8 Smart Cities Lessons from the Military

By Bob Bennett

Bob Bennett is the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Kansas City, Missouri.

Jul 19, 2018 | Governance, Society | 1 comment

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My Silicon Valley was actually comprised of bits of Silicon – desert sand – about 40 miles south of Mosul, Iraq. In early 2004, I was part of the Army’s first Stryker Brigade, a wheeled force that featured a tactical internet with digital communications liberally deployed across vehicles and other equipment assigned to the unit. One of our soldiers was wounded in an IED attack, and radio communications with his convoy were limited because of a sandstorm. We could barely hear the convoy commander request a medical evacuation for his soldier. But we could read his text message on our tactical internet, and we were able to deploy a MEDEVAC helicopter. That young man survived his injuries.

Long before I had the opportunity to examine the impact of sensors and data analysis in a civic sense, I had an appreciation for the potential associated with the Internet of Things.


Twelve years after my “Silicon Valley moment,” I was given the amazing opportunity to lead Kansas City’s Smart City efforts. Through the deliberate concentration of multiple types of Smart City infrastructure including WiFi access points, sensors, data analysis platforms and kiosks, we were able to assess and understand what the total effect of digitalization can be on a community. The 54 smartest blocks in North America are not special because of the technology; they are special because the technology and data provided generate secondary and tertiary insights that make an impact outside the 54 blocks.

Many of the techniques that enabled this evolution to take place were not learned in northern California. For me, Smart City concepts originated in muddy holes, sandstorms and military classrooms around the world. Functional Smart City use cases originated in the cabs of Public Works trucks and at water treatment plants and were articulated by City employees with decades of civil service experience, not a coding background. Truly smart evolutions grow out of solving real problems for real people based on real experiences. In this quick assessment, I will try to illustrate how ten military experiences transitioned to this “techie” environment.



Lesson 1: Do Your Mission Analysis

In the Army, young leaders are taught a planning process that begins with focused research in the real world. Effective leaders identify the most relevant facts bearing on the problem and become an expert in those areas. This was true in 2008, when our planning team was tasked to identify weak points in the al Qaeda structure so that we could write an interagency strategy to destroy that organization. It was also true in 2016, when the City of Kansas City developed a comprehensive Smart Transportation plan in response to the Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge. In both cases, leaders have to understand causality, or at least strong correlations, between the problem one is facing and the options available to solve or mitigate it.


Lesson 2: Embrace Risk

Among the things that we were taught as very young artillerymen by a battalion commander we referred to as “Coach,” was to choose objectives that appeared out of reach to most of our peers. Where other battalions focused on winning a particular battle at the National Training Center, our coach challenged us to write a plan that ended the “war” in which we were engaged. Decades later, we chose to focus on “transformational projects that redefine the civil / military relationship in Africa.”. In Kansas City, Mayor Sly James challenged our office to create a Smart City strategy that includes all Kansas City residents and the region. When a leader defines a large goal, the existent tools or means to achieve the goal are simply inadequate. This forces the leader to embrace the risks associated with doing things differently while designing a system that mitigates the risk to the maximum extent.


Lesson 3: Train to Standard

It’s not enough to attend a single conference, read a technical specification requirement or write some cool code and then consider yourself or your team competent to take your technology to market. Young platoon leaders conduct hundreds of howitzer section occupation drills before boarding aircraft and ships to deploy overseas; that repetition enables the Soldiers to perform when conditions are at their most challenging. Network architects have to deploy and test WiFi access points in the elements and in a public environment with “customers” – employees who test the network – putting every strain on the system from virus infused email downloads to questionable internet searches to deliberate hacking attempts before a network can be considered “street worthy.” Those leaders who fail to test themselves in a training or learning environment will inevitably fail when the consequences of that failure are much more significant.


