Technology

Is Kansas City a tech hub? Not yet, but the idea isn’t as wild as it may sound

Ilya Tabakh (right), who works for Somametric, an interaction agency, discussed technology with Anurag Patel of the University of Kansas Medical Center at the Gigabit City Summit at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Ilya Tabakh (right), who works for Somametric, an interaction agency, discussed technology with Anurag Patel of the University of Kansas Medical Center at the Gigabit City Summit at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The Kansas City Star

Kansas City has been a lot of hubs over the years: cattle hub, railroad hub, greeting card hub, college hoops hub.

And now … tech hub?

We’re not there yet, but last week brought the city closer to being a place recognized for its appetite for innovation.

“Yes, Kansas City has buzz around the country,” said Heather Burnett Gold, who lives in Virginia. “Have you ever had buzz before?”

Ouch. But her point had merit as Gold, an advocate for threading homes with high-speed fiber, joined delegates from more than 40 cities at the University of Missouri-Kansas City for a three-day conference called the Gigabit City Summit.

They came here to explore ways of juicing up their communities with ultra-fast Internet connections.

Midway through the meeting, even the White House lauded Kansas City’s emergence on the high-tech stage.

Just before President Barack Obama’s appearance in Iowa last Wednesday to pitch a plan to boost bandwidth around the country, the White House released a video of him cradling an electronic tablet displaying a bar chart.

On his screen glowed the words “Kansas City,” among the pioneers of a small pack of communities with a “huge competitive advantage,” he said, because of the bistate venture into wiring neighborhoods with Google Fiber.

Throw in Kansas City’s victory this month in landing a prestigious technology expo known as Techweek, coming in September, and gee, maybe we are becoming an “it” place for geeks.

Not quite yet, said one of them.

“I think a lot of things are converging,” said local native Jonathan Wagner, founder of a startup called Big Bang. “But it’s still harder to raise money here than on the coasts.”

He said Kansas City needs to attract more deep-pocketed venture capitalists and software developers “willing to take a chance on a big idea and swing for the fences.”

Still, there’s broad agreement within the local technology set that area leaders have made huge strides toward becoming the capital of Silicon Prairie.

“The local average Joe working at a restaurant probably doesn’t recognize it,” said Mike Burke, co-chairman of the Mayors’ Bistate Innovations Team, which was coordinating efforts. “But I can tell you, the energy within our entreprenuerial and technology communities is a thousand times greater now than a decade ago.”

Outsiders are watching.

They’re watching from Portland, Ore.; Charlotte, N.C.; Nevada City, Calif.; and Provo, Utah. All sent delegates, often teams of them, to the Gigabit City Summit.

In total, more than 200 people showed up to hear about the Google experiment from local planners, from national experts in the “smart city movement” and from the mayors of Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan. The summit was co-sponsored by several organizations and companies, including Google and the Kauffman Foundation.

Although the selection of the two Kansas Citys by Google as its starting point for Fiber launched much of the tech drive, the movement now includes other providers and startups.

Gail Roper flew in from Raleigh, N.C., where she works as the city’s chief information officer. She held a similar job in Kansas City until she left eight years ago.

“You wouldn’t have seen this conference in Kansas City back then,” Roper said.

Keith Merritt, a city commissioner in Lakeland, Fla., said he learned a lot during his visit. One surprise was that for all the hype of Kansas City being among the first in America to engage in what officials call “the gigabit Internet revolution,” some of the local residents he quizzed while here didn’t know about it.

Just the word “gigabit” tripped a few up.

“The what?” they would ask Merritt.

A cabbie who drove him to a barbecue place confessed he didn’t have Internet access.

Smart race

In the 3,000 miles between tech-rich Boston and California’s Silicon Valley, the race to get noticed as a “smart city” is crowded and intense.

Obama last week saluted Cedar Falls, Iowa, for investing in broadband as powerful as that enjoyed by a growing number of Google Fiber households here.

But gurus of the smart city movement say Internet speed alone doesn’t ramp up the IQ of communities clamoring for tech-savvy credentials.

Fast broadband is just one of 62 indicators etched out by Boyd Cohen, an adviser to the West Coast-based Smart Cities Council and a featured speaker at the Gigabit City Summit.

His indicators include public classroom technology. Mass transit. “Culture and happiness.” Citizen access to local government data.

Health care delivery made easier, allowing people to consult with doctors through video linkups at home. A strong university presence, employing and graduating the best geeks around.

Those factors and more are thrown into the swirl of what earns a place the right to call itself smart, at least in its embrace of technology.

The focus for success has shifted from high-priced Silicon Valley and its glossy tech conglomerates, Cohen said, to urban betterment projects attracting young entrepreneurs.

