Report from Smart Cities Connect

By Larry O'Brien

Technology Trends

ARC recently attended the Smart Cities Connect conference, March 26-29 in Kansas City, MO at the Kansas City Convention Center. The show is a good balance of keynotes, workshops, and technology vendor exhibits, and the presence of smart cities end users in the form of city governments, utilities, and academia was significant. The show is also the site of the US Ignite Forum, which is heavily funded by the National Science Foundation and features new technology applications for smart cities built on gigabit Ethernet technology, IoT, and low cost distributed sensors. 

Bob Bennett, Chief Innovation Officer of Kansas City
Bob Bennett, Chief Innovation Officer of Kansas City at Smart Cities Connect

ARC attended the show as part of our increased coverage of smart cities and infrastructure. ARC has introduced several new smart cities studies in just the past 18 months, from smart lighting systems to building automation systems. We are in the process of compiling a new report on smart city platforms. 

“The Smartest 54 Blocks in the US”

The event was keynoted by Bob Bennett, the Chief Innovation Officer for the city of Kansas City. Kansas City was an appropriate location for this conference since Bob has been at the lead in implementing a far-reaching smart cities project for Kanas City that includes what Bob refers to as “the smartest 54 blocks” in the United States. 

Indeed, downtown Kansas City is bristling with sensors and smart technology, including 128 intelligent streetlights, public Wi-Fi, intelligent kiosks, intelligent water and sewer systems, and an intelligent streetcar that runs on Main street that is free to use. The streetcar itself incorporates smart sensing technology that helps it avoid obstacles. Intelligent traffic light systems help coordinate better timing of traffic signals, and the city collects other traffic and transportation-related information both through its own systems and through relationships with rental car companies like Avis. The city has already issued RFPs to expand this concept from the 54 blocks downtown to a much larger area of the city.  Kansas City is also using analytics to turn data into useful information and to take a more predictive approach to issues facing the city, from potholes to diabetes rates. 

Keynotes Focus on Bridging the “Digital Divide”

Other keynotes included Aaron Deacon, the managing director of KC Digital Drive, a “nonprofit civic tech startup supporting technology projects that increase economic prosperity and improve the quality of life for people in Kansas City.” KC Digital Drive addresses the “digital divide,” or lack of access to broadband Internet for people with low income. KC Digital Drive supports high-impact technology pilot projects, works closely with the Kansas City mayors’ offices. Aaron explained how KC Digital Drive is working with Google, Cisco, and Sprint to create a systems approach that must be balanced with the needs of citizens.  

Just about every keynote speaker addressed the digital divide and why open access to broadband Internet is so important. There are many basic functions in society that you simply cannot do successfully or effectively without access to the Internet. Samir Saini, the new IT commissioner and CIO of the City of New York (recently hired from the city of Atlanta) spoke about the need for a viable financial model with payback for large-scale smart city deployments.  Samir echoed the message that equitable and affordable distribution of broadband is a core element of any “smart city”. 

David Graham, deputy COO of city of San Diego also addressed the digital divide. In David’s view, “tech for people and tech for all" can help us avoid "when smart cities go bad.” Jim Kurose, assistant director computer and information science and engineering (CISE) at the National Science Foundation spoke about his organization’s role in investing in new smart city technology initiatives. Mark Farrell, Mayor of San Francisco stated that “We literally have kids sitting outside the library trying to log on to Wi-Fi,” and its San Francisco’s vision to provide 100 percent Internet access for all citizens and is the foundation for its smart city strategy. 

Impact of Better Asset Management for Water Systems

Travis Smith of smart city infrastructure supplier Sensus spoke about applying smart network infrastructure across the water cycle. Travis pointed out the extremely asset intensive nature of water management. Like the process industries, most of the costs in water management go to maintaining the assets associated with the water management process. Better asset management can have a big impact on reducing overall cost and mitigate risks, waste, and unplanned shutdowns.

New Research Projects Focus on Low-Cost Sensors, Augmented Reality

The conference track featured several interesting technology demos arising from partnerships between cities, counties, and academic institutions. One of these was #SONYC, a project to monitor sources of noise in New York City and help reduce the growing problem of noise pollution. SONYC involves large-scale deployment of acoustic sensors throughout the city that can identify specific types of noise and isolate their location. Machine learning concepts are employed to analyze data patterns in the noise with an eye towards reducing or eliminating the sources.  

Representatives from the University of Vermont and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga demonstrated a new approach to augmented reality overlays to view the underground infrastructure of cities. Using ground-penetrating radar to map out infrastructure, the project creates overlays that can be viewed with Microsoft HoloLens technology.  
Branko Kerkez of the University of Michigan spoke about creating smarter drainage systems with sensors and valves spread lit over large areas with Harry Sheehan of Washtenaw County, Michigan.  The name of the project is OpenStorm and the simple goal is to use sensors, embedded systems, and cloud-based infrastructure to control and optimize water management and storm drainage. 

Think Big Partners and Kansas City Living Lab

Smart Cities Connect Day 2 keynote with Herb Sih of Think Big Partners, an incubator for startup businesses. Think Big also operates the Kansas City Living Lab – a project to seek out emerging technology solutions to problems faced by today’s cities, refining, testing, and validating those technologies and bringing them to market in commercial deployments. The Living Lab is designed to speed up technology commercialization, lower costs, and create product-market fit.

US Ignite

Smart Cities Connect is also the location for the US Ignite conference, and there were several presentations related sessions that were US Ignite specific. US Ignite is funded by the National Science Foundation, and its mission is to “spur the creation of next-generation applications and services that leverage advanced networking technologies to build the foundation for smart communities, including cities, rural areas, regions, and states. The nonprofit organization helps to accelerate new wired and wireless networking advances from research to prototype to full-scale smart community and interconnected national deployments.”

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