The Infrastructure of Learning in a Net-Centric City

By Kari Keefe

Kari Keefe is the founding Executive Director of the KC Social Innovation Center focusing on the social impact from technology, future workforce initiatives, and innovations in learning. The Innovation Center is a regional hub for human capital development in smart, digital cities, and Kari leads a passionate team to leverage technology to design and develop innovative human-centered, high quality, inclusive, and accessible education and workforce programming in the Kansas City region.


net-centric-1Kansas City is a net-centric, digital city. To be fair, this is a self-appointed label, but nonetheless, Kansas City makes a good
case for it. I believe that net-centricity is a status, not a state, and we are constantly striving toward that goal. Cities are usually place-centric: you go to a particular place in order to do a particular thing. But now digital is not just a method, it’s a strategy, and when it comes to learning and education, the infrastructure of how information moves and is accessed creates a new opportunity for cities to reimagine how this information serves our community and its citizens in the connected age.

In 2012, Google Fiber selected Kansas City as the location for its first fiberhood: the first neighborhood ever to receive gigabit internet. In response, Kansas City launched an entire strategy around how we communicate, engage, recreate, entertain, work, educate, interact, and learn in our community. The city created the KC Startup Village, a row of houses that were among the first to receive Google’s lightning-fast Internet. Computation-heavy and data-hungry startups moved in to get the goods; at the time, the fiber optic service was only available to residential customers. The innovation catapulted our city’s economic development agenda and allowed KC to swiftly rise in the ranks of scrappy tech hubs — where accelerators, incubators, investors, and coworking spaces made a rapid leap into the fray.

It was easy to see the new focus as Kansas City Mayor Sly James began to invest in innovation. He hired the city’s first Chief Innovation Officer in 2013 — now a regular post in municipalities of all shapes and sizes — and he created a bi-state team of private citizens to advise on city-wide innovation strategies.   

Kansas City is one of those Goldilocks cities: not too big and not too small. It’s a great place to test ideas, buy a house, raise a family, or launch a startup. We are home to the largest smart city project in North America. Can you imagine the economic advantage that comes with that kind of tech profile? It comes to town by way of Google, Cisco, and other techies and is amplified by our local heroes like Sprint, H&R Block, AMC Theaters, Cerner, and Hallmark. We call ourselves a city among these national and global initiatives:

  • MetroLab Network
  • US Ignite Gigabit City
  • IEEE Core Smart City
  • Mozilla Gigabit Fund
  • Bloomberg What Works Cities
  • Next Century Cities
  • Digital Promise Education Innovation Cluster
  • My Brother’s Keeper Alliance
  • STEM Learning Ecosystem
  • Village Capital “VilCap” Community
  • YouMedia Network
  • LRNG

netcentric-2However, we are not without our dark side and our challenges. How does a Midwestern city that’s not too big and not too small possibly address the human capital disparity that comes sharply into focus when we are faced with the fact that:

  • Most of our people don’t see the relevance of gigabit or high-speed Internet, or are not connected at all;
  • Don’t know what a “smart city” is;
  • Have never heard of the Internet of Things; and
  • They’re simply not connected meaningfully to the very thing that is putting KC on the map?

All of this — the good, the bad, and the net-centric — eventually sets the stage for the development of the critical community ecosystems needed to support it. Among them is learning — arguably the most important instrument for an inclusive and socially just city.  

netcentric-3Learning is the mechanism we use to develop human capital. We call it infrastructure, akin to roads, power, transportation, and our friend the Internet. When you frame education as learning and highlight the dotted line to human capital, you suddenly have permission to think about the economics of equity and social mobility and to empower rather than intervene — to innovate rather than solve. Human capital connects city government, economic development agencies, industry, higher education and philanthropy to the same shared vision: skilled people doing the things that make the city the best version of itself, while giving the people the freedom and capacity they deserve to be the best they can be.

We’ve been testing this for a while. It’s amazing what a bit of risk tolerance will allow. It brings about innovative pilots that disrupt our learning systems, methods, and even the way humans support and work in these systems.

netcentric-4We are disrupting youth employment with totally new technology, new platforms, and new programs to develop precious talent from the inner city, and we’re scaling it. At the center of our work is the LRNG digital platform — connecting learning experiences across the city to make learning more discoverable and accessible to all. LRNG launched in KC this summer after we were one of 12 new pilot cities selected through an application process. This wouldn’t have been possible without our hard work and that of our partners, including Mayor Sly James and the City of Kansas City, Missouri, KC Public Library, and the KC STEM Alliance. LRNG provides KC youth the ability to earn digital badges — credentials that validate their learning in all its many shapes and forms.

We’ve baked LRNG into our summer youth internship and employment program; it’s central to federal programs piloted in KC that aim to establish more college and career pathways, connect the disconnected, and train the under-employed. It has landed squarely in the strategic vision of many of our core programs. We imagine the net-centric state of our city powered in part by the learning achieved, earned, and documented through LRNG, as well as the educators, trainers, and innovators who are the spokes in that hub.

Learning is infrastructure in a net-centric, digital city. We’re proof of that and proud of it.

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