Kansas City’s shortcomings in public transportation, its limited capital resources and lack of a big university campus make its quest for smartness harder, tech supporters concede.

One college-age hopeful moved in from Boston two years ago to launch a web idea at the Startup Village straddling State Line Road. He already has left, unwilling to buy a car to easily get around.

Luring skilled young talent to “flyover country” is a major concern.

While burgeoning Cerner stands among the best examples of corporate strength on the Silicon Prairie, Burke and others worry the company will have trouble filling thousands of expected job openings in the coming years.

The Smart Cities Council nonetheless includes us in its website of U.S. cities to watch in 2015. In addition, cities mostly similar in size to this area, plus representatives from more than 40 countries, have checked out Kansas City to learn how they might kick-start their own tech-hub aspirations.

“It’s brought a lot of eyes to Kansas City,” said Herb Sih of the startup incubator Think Big Partners and board member for the local Economic Development Corp. “We’re not too big, not too small. If it can work here, it’ll work anywhere.”

Other groups aren’t so sure of our chances.

“Does Kansas City have high-speed broadband? Sure,” said Lou Zacharilla, co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, a think tank based in New York.

“Does that mean it’s going to be a tech hub? Not really.”

Ouch again.

The Intelligent Community Forum each year puts out a list of “Smart21 Communities.” The rankings for 2015 included the university city of Columbus, Ohio, along with Mitchell, S.D., and Aurora, Ill.

Overseas cities — Astana, Kazakhstan? — far outnumber U.S. ones, as is usually the case with such lists.

In 16 years of the forum’s rankings, Kansas City never has made the cut. It’s never even applied for consideration.

(Cedar Falls isn’t cited either, but nearby Dubuque, Iowa, is among this year’s honorees. It’s home to the IBM Global Delivery Center, employing more than 1,000.)

Zacharilla said the forum gives its highest marks to cities with public approaches “that go beyond private interests.” Key question: Do citizens across the economic spectrum benefit from advanced technology?

Google came to Kansas City to make a profit. Its fiber hookups — though competitively priced at $120 per month for Internet and TV — have yet to reach high penetration in many struggling neighborhoods across the area.

Since 2011, a local nonprofit, Connecting for Good, has been trying to bridge Kansas City’s digital divide by setting up computer stations at community centers and refurbishing discarded PCs for the needy.

Much more needs to be done, all agree.

A decade ago, two out of 10 households in Margaret May’s neighborhood east of the Paseo had home computers.

“Today, maybe it’s four out of 10,” said May, executive director of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council. “That’s a deep concern for me.”

Joiners wanted

For area residents who haven’t kept score of the “gigabit Internet revolution,” one man at the center of it all is Aaron Deacon. He is managing director for a nonprofit called KC Digital Drive and chairman of Kansas City’s Social Media Club.

The attention the area is getting poses a few risks, he said.

Visitors might wonder why their hotels or meeting centers don’t have lightning-fast connectivity.

“That’s certainly something we’ve talked about,” he said. “If you call yourself a gigabit city, it creates expectations that are not going to be met by Google being in people’s houses.”

But it’s mostly a terrific thing that other communities are curious about the Kansas City experiment, Deacon said, because ultra-fast Internet doesn’t really do much for us unless more cities join in.

A live video chat with your uncle in Florida, for example, is apt to be only as vivid and void of pauses as the connections on his end allow.

Smart-city enthusiasts think it’s just a matter of time before gigabit cities sprout everywhere.

In five years “it’s going to go from a good thing to a must-have,” said Blair Levin of the Metropolitan Policy Project at the Brookings Institution.

For now, Google Fiber is spreading in Provo, Utah, and Austin, Texas, and is looking at nine other markets. AT&T has its fiber-optic network, called GigaPower, available in Fort Worth and North Carolina, among other places.

In a bid to battle Google on its home field of fiber, AT&T has pledged to offer gigabit service to four Johnson County cities.

For the most sanguine of smart-city visionaries, there aren’t enough accolades for the role our towns have played in this.

“Kansas City is making us dream,” said Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford, author of “The Responsive City.”

In her keynote speech at the summit, she brought up the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which wowed the world with its electric lighting. Today’s Kansas City “is our world’s fair,” she proclaimed.

Visiting from Charlotte, gigabit buff Alan Fitzpatrick said it’s too early to know if 100-times-faster home Internet will help Kansas City achieve its tech-hub dreams. But it sure helps the area’s image.

“I never thought much about Kansas City until this Google deal happened,” he said.

One last ouch.

To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or send email to rmontgomery@kcstar.com.

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