Gigabit Cities Summit


Last week, I presented on a panel at the Gigabit Cities Summit in Kansas City, Missouri.  The title of the panel was “Aesthetics of a Smart City”.  While I am no expert on aesthetics, I appreciated being asked to participate.

During the Q&A, I talked about three ideas.  I want to share those ideas with you and why I think they are important in our changing communities and economy.

  1. Stranded Costs. When I worked at Enron, the first issue to overcome regarding retail deregulation of electricity or natural gas (or almost anything else that I spoke about), was the issue of stranded costs.  Generally, stranded costs are defined as costs inherent to a service that are required to cover past capital investment.  However, I would expand the definition to say that as we consider changing how our cities, city services, infrastructure, and economy function – we should consider those who are inherently dis-advantaged by the changes.  If we can take away the inherent financial (or other) challenge created by the changes, the conversations usually can begin with much more imaginative solutions. However, if we fail to acknowledge or even consider the stranded costs,  change is rarely possible. 

 For example, I have seen numerous conservative Nebraskans and commentators discuss the challenge associated with ninety-three (93) counties.These counties and the administrative infrastructure was created in an earlier age where geography required smaller physical counties.This means that Nebraska has six counties with fewer than 1000 people.This seems inherently silly to me.Alas, discuss changing the structure and vehement protests arise.Here’s why:

Those who are “pro-county reduction” are unlikely to be super passionate – “number one issue” sort of people.This is an idea.Those who are pro-status quo are almost always stuck in a position of stranded costs.For example, someone might say – “I work for the county, I will lose my job.” Thus, this person is clearly not interested in discussion or in thinking about how to make it effective.This means that the conversations really never happen because the people who care deeply are very much against new proposals due to some systemic challenge between the two parties.Consider how that conversation might change if the State guaranteed that no individual would lose their pay, benefits, or pension over the next five years based on the reduction of counties.This creates some certainty on time and some certainty regarding salary.It gives the individuals adversely affected enough time to adjust their expectations and behaviors – and often creates a change in the ability to have the conversation.

An alternative example is currently occurring in Major League Soccer.There is a discussion to create a promotion and relegation system in MLS.[This means that teams could move up or down a division based on finishing first or last in their current division.For example, the three teams with the least number of points in the English Premier League move from the top division to the English Championship, which is the second division in England.]The stated reason is that investors, owners, and communities do not want to have their investment stranded.Specifically, the belief is that it would push communities to invest less in soccer-specific stadia and make investors less willing to buy into the top flight.These are legitimate concerns – particularly as the league continues to grow and expand.However, an alternative view would be that this is another case of stranded costs.If there were financial and institutional ways to help clubs when they are relegated, some of the pressure might be alleviated. This is an on-going discussion, and I think the biggest challenge to it becoming real is the idea of stranded costs. 

  1. Design versus Art.  During my talk, I discussed a novel solution that the City of Topeka, KS created when it discovered a challenge in its water system.  Essentially what was happening was that many residents (about 90 a month) were complaining about dirty water from their taps.  This is bad for a water system.  The city investigated.  Through the use of a variety of data (using the smart – part of the “smart city”), the City’s employees discovered that the water was becoming dirty when trucks used fire hydrants to fill up their tanks.  These tanks were being used to clean the streets at night.  Therefore, the first glasses of water in some neighborhoods were being filled with water that appeared dirty.  Frankly, knowing how difficult this was to uncover, I am very impressed with the City of Topeka’s diligence and inventive problem solving. 

To combat this challenge, the City started painting the specific “bad” water hydrants blue.Good for them – clear demarcation. Do not fill up water tanks from blue water hydrants.

On the aesthetics panel, there was a significant discussion about how to go beyond design to include art.To improve the city’s aesthetics through intentionally building in art.The basic idea is that art could be utilized in situations, like the one presented in Topeka, to improve the overall quality of life, neighborhoods and the city.I think this is exactly right.Topeka repainted about 90 water hydrants.What if they had allowed local (or national) artists to paint those water hydrants or design covers for the hydrants – or used their new discovery to make the hydrants smarter and better looking.By coupling discovery of a challenge with a sense of design and art, the City could have done something that would have been more than a utilitarian solution – but also of a huge benefit to the community.My suspicion is that the city could have actually received money from local companies, foundations, and arts organizations to pay for these commissions.

Cities are rife with these opportunities to design and create cool “small” projects that live a long time and become community standards that bring people together.For example, in the conversation when I asked how many of the people knew of Chicago’s cows – virtually every person in the crowd raised their hands.This seems to indicate that community wide design and art might be a way to spread technology and develop clever solutions.Instead of delineatingDesign versus Art…perhaps we need to transition to thinking about Networks of design and art.

  1. 100-year vision of your city versus four-year political cycle. Bob Berkebile discussed community vision and the role of community vision in making Greensburg, Kansas the greenest town in the world.  The key concept was to create an environment where sharing a 100 year vision was possible.  Disasters – according to Berkebile’s talk – helped create a forum for hearing from everyone about what they wanted their city to be.  He gave a telling example of a challenge in Omaha right now.  A category five tornado destroyed Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  According to Berkebile, when he and his team went to Tuscaloosa, they discovered a decision structure that had already decided who would get to be in the room.  There were 100 people that the government officials who purchased Berkebile’s services wanted Berkebile’s company to interview.  However, Berkebile and his team rejected this notion – and built an alternative collection of information cycle using MySidewalk (formerly Mindmixer).  This allowed them to get the views of tens of THOUSANDS of people about what their city should be.  This type of outpouring is possible using technology today – but we, citizens, leaders, and individuals, almost never choose to stop and not just listen – or create an environment where listening is even possible.

Earlier in this post, I discussed one such hindrance – the idea that we do not put stranded costs on the table to be discussed.  But many such issues cloud our communities’ ability to be their best.  In Omaha, there is a significant segment of people that never have their voices heard – it might be because of race, age, geography, or network.  We also have not created good channels to not only listen but also include those who own the challenges (which is all citizens) in the solutions.  Instead (and I am definitely guilt of this), we attempt to solve the problems for someone else rather than letting them participate in a bigger solution for all of us.

Here are three examples of areas for improvement that I see right now.  I care about each of these – but I am not passionate about any of them, in the same way that many are.  So this is not my attempt to stick my nose into any decision structure, it is to call out examples that are present from the really big (20 year problems) to the really small (who really cares?):

  1. Region of the city.  Educational attainment in North Omaha

  2. Specific development project. The Civic Auditorium site in Downtown Omaha

  3. Neighborhood park. The locks on the pickleball courts at Prairie Lane Park

To conclude, I enjoyed speaking about cities, and while I am not an expert, the entire point of the exercise is to highlight viewpoints that are not all the same.  My views are definitely not the same as most people presenting at that conference.  But, they are also valuable and should be heard.  I have worked in the space – economic development and a government services software – so I do know a bit about the topic.  But, more importantly, having a generalist on your panel (who is weird and funny) is often helpful to the rest of the panelists to allow them to be more themselves and say “real” things rather than re-state boring axioms.

Tom Chapman