and reliance on, digital technology is no passing fad. Instead, the crackle of technology and omnipresent hum of wireless wi-fi represents a way of policymaking that is here to stay.

Mayor James wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

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