A lot of time and brain power goes into the making of a digital city.
Kansas City is home of major tech-oriented companies such as Garmin, Sprint and Cerner, and its effort to brand the area as a technological hub got a big boost four years ago with the announced arrival of Google Fiber’s high-speed, gigabit network.
Mayors of the two Kansas Citys formed a bistate task force to brainstorm ways the area could exploit its broadband advantage and show the nation how technology could lead to better lives and opportunities. Broadband competitors ramped up their Internet services. The area began to attract an influx of techno-entrepreneurs. The conversation, the hacking (the beneficial sort), the making and doing seemed to take over the town.
Granted, Silicon Valley, Boston’s Route 128 corridor and, say, Seattle, had a technological head start of decades. But a sizzling self-identity as a trendsetting digirama began forming in the metroplex.
The mayors’ task force eventually handed off the “playbook” it produced to a nonprofit organization, KC Digital Drive, which promotes the mission of “supporting technology projects that yield positive civic outcomes.”
The organization recently held a fundraising event, which offered a kind of rah-rah overview of emerging ideas and issues. One’s eyes can easily glaze over in the face of the wonkish context by which some of this activity is communicated — the vague imaginings of connected communities, the intersecting networks, the merging of big data, the “synergistic alignment of systems that produce sustainable results” in the Internet ecosystem.
But it’s heartening to hear that KC Digital Drive’s real emphasis is on people.
“How do you make sure that the people who live in our city have the future they want?” is how Aaron Deacon, the organization’s managing director, put it that night. “How do you build a city of the future in a way that respects people?”
Such questions underlie Kansas City’s project, teaming with Cisco and Sprint, to build a “Smart City” network of sensors and Internet infrastructure to deliver Wi-Fi and useful information to citizens. That system will begin along the 2.2-mile spine of the downtown streetcar line.
One guiding principle of KC Digital Drive is access, ensuring that the power of high-speed Internet is available to all citizens. The Kansas City Public Library notably has made this a priority. Connecting for Good, a Kansas City, Kan., nonprofit, spawned by the coming of Google Fiber, has been hard at work trying to close the “digital divide.” Google, with help from Black & Veatch, is on the verge of installing an open Wi-Fi network in the 18th and Vine Historic District.
Someone mentioned that the Kansas City area has 40,000 tech professionals. But is that enough to maintain the city’s proclaimed leadership? And are our schools training enough coders, engineers and innovative dreamers to keep up the momentum and make the digital network better and better? To hear most people on the matter, we need to get a move on.
The KC Digital Drive reception included brief testimonials from individuals involved in education, health care, economic development and other sectors that the organization brings together.
For tangible details I followed up with Morgan Waller, director of telemedicine at Children’s Mercy Hospital. She’s an enthusiastic participant in monthly Digital Drive meetings of health-care professionals, who share ideas and aim to make high-speed connectivity meaningful for real people.
Long-distance doctor’s appointments have certainly benefited from faster service, Waller says. And soon the hospital hopes to offer an in-home connection for young patients in certain circumstances. “We wouldn’t be able to do that reliably without high speed Internet,” she says.
Kansas City has been learning from places like Barcelona and Amsterdam. It has set baselines for other metro areas that are becoming wired for high-speed service. Yet it could easily fall behind. It’s not just speed that counts. It’s what we do with it. Innovation, wise investments and improving the lives of people could prove a powerful combination.