Bridging the Digital ‘Gulch’ in Kansas City
Union Station in Kansas City Missouri at night. / Photoguyinmo Swatzell
There is an active network of social entrepreneurs in Kansas City, Missouri. Together with municipal and corporate leaders, they tackle critical issues like education.
Thanks in part to a recent influx of technology, there is an active network of social entrepreneurs in Kansas City, Missouri. Together with municipal and corporate leaders, they tackle critical issues like education. At the center of the activity is the KC Social Innovation Center, which, like the Remake Learning Network in Pittsburgh, brings together partners and programs working toward inclusion and growth in the city. Remake Learning sat down with KCSIC’s executive director, Kari Keefe, to get to know, and learn from, another group participating in a network approach to community change.
How did Kansas City become home to a network of innovators and entrepreneurs?
Kansas City is an old town. We’ve got these great historical moments of early settlement and development here along the Missouri River. We were a jazz city, then we became an industrial hub because of our central location. We’re a transportation center. It’s interesting to see the evolution. Today, we’re still a hub of sorts. That is circumstantial to a point, because of unique infrastructure upgrades. We were the first Google Fiber city. That launched a catalytic movement of new technology and developers. We also have incredible city leadership, and large companies have taken a stake in our technology platform.
Where does learning fit in?
We’ve had a lot of upgrades to our technology and city systems. But we didn’t have the same pipeline of sophisticated infrastructure when it comes to education. Education is an economic development driver. If you don’t have good schools or a good workforce, you can’t achieve those innovative goals that cities strive for. The underpinning of education was the new imperative.
We have a ripening ecosystem of partners, similar to Pittsburgh’s. But you really need those seminal leaders committed to breaking out of systemic constraints. We have 14 separate urban school districts, which has been incredibly challenging but has recently presented opportunities for innovation. Because we have so many districts, we are a heavily populated charter school community. So there’s a natural network of schools willing to explore how innovation can change the way learning takes place. We are also a new LRNG city. Through the platform, young people can find online and community programs where they can explore their interests, earning digital badges as they gain skills. It’s one way to connect the dots between the abundance of learning that’s taking place all across the city.
What kind of innovative work has come out of those initiatives and schools?
KCSIC launched a pilot in the fall of 2015 with Lee’s Summit School District. Two hundred high school and middle school students participated in an innovation challenge, creating prototype projects using data sensors and connected devices in order to solve a problem they saw. Oh my gosh, these kids were so clever. The winning middle school team created an allergy-sensing device for air ducts. It would sense moisture to detect mold and would determine when they needed to be cleaned. There was one device that would trigger your coffee maker as soon as you put on your slippers in the morning. Some solved big social problems; others were just inspiring devices that would make life more enjoyable.
What is challenging about this kind of work?
We’re a city of dueling realities. We have tremendous infrastructure prompting a surge in tech creation and development. The flipside to that is one of stark poverty and lack of access, and segregation in a very definitive line that runs along our city. With Goggle Fiber we’ve created what we refer to as a gigabit gulch. It privileges people who already own devices and use the internet regularly, so it made the digital divide grow exponentially. We’re very mindful of those divisions and where they’ll grow without interventions and a community that is resolute in making a difference. With programs like LRNG, we can very methodically make education more accessible.
But how do you convene all these players and interventions into a cohesive project?
Therein lies the challenge. It typically falls to the same organizations to make things fluid and sustain this work. We tend to be a convener. Often our task is to make sure that multiple groups that are trying to do the same thing collaborate and collide more often. That takes money and is often a rather ambiguous level of work, so it’s hard to find the right sources of funding for those initiatives.
We have found particular resonance with coworking spaces, which bring in an energetic community atmosphere. You have civic folks intermingling with academics, students, nonprofits, technologists, and corporate teams. You get cross-sector collaboration. We have also leaned on entrepreneurs in Kansas City, in part because the Kauffman Foundation is in our backyard and they are a huge funding and research entity in the education and entrepreneurship sectors. The Kansas City Public Library is also a huge proponent of cross-sector development. There are corporations that are deeply embedded in these initiatives. Then we’ve got more nascent players like Sporting KC, our professional soccer team. They are incredibly innovative with providing opportunities for young people to interact and engage.
Kansas City is clearly a leader in this realm, but where do you look for inspiration?
Places like Austin and Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is definitely the exemplar in prioritizing education, at the municipal level all the way down to the tactical level. That takes extreme discipline from civic leaders and a community of stakeholders and funders.