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Cities that Fail to Become Smart Could Be the Next Digital Rust Belt

The third annual Smart Cities Connect Conference in Kansas City delivered an important message: become smart or be left behind.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In a decade, there may not be Smart City conferences like the one unfolding this week in Kansas City, Mo.

In 10 years this “movement,” — as it is often referred to by government and techie types — will have evolved to the point of being too ordinary to draw much attention, remarked Bob Bennett, chief innovation officer for Kansas City, and the somewhat unofficial host of the third annual Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo at the Kansas City Convention Center.

“The Internet of Things that we’re now looking at as revolutionary, is going to be just as boring and mundane and exciting as the flush toilet in your hotel room,” Bennett told the room in his opening remarks March 27.

“You’re going to need it, but you’re not going to think a whole lot about it. So we’re all going to be out of the revolutionary job within 10 years. And that’s cool,” he added.

So, what happens to those cities that don’t become the ubiquitous smart city? They will get passed by, said Bennett. “Those cities that fail to adjust will become part of a new ‘digital Rust Belt,’” he said, calling to mind upcoming generations who will “vote with their feet.”

“And if we don’t build smart cities, they’re going to leave,” he added.

In the last five to 10 years, smart cities, and the numerous projects being launched under that banner, have been “almost about awareness,” said Michael Pegues, CIO of Aurora, Ill. And in multiple ways, that awareness and awakening is what moved small pilot projects to become large-scale initiatives.

This awareness — along with partnerships among government, nonprofits and the private sector — remains the road map for moving smart city projects from pilot to something larger, said CIOs from Kansas City, San Diego, Aurora and New York City.

The next goal is “to harvest more data, do better analytics, and get to the point where predictive analytics actually allows us to be that much more efficient with the limited funds that we’ve got,” said Bennett, who has called downtown Kansas City “the 54 smartest blocks in the United States.”  

The future also lies in data, and how cities either use it or stumble with it, said David Graham, deputy chief operating officer in San Diego.

“‘Data is the new bacon,’ I love that statement,” said Graham, borrowing an expression from some of his coworkers in San Diego. “Delicious, fantastic — I apologize if you’re vegan — but both amazing good, tasty, but also dangerous, cholesterol filled. It could kill you. And that’s the big struggle that we’re in the middle of right now. What do we do with it (data)? Who owns it? Do you monetize? Do you not monetize? Nobody has the answer to that.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.