The Infrastructure of Learning in a Net-Centric City
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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.
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In my business, we’d rather not be right. What gets a climate change expert out of bed in the morning is the desire to provide decision-makers with the best available science, and at the end of the day we go to bed hoping things won’t actually get as bad as our science tells us. That’s true whether you’re a physical or a social scientist.
Well, I’m one of the latter and Meeting of the Minds thought it would be valuable to republish an article I penned in January 2020. In that ancient past, only the most studious of news observers had heard of a virus in Wuhan, China, that was causing a lethal disease. Two months later we were in lockdown, all over the world, and while things have improved a lot in the US since November 2020, in many cities and nations around the world this is not the case. India is living through a COVID nightmare of untold proportions as we speak, and many nations have gone through wave after wave of this pandemic. The end is not in sight. It is not over. Not by a longshot.
And while the pandemic is raging, sea level continues to rise, heatwaves are killing people in one hemisphere or the other, droughts have devastated farmers, floods sent people fleeing to disaster shelters that are not the save havens we once thought them to be, wildfires consumed forests and all too many homes, and emissions dipped temporarily only to shoot up again as we try to go “back to normal.”
So, I’ll say another one of those things I wish I’ll be wrong about, but probably won’t: there is no “back to normal.” Not with climate change in an interdependent world.