Kiosks: Today’s Elegant and Simple Smart City Program

Cities struggle to launch and fund smart projects that have the necessary components citizens want. The solution to both concerns can be found in an old piece of technology that has been repurposed for today’s needs.

by / May 14, 2019
David Johnson, KC ATA

Over the past five years, “smart cities” have become a consistent talking point in hundreds of state-of-the-city addresses. Each one has a unique mayoral vision, but all share a common trait: every mayor is convinced that their community can be a smart city. 

Goals include improved service delivery for residents or more efficient public safety, better mobility and streamlined internal operations. Typical elements of a smart city frequently include Wi-Fi, information kiosks and data analysis. Obstacles almost always include problems with funding, or access to critical infrastructure such as light poles (when owned by a utility) or complex public right-of-way policies. But there’s an unlikely solution that enables smart city designers to address both the goals and obstacles they face while allowing the city to maintain control of the pace and pathway of becoming smart: kiosks.

Kiosks now operate in several communities, but they are not widespread yet. In many jurisdictions, they are found in airports, bus shelters or at entertainment venues. In these environments, the kiosks do not stand out as a gimmick; they are a logical evolution of a space that includes today’s latest technology. 

Based on data from current deployments, city leaders can draw some useful lessons, laying the groundwork for kiosks and the leading role they can play in solving the challenges for smart city development in many communities, especially mid-size and smaller cities. Here’s what we know:

  • Kiosks are accepted as part of a natural evolution of the public right-of-way by most people, who appreciate the tactile engagement they deliver.
  • Kiosks are affordable because cities can generate revenue through retail advertising in previously unavailable, but strongly desired locations, such as sidewalks and public spaces.
  • Kiosks can aid public safety and data collection programs by providing a space, computing power and a platform where sensors can be deployed without negatively impacting the “look” of street elements.
  • Kiosks can empower digital equity solutions by providing a platform with power, connectivity and location for Wi-Fi access along transit routes when incorporated into a transit shelter. Many of these routes penetrate neighborhoods that have been chronically underserved by wireless and broadband infrastructure.
  • Kiosk placement is controlled by cities because it exists in the public right-of-way. There is no federal pre-emption pending for cities related to the management of a community’s sidewalks.

Given the opportunity for kiosks to meet many of the needs for today’s city planners, it’s worth exploring different funding opportunities as they become available. These financing proposals are not difficult to coordinate when compared to other approaches, such as a massive bond issue or reallocating resources from the police department to a new bureaucratic organization like an innovation office or an enhanced IT department. Funding options include:

  • A transit system upgrade can use dollars already allocated for new shelters to include a kiosk design. The city budget for the project remains consistent with what was initially planned, and a partner organization that provides and manages kiosk content can help bear the cost of the upgraded structure. 
  • A public safety budget can include public warning devices that can notify residents and visitors of dangerous weather, accidents, silver or amber alerts or dangerous situations by installing kiosks and taking over the network during an emergency. What constitutes an emergency, as well as playbooks for content to assist people, can be developed in partnership with the organization that provides and manages the content for the city. 
  • A city communications budget can help bear the cost of kiosks, because they can serve as a channel for city leaders to share public health, city events, get out the vote campaigns, or other messages. Because the image on the kiosk changes frequently, it is actually more likely that people will notice messages on a dynamic kiosk than a static poster that, once observed, fades over time. 

There is no simple on-ramp for smart city projects, but kiosks are an elegant, easy-to-manage and simple-to-fund solution for communities. This is especially true for mid-size and smaller cities. Many residents in these communities are ready for the benefits generated by smart technology, but the city may not own the light poles or other resources required to install Wi-Fi access points or other infrastructure, and they frequently can’t afford another contract to purchase the analytics they desire. 

Kiosks can act as that bridge to smart city benefits. Their versatility allows a city to design how the infrastructure is deployed, and they can generate ad revenue to overcome any funding concerns. Kiosks are a way to help city leaders meet the demands of today’s digitally savvy citizens, and they provide a great example of progress for residents when it comes time to write that annual state of the city speech.

Bob Bennett Senior Fellow, Center for Digital Government

Bob Bennett is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Digital Government and the founder of B2 Civic Solutions, an international Smart Cities consultancy firm based in Parkville, MO. From 2016-2019, he served in Mayor Sly James’ administration as the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Kansas City, Missouri. During his tenure, he oversaw the City’s Smart City initiatives including a 54-block total digitalization pilot, strategy development for the city and P3-based expansion plans for the City. Kansas City’s initiatives earned the city an Edison Award (Gold) for “Collective Disruption” and civic innovation in 2017, and Bob was named one of GovTech’s 25 Dreamers, Doers and Drivers in 2018. Before his role with the City, Bob completed a 25-year career in the US Army which included service as a Strategist, a Battalion Commander and multiple combat tours.