Community Information Forum Keynote Speaker: Any Community Can Become 'Smart'

 Keynote speaker Bob Bennett will give examples of how even smaller communities like Bloomington-Normal can take steps now toward becoming "smart cities" at Wednesday's 13th Annual Community Information Forum. (Image credit: McLean County Regional Planning Commission)

Keynote speaker Bob Bennett will give examples of how even smaller communities like Bloomington-Normal can take steps now toward becoming "smart cities" at Wednesday's 13th Annual Community Information Forum. (Image credit: McLean County Regional Planning Commission)

From Seoul, South Korea to Boston, Massachusetts, cities around the globe are tackling the world’s problems with “smart city” initiatives.

Bob Bennett, Chief Innovation Officer in Kansas City, Missouri, says the conversation isn’t limited to big cities; any community can and must take steps now to become “smart,” or risk getting left in the dust of changing technologies.

Bennett will be the keynote speaker at the McLean County Regional Planning Commission’s 13th Annual Community Information Forum on April 11.

Bennett heads up Kansas City’s numerous smart city initiatives, including public WiFi, a data analysis platform and the installation of digital kiosks throughout the city.

While the technology is often surprising--like a program that can predict potholes before they happen--Bennet said at its core the smart city approach is all about tackling “people problems.”

“Like all cities, we have our challenges in these spaces, and we have to solve them. A smart city does that with the least amount of disruption to the very limited funds that we’ve got and produces a product that our citizens like and enhances their quality of life.”

One example is Kansas City’s current initiative to expand its public WiFi program to the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Residents communicated to Bennett and city staff that, while Internet infrastructure is available in their neighborhood, they often can’t afford to connect.  

“Folks there have said to us, ‘Listen, my kids get issued laptops by their schools, but they can’t do their homework if they don’t have a connection.’” The resulting “digital divide” can create education and employment gaps within the community. “That’s where we prioritize our smart city development.”

Bennett said municipalities with limited funds can leverage their local expertise to partner with tech companies that have the capital to complete these often costly projects. In 2016 Kansas City teamed up with Cisco and Sprint in a $15 million public-private partnership that helped make it the world’s most connected smart city.

Forging these partnerships is all about uncovering shared objectives, a skill Bennett learned as a strategic planner writing inter-agency policy in Baghdad, Iraq during his 25-year career with the U.S. Army.

In its smart city initiative, Kansas City provided the companies access to public infrastructure and waived permitting fees in return for 75% of the project’s capital expense paid by Sprint. Bennett said the end result was a service that benefits all parties involved, including Kansas City residents.

Bennett said communities don’t need to spend a dime on new technology to become smarter today. “All that requires is a mindset change within city government to use the data they already have and then to make better insights about their community.”

From permit and license applications to documented conversations with residents, Bennett said municipalities have mountains of data that all tell a story--community leaders just need to pay attention.

“When five new businesses all apply for a liquor license in a district that heretofore has just been a residential district, there may be the evolution of an entertainment and bar district that we didn’t necessarily forecast.”

Noticing and acting on those trends isn’t revolutionary; it’s evolutionary, said Bennett.

“We in fact have a choice as community leaders to make a community that is agile and ready to engage with twenty-first century citizens, or we’re going to relegate ourselves to a digital rust belt. We can take advantage of that opportunity now just by changing our mindset.”

McLean County residents can see Bennett's full presentation at the McLean County Regional Planning Commission’s 13th Annual Community Information Forum from 7:00-9:00 a.m. Wednesday, April 11, at the Radisson Hotel, 8 Traders Circle, Normal. Online registration is still open; tickets are $30 each.