Pivoting To Create A Smart City

Kansas City seemed to be a sleepy Midwestern city, but its recent move toward super-fast Internet represents a bold shift in plans.

Pivoting To Create A Smart City

Smart cities that leverage technology and innovation to improve efficiency and quality of life for their citizens are picking up steam around the globe. I recently suggested that the smart city movement could learn from lean startup methodologies. I discussed a small example of how Vancouver could apply lean thinking to its experiments to put pedestrians and cyclists ahead of cars leveraging two of the key components of lean startup thinking: hypothesis testing and measurement; and minimum viable product (MVP).


Another highly discussed component of lean startup thinking worth exploring in the city context is the concept of the pivot. A pivot is when an organization recognizes that some components of their strategy are flawed, based on the results of their iterative testing of MVPs. One example in the urban environment: Kansas City’s pivot towards becoming a smart city.

Famous examples of pivots in the startup world include Burbn, which started off as a location-based gaming platform similar to Foursquare and pivoted to become Instagram; The Point, which began as a service to get groups of people to start a campaign once a critical mass had been obtained and pivoted to become Groupon; and YouTube, which formerly was a video dating site.

Cities can also pivot. While much attention has been paid to the new smart cities emerging from scratch around the globe (such as Skolkovo, Russia, and PlanIt, Portugal) there are thousands of existing cities around the world seeking solutions to becoming smarter.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of attending the Vancouver Cities Summit. Kansas City’s charismatic mayor, Sly James spoke with Milo Medin, Google’s VP of Access Services, about the incredible collaboration between Kansas City and Google. These two seemingly strange bedfellows agreed to pilot (think MVP) a fast Internet rollout (Google Fiber Internet) that’s 100 times faster than typical broadband networks to create fiberhoods, or places where groups of 40 to 80 people get together and deposit $10 each to get Google Fiber Internet.


I consider this to be a pivot in Kansas City’s strategy. Until recently, it was considered a typical Midwestern city, far removed from high-tech centers on the East and West Coasts. As the first city in the world to adopt Google Fiber Internet, Kansas City is now on the bleeding edge of the next frontier of ultra-high-speed access.

Because this was a competition and Google selected Kansas City out of over 1,100 applicants, some might suggest this is not actually a pivot. I would argue that Kansas City was strategic in its thinking to apply for this, recognizing that if they could be the first community in the country with Google Fiber, it would help to change the image of the city and attract digital entrepreneurs.

Mayor James was recently quoted as saying: “We now have an opportunity to take a giant step and if we don’t, it’s all on us,” Mr James said. “It’s going to be a great educational tool that’s going to create innovators and entrepreneurs, and that’s exactly what we want.”

The digital network is not the only example of Kansas City’s pivot towards becoming a true smart city. In 2005, Kansas City launched the highly successful MAX bus rapid transit system. The success of the first line encouraged the city, and its citizens to support the introduction of a new line in 2011. Kansas City appears to be poised to expand on its smart city pivot as evidenced by the range of pilot projects and innovations recommended in its Digital Crossroads Playbook (PDF), published in June of this year.

At the Vancouver Cities Summit, Mayor James provided anecdotal evidence of how this pivot is already paying dividends by attracting entrepreneurs with bandwidth demands.

Kansas City’s pivot has put the city on the map for tech entrepreneurs. It will also surely attract existing tech companies, as the new Google Fiber network can open up all kinds of benefits for residents, employees and employers–from faster movie downloads to telecommuting and expanded use of big data.


With so much inaction at the federal level in the U.S., there will be increased pressure for cities to take the lead in promoting innovation and fostering economic development. Pivots like the one Kansas City has initiated may be just what the doctor ordered.

About the author

Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., an urban strategist helping to lead communities, cities and companies on the journey towards the smart, innovative and low carbon economy. Dr.