The Infrastructure of Learning in a Net-Centric City
Kansas 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
However, 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.
Learning 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.
We 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.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Social distancing is becoming the new normal, at least for those of us who are heeding the Center for Disease Control’s warnings and guidelines. But if you don’t have reliable, high-speed broadband, it is impossible to engage in what is now the world’s largest telecommunity. As many schools and universities around the world (including those of my kids) are shut down, these institutions are optimistically converting to online and digital learning. However, with our current broadband layout, this movement will certainly leave many Americans behind.
Accenture analysts recently released a report calling for cities to take the lead in creating coordinated, “orchestrated” mobility ecosystems. Limiting shared services to routes that connect people with mass transit would be one way to deploy human-driven services now and to prepare for driverless service in the future. Services and schedules can be linked at the backend, and operators can, for example, automatically send more shared vehicles to a train station when the train has more passengers than usual, or tell the shared vehicles to wait for a train that is running late.
Managing urban congestion and mobility comes down to the matter of managing space. Cities are characterized by defined and restricted residential, commercial, and transportation spaces. Private autos are the most inefficient use of transportation space, and mass transit represents the most efficient use of transportation space. Getting more people out of private cars, and into shared feeder routes to and from mass transit modes is the most promising way to reduce auto traffic. Computer models show that it can be done, and we don’t need autonomous vehicles to realize the benefits of shared mobility.
The role of government, and the planning community, is perhaps to facilitate these kinds of partnerships and make it easier for serendipity to occur. While many cities mandate a portion of the development budget toward art, this will not necessarily result in an ongoing benefit to the arts community as in most cases the budget is used for public art projects versus creating opportunities for cultural programming.
Rather than relying solely on this mandate, planners might want to consider educating developers with examples and case studies about the myriad ways that artists can participate in the development process. Likewise, outreach and education for the arts community about what role they can play in projects may stimulate a dialogue that can yield great results. In this sense, the planning community can be an invaluable translator in helping all parties to discover a richer, more inspiring, common language.