Lesson 4: Execute Now

In 2004, one of our operations officers accompanied an artillery battery on a raid of a suspected insurgent’s property. His unit secured the objective and learned from one of our teammates that there was a larger cache of ammunition nearby in a location our team had not initially identified.Instead of waiting for perfect data, our teams evaluated the risk and tied it to the day’s objective: decreasing insurgent access to weapons and explosive material.In the tech world, we applied the same methodology in November 2017. Avis had a connected fleet and were looking for a test bed where the company could collaborate with a community. Since Avis’ goal of operationalizing a connected fleet pilot meshed with the City’s goal of implementing Smart City technologies, we seriously considered it. Both organizations had data that could improve operations for both groups using existent data management policies. Based on the shared goals and existent compatibility, we formed a partnership and created the first fleet-size test of connected vehicles in the United States. 


Lesson 5: Maintain Situational Awareness

Once hard working people who are naturally inclined to focus on difficult tasks begin work, they are frequently found in a head down, fingers on keyboards position typing or researching. Lunch hours pass, fire drill alarms sound and the end-of-the-day whistle blows without them leaving that position. Leaders can best support these individuals by helping them see what is happening around them so they can adjust the project on which they are working to meet current needs. In the tech world, things move fast. Software engineers need to be able to account for growth in the network by building spare space on an edge processor so that today’s vehicle counting sensor can easily evolve into a connected vehicle V2I interface.


Lesson 6: Make Contingency Plans

If an organization embraces risk, executes tasks with short notice and tries to achieve big things, it will fail occasionally. Military planners identify the most likely points at which an operation will fail during their planning process and task staff members to assume failure at that point and develop a contingency plan to address that failure or opportunity. The lead planner then returns her or his focus to the task at hand and continues developing the strategic path of tasks and projects to be completed for an operation to achieve the big goal. The contingency plan, once completed, is reviewed, improved and placed on the shelf. If it’s needed, the organization can then adjust to the contingency and mitigate the impact of a failure or opportunity.Smart City projects work the same way. In pursuit of the DoT Smart City Challenge, we wrote a strategy that assumed that we would be awarded. When that didn’t happen, we pursued three other grant opportunities. When those didn’t pan out, we modified a successful city Public/Private Partnership model and released our Comprehensive Smart City RFP in less time than it took for the city that won the DoT Challenge to publish their strategy.


Lesson 7: Think About Logistics

Every single brigade commander has a story – not necessarily a fun or entertaining story – that entails the preparation for a rotation at a training center where, as a battalion executive officer, battalion operations officer, or support operations officer, they spent hundreds of hours focused on the minutia associated with an operation their unit was beginning. Cities work the same way. An RFP process takes 12 months – when it’s done quickly. Leaders looking for a quick fix or instant impact will be disappointed. Leaders who understand the processes required to make changes that are sustainable beyond a single project or opportunity are much more likely to have success in a Smart City effort for a community.


Lesson 8: Coordinate

As a senior planner, I was frequently part of organizations that could drive action in some areas but only influence action in others. Sometimes, those actions that could be influenced were more important than those we could independently drive. This was most certainly true in Africa, where the military is almost never the primary federal agency involved in a project; the State Department is generally the lead.



This is also the case in Kansas City’s Smart City effort. The Office of Innovation has no budget and only one full time employee. The sensors deployed along Main Street are maintained by the Public Works Department, and the Director of Public Works is also funding the city’s data analysis. The Water Department manages a pilot for advanced metering infrastructure. The City Manager has a dedicated assistant city manager to keep the EPA Consent Decree and Waste / Storm Water Sewer Management on track.

The key skill required for both military planners at senior levels and Smart City leaders is the ability to understand the breadth of a program or project and then help subject matter experts or budgeting authorities understand how the success of the overarching project supports them. And since funds are extremely limited, Smart City leaders have to embrace the tribe of Smart City leaders nationwide and leverage the experience and technologies pioneered in other communities whenever you can. Because you will not be able to pilot all the things you want to do in your town. The good news is that the tribe will support you on any and every day you need it.


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1 Comment

  1. Brilliant parallels! World’s most connected Smart City is indeed going to fetch more feathers in the cap.
    Eager to see new possibilities in Smart City execution, business models, governance, etc.


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