Cisco, Sprint see the future of smart cities in... Kansas City?

Cisco, Sprint see the future of smart cities in... Kansas City?

Kansas City, Missouri will serve as a test bed for a slew of smart cities technologies from vendors like Cisco, Sprint and smart lighting provider Sensity.

Ultra-efficient transportation, advanced power grids that seamlessly integrate renewable energy and futuristic urban gardens helping to feed growing populations of city dwellers. These are just a few of the optimistic outlooks surrounding smart cities — a genre that has become increasingly hard to ignore in recent years.

However, there remains one element of those plans that has been much more difficult to address: concrete examples of how to actually execute — and pay for — the costly underlying infrastructure upgrades needed to turn a city into a network.

That shared public and private sector duress is what makes a new initiative in the space by Cisco, Sprint and a Midwestern city of 467,000 people particularly intriguing.

A 10-year deal in Kansas City, Missouri, worth an estimated $15 million, of which the city will contribute more than $3 million, revolves around a wireless network built by Sprint and a centralized Internet of Things (IoT) platform run by Cisco. The Kansas City Business Journal has reported that the city's investment will be "matched and exceeded by nearly $12 million in private investment by Cisco ... and its growing list of partners."

From there, other third party vendors, like smart lighting company Sensity Systems and water tech provider Black & Veatch, will build out other efficiency and service delivery-focused efforts.

The overarching goal: to "save money, make money and engage citizens," Cliff Thomas, Clisco's managing director of smart and connected communities, told GreenBiz.

If successful, the initiative would be one of the most ambitious smart city deployments to date in a U.S. market. The European Union last year invested $450 million in regional smart city technologies, and Cisco alone is currently overseeing varying smart city programs in about 90 international markets.

All told, Cisco executives on Monday cited an estimate that the smart cities market also being pursued by IBM, Microsoft and a slew of upstarts could unleash $3 trillion in value over the next decade. Gartner estimated earlier this year that the network of "connected things" in smart cities —  buildings, cars, street lights, etc. — will reach 9.7 billion by 2020. And cities are just one market for IoT technologies:

Cisco Internet of Things smart cities market projections
</p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p>Smart cities are just one component of nascent Internet of Things business models also being marketed to homeowners, factory operators and other large power and resource users.</p>

Still, that level of adoption, and the subsequent payoffs, remain largely theoretical.

Some elements of smart city planning, like energy efficiency gains from more efficient LED lighting, have a clear financial value proposition. But proponents are also extolling much more abstract and largely unproven benefits, like closing the "digital divide" between rich and poor residents or discouraging crime with motion-detecting smart lighting.

The promise of new revenue streams for public and private bodies is also in play, thanks to nascent business models to provide new types of data-based city services or more targeted advertising opportunities. But thorny data privacy issues and consumer interest are big potential stumbling blocks.

At a higher level, the tech industry credibility promised by smart cities is also being sold as a way for municipalities to jump start entrepreneurial activity in Kansas City and other mid-sized markets looking to compete for business activity.

"The return on investment is multi-factorial," Kansas City Mayor Sly James said in a video appearance at the Cisco event on Monday.

He added that the city hopes to marry the smart cities push with broader economic development initiatives encouraging entrepreneurship to “add to the psyche” of the Missouri city.

Goldilocks and the elusive smart city

Kansas City might not immediately spring to mind when it comes to likely locales for a major investment in smart cities technology.

But the city's relatively dense 6 square-mile downtown district actually provides an appealing middle ground for service providers seeking to marry the appeal of huge metros like New York or Los Angeles with more approachable smaller markets.

Thomas of Cisco joked that mid-sized markets like Kansas City could prove to be a "Goldilocks" of sorts for smart cities proof of concept.

"The Kansas Cities of the world are just the right size," he said. “New York and LA...they’re really big, and they take a little longer. The (cities) don’t necessarily need to be the biggest ones, but we do need density."

Density matters in large part because of the financial appeal of increased efficiency, which is easier for public service providers to realize in more concentrated areas. The theme of cost cutting emerged early in talks with Kansas City that started in February 2014.

"He was like look, 'We have no money,'" Thomas recalled of one initial meeting. "I get that a lot. The first thing was, 'How do we create efficiency?'"

Doing the math

One centerpiece for the first phase of the Kansas City smart city project to be rolled out starting later this year will be Sensity's smart lighting system, billed as a "light sensory network" that will deliver environmental and social benefits along with a financial return.

By converting existing street light poles into hubs for multiple kinds of sensors, the goal will be "to collect real-time data for smart city applications, such as smart parking, lighting, retail analytics and public safety and security," according to a press release.

What ultimately happens to the data will depend on who chooses to put it to use, aside from city agencies, opening the familiar can of worms involving Big Data, privacy and security. Various applications for data analytics come with various revenue opportunities for the city and private companies involved, like selling advertising or other content-based services to local residents and businesses.

When it comes to privacy, Thomas said that sensors will collect anonymized data. Would-be users of perspective personalized services — like mobile apps to help get around the city or find parking — will likely operate on a opt-in basis.

"On the personal data side, our intent is not to touch that all," Thomas said of Cisco's role. "We are a transport service to get people to the information they want."

Though it remains to be seen how willing residents will be to engage in new tech tools, phase one of the project is already scheduled to include: the Wi-Fi network owned and managed by Sprint; interactive digital kiosks and early work on smart water innovation and next-generation police car efforts.

“We’re looking at areas where money is already being invested by the city," Thomas said.

One central thread tying the disparate efforts together will be a "Living Lab" development portal managed by a group called ThinkBig Partners, which is where the emphasis on entrepreneurship comes into play.

Kansas City has already seen some success luring technology firms to invest in the area, such as Google fiber and a sales office for California solar company Sungevity, and the city hopes to add to that momentum by offering developers access to more data.

"How do we incubate others?” Thomas said. “This is where there’s an economic engine."