KC dumps smart city bids and regroups with newly-elected mayor

PPPS essential to a successful smart city
Smart city tech projects are complex, as Kansas City just learned. (iStockPhoto)

After a year of review, Kansas City, Missouri, officials decided not to pick a winning bidder for an ambitious smart city partnership that would have created everything from an integrated data analytics platform to an expansion of IoT sensors and supporting wireless networks.

Instead, the city opted to launch a process to develop a Smart City Action Plan with broad community input that will produce findings in the fall, Kansas City spokesman Chris Hernandez said in an interview on June 19.

“Having technology is great, but it’s got to help us have a more effective city and provide services for residents,” he said.

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The decision was announced a day after the  city of 460,000 residents elected a new mayor, Quinton Lucas, who replaces outgoing Mayor Sly James, who held the post for eight years and generally championed smart tech. The new Action Plan will likely include input from Lucas and his staff, although business leaders said there were reasons other than a change in city leadership that led to the decision to close the RFP (Request for Proposals) without picking a winner.

“I’m disappointed but not entirely surprised,” said Herb Sih, managing partner of Think Big Partners, a smart city consultancy based in Kansas City.  “Given the big vision, size and complexity of this phase II smart city RFP, combined with a changing political landscape, I’m not surprised at all.”

Sih has worked on smart city projects in 30 cities and said the process of technology procurement is difficult partly because cities seek to have private investors fund technology investments up front because the technology is not always completely proven on a large scale. “This KC RFP was a first effort to make all this technology happen ahead of its time,” he said. “I respect the big vision. The paradox is that cities want and need this technology.”

The city’s decision brought expressions of frustration by four other business and community leaders, partly because closing the RFP without choosing a winner could signal problems in attracting bidders on future RFPs.

“I hope the city’s RFP decision doesn’t deter companies from bidding in the future and I hope the city learns how to improve the process,” said Aaron Deacon, managing director of KC Digital Divide, a nonprofit devoted to closing the city’s digital divide driving innovation.

“KC is still a leader in tech,” he added. “The political reality is that we still want to do these innovative things and give the city’s new leadership a voice, instead of giving them an RFP final pick.”

Smart city public works projects have been difficult for companies to bid on in some other U.S. cities because the process can drag on for months or years. A single bidder may spend upwards of $1 million to conduct studies and to develop a bid proposal without any assurance of a win.

The bidders in Kansas City had all responded to an 83-page RFP first started a year ago that called for smart city program management from the winning bidder.  According to the RFP: “The city seeks to partner with a firm to provide a fully integrated suite of sensors, networks and data and analytics platforms that will result in the city becoming the first true Smart City in the world.”

If named a winner in the RFP, the future smart city program manager would have established and managed the development, operations and maintenance of multiple projects including smart intersections, data-driven public safety to deal with gun violence, smart water metering and an integrated data analytics program.

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Initially, dozens of companies were expected to bid, with the list winnowed down to 15. At stake were billions of dollars of public and private investment over 10 to 20 years, according to three people familiar with the RFP process. While the finalists still have not been named publicly, these people said they included some of the largest technology and communications companies in the world, including a European consortium, Verizon, a coalition of Accenture-Oracle, and a group headed by Leidos.

Now that RFP is officially closed, the bidders have the right to remove proprietary information from their bids before their bid information is made public, city spokesman Hernandez said.  Prior to the RFP’s issuance, companies such as Google, Cisco, Verizon, and Sprint provided smart city technologies to the city in recent years and some were expected to be bidders. The Kansas City area was the first Google Fiber location in 2012 and quickly earned a reputation for being tech savvy.

The 15 finalists were all notified June 18 that no winner would be picked. “We said thanks to them. It was a lot of work,” Hernandez said. “We obviously took some time and seriously evaluated the proposals we got and they were extensive.” The RFP selection committee was primarily comprised of city department heads and chaired by Public Works Director Sherri McIntyre.

The city’s former Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett had recused himself from the RFP review process, but supported its goals. He left his post in April after helping champion smart initiatives, including free city Wi-Fi along a two-mile streetcar route.

“I am very disappointed that the RFP selection committee was unable to embrace a potentially transformative response, but I’m hopeful Mayor Lucas will revive this activity and will drive something forward,” Bennett said in an interview.  “You need a private sector partnership because cities don’t have the money. There’s no budget for this work.”

As it was set up, the RFP discussed thematic improvements expected with new technology, but not enough specific transactions between the city and the managing partner, he said. “Engineers need a blueprint,” Bennett said. “The RFP almost required a leap of faith by the selection committee.”