Google, Kansas: A Few Year Later

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It’s been several years since our mayor named Topeka Google, Kansas for a month by proclamation. Of course it didn’t work and Kansas City, KS was chosen for the ultra-high-speed broadband experiment, but if it had, what could our city have expected by having the fastest Internet access on the planet?

It may be hard for those without a deep understanding of the technology or who have been on the ground to its roll out to understand, but for those who are tech-minded and others who see how technology can change lives, there is no doubt there would have been game-changing benefits to the city overall. Maybe?

Google not only chose Kansas City, KS, but it also made another decision to bring its Google Fiber to Kansas City, MO as well; effectively making it a bistate initiative. Since my work include Kansas residents in Wyandotte County I have had the opportunity to be engaged at the ground floor with many involved in assuring this technology reached disadvantaged groups and neighborhoods. Some call it the "Digital Divide", leaders of the bistate saw it as a chance to ensure "Digital Inclusion".

I have learned much working with community groups, government officials, educators and volunteers during the campaign to pre-register ‘fiberhoods’ with the goal of identifying which neighborhoods really were interested in having the service come to their community. As in most cities, the low income rarely have a voice or adequate representation at the table when the discussion impacting their city is being made so decisions are often made; not because of a lack of understanding to their needs, but because the problems they face are so huge, it’s seems safe to say those making decisions choose to put it ‘under study’ until bright ideas come to light.

The announcement that Google would make their effort a bistate initiative really brought the two Kansas Cities together and the spirit of cooperation is only drives the excitement. KCMO has championed its cause to become ‘The Most Entrepreneurial City in the US’ and if word can move move minds; then bodies will surely follow. The buzz and potentiality of using ultra-high-speed broadband has brought in ‘tech creatives’ that already think outside the box to build off of programs and applications that they had only dreamed of and they have the backing and support of the biggest foundations and companies in the area. To give creatives the foundation and entrepreneurial ecosystem they need to think big, the Digital Sandbox (digitalsandboxkc.com) was launched, and it’s only getting better!

From events like Hack-a-thons, competitions, classes, 1 Million Cups by the Kauffman Foundation, SparkLabKC to risk-taking venture capitalists willing to invest in tech entrepreneurs whether it be financial or by providing them space to foster their ideas in an environment only a techie could appreciate. There is a Fiberhouse where hackers, coders and innovators can fully explore their ideas without the high price tag of overhead expenses and more co-working spaces and tech-districts are Being created or are on the drafting table. The word ‘vibrant’ would be an understatement.

While not much of these activities have anything to do with the low income neighborhoods and few ideas have yet to emerge on how to effectively close an apparent digital divide, there are some glimmers of hope and I am glad to have played a small role in bringing opportunity to these very important persons in the community. By linking up and collaborating with cutting-edge organizations like Connecting for Good, myself and others are doing work that is going to make a significant difference in the lives of many.

Google Fiber can and will foster many great things in the parts of Kansas City that receives the service, but as with technology, it also has its limitations. It’s "fiber to the home" model does make it harder and less economically feasible to bring service to some parts of the lower income communities and figuring this out is just as challenging as coding the next new app. But when you have those that are using their time and brain-power on meeting the needs of disadvantaged groups and neighborhoods in which they live, there remains hope that young minds in these communities will be nurtured to also possibly create the next new tech innovation.

I envisioned a wi-fi for residents living in the oldest and largest public housing development in Kansas years before Google thought up its fiber initiative, and after many trips and meetings in both Kansas cities, many hours drawing up technical schematics, countless hours and days waiting for return phone calls and email replies, and enduring the naysayers the project eventually took hold and is now a reality. Unlike Topeka, there is a different mindset of inclusion and diversity by government representatives, the chambers of commerce, and those regional organizations playing key roles in the tech-evolution and overall business startup activity taking place. What works in KC is based on broad-based diversity and collaboration; which is something Topeka lacks.

Kansas City is only the beginning and one can guarantee that other cities will follow. Having met Google officials that manage the roll out of Google Fiber, I can feel that diversity is important to them. I also presume they use that philosophy in their decision-making when launching initiatives like this. Whether is Google or any other company or initiative that brings forth disruptive innovation, cities that hold onto leadership by a selected few will probably be passed over; and they should be. In a world of many ethnicities, where women outnumber men, and youth are more technologically adept than many adult decision-makers, cities that change with the times are those that will be the test beds for new ideas, new opportunities and new opportunities for growth in a globally competitive world. So, it may be nice to be novel, but it will take more than that to create a world class city or attract companies that can take you there. Topeka is not a destination point, but more like an exit point to other places that are more vibrant, exciting and experiencing growth. Innovation takes off when its leadership embraces the diversity of its citizenry.

This is not a call for anyone to flee the city they are in but a suggestion to change the leadership dynamics that often rejects inclusion, thoughtful diversity and overall innovation in its own backyard. To not change with the times and demographic shifts taking place, no one will need to encourage anyone to leave; they will see what they have going for them, and make that choice to leave on their own!

Lazone Grays, Jr.

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