Browsing Innovation

Smart City Design Forum with Ashley Hand of CityFi

We are living in an era that is exhibiting tremendous growth and change in technology innovation. Here in Kansas City, we witnessed the conversation on “smart cities” shift from a concept to reality. In 2015, the City of Kansas City, Missouri formalized a $15.7 million project, resulting in the nation’s most comprehensive Smart City to date, a smart corridor that follows the 2 mile-long streetcar route.

As Kansas City continues to be recognized as an early adopter of smart city technologies, we at Helix are committed to being on the forefront of how this affects our city and work as designers. Earlier this month we had the pleasure of hearing from national smart cities expert Ashley Z. Hand at our bi-monthly Design Forum, to explore the impact of smart city concepts in design.

An architect by education, Ashley is co-founder of CityFi, an advisory group of global thought leaders in the transportation, technology, government and finance sectors. She recently served as the Transportation Technology Strategist for the City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation and was previously appointed by Mayor Sly James where she developed our local Smart City Initiative as the first Chief Innovation Officer of the City of Kansas City, Missouri.

Ashley shared her insights on three key questions.

What is a Smart City?

The British Standards Institute (BSI) defines a smart city as “the effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens.” This, for example, could include smart street-level sensors like we’ve seen in Kansas City. These sensors are strategically located devices that relay real-time information for use to monitor infrastructure service levels. Sensors can track information such as air quality, light levels, activity and temperature (source).

Dreaming about the future of technology in cities is nothing new. These two magazine covers are 100 years apart, however the themes are strikingly similar. Cities must of course adapt to change, but the pace of technological innovation in recent decades is presenting a new challenge. We’ve seen this exhibited as the public sector addresses new tech-enabled business models in the private sector such, as AirBnb, Zipcar, Uber.

Is Kansas City a Smart City?

Image Credit: Meridian Kiosks.

Kansas City continues to be recognized for making data informed decisions. The City’s policy on open data (all data collected is available online publicly) has increased public trust and transparency. Subsequently, their open data policy encourages a local entrepreneurial spirit. The growing network of data collected by our Smart City infrastructure serves as a living lab for Cisco, Think Big Partners and other private companies. The applications and benefits are limitless.

Kansas City has developed and implemented one of the nation’s most comprehensive and innovative smart city plans. It has been collecting data in the public right-of-way that could be useful to improve city services and our experience downtown. But there is still a lot of opportunity ahead to utilize this powerful infrastructure to the best of its potential as it will be critical to operationalize this data to make a difference.

What is the role of a designer in a Smart City?

Designers have a responsibility to harness technology to make decisions in a people-first way. We as architects have an incredible perspective and advantage when it comes to asking “what’s next?” for smart cities. We already exercise a ‘people first’ philosophy to our work.

“We must define what we want for the future of our cities. Don’t let the technology happen to you.” -Ashley Z. Hand

Image credit Bicycle Dutch.

One example of designing for the human experience is the use of the Dutch Intersection in Chicago. Paris was able to use existing collected street level sensor data to prove that pedestrian usage in urban areas was high enough to make a change towards intersections designed not just for cars, but for pedestrian and bike use. Existing data can be a catalyst for necessary change, and a concrete way to better balance the skeptics.

And finally, we must be proponents for good design. Connected infrastructure can be beautiful.  As designers, we should not only care about design for technology capturing devices and infrastructure (an industry that is heavily led by programmers, civic leaders, technologists and manufacturers) but also be advocates for how quality design can enhance the user experience.


We were energized by Ashley’s contagious passion for bettering our city and the people that inhabit it. For more of her insights, you can follow Ashley on Twitter.


Missouri State University Historic Renovation Merges Past and Present

For many, fall means back to school, but for Missouri State University, it also marks the beginning of construction on Hill Hall’s renovation.

At 92 years old, Hill Hall is one of the three original buildings on the campus’s historic quadrangle. Originally completed in 1924, the building carries a tremendous amount of history within its walls. Designed by President Clyde M. Hill, the Education Building is one of the most-widely copied designs in the United States.

From its early days as the Education Building to today, the exterior has stood the test of time. However, like most historic buildings, the interior environment no longer serves the university’s modern needs. Missouri State University knew they wanted a space that was flexible, reflected the building’s history, improved accessibility and created departmental adjacencies. Helix Architecture + Design was hired to assist the university with renovating this important structure.

Hill Hall is used by the College of Education and the Department of Psychology. Spaces for the multiple user groups were not adjacent to one another, but spread throughout the building, which made wayfinding and creating a true home-base for students a challenge. To ensure the renovated layout was easier to navigate, the Helix team worked with all user groups to develop a clear program for the space. They improved wayfinding throughout by increasing transparency, providing places for signage, locating core elements in the same location on each floor and improving departmental adjacencies. The new signage provided opportunities to highlight each group’s identity as well.

One of the biggest challenges that came with renovating the space was improving accessibility. The existing building did not provide a clear path for all building users, which made getting to and from class difficult. Creating an accessible route required connecting the entrances on the first floors with a series of ramps, but this key change will make the first floor area more open, connected, inviting and accessible for all visitors.

Both the School of Education and the Department of Psychology also wanted to make the building more student-centric. The existing building offered very few places for students to gather, study, relax or socialize. The Helix team was able to create a specific space for this, playfully located in an old pool that had been converted into a storage areaand was underutilized for decades. The new plans include a lounge space, computer labs and small study rooms. This space greatly enhances the building by allowing students to gather outside of the classroom to study, collaborate and better utilize technology resources.

Faculty also wanted to make their offices more welcoming and conducive to meeting with students. This meant creating places that were easier to find and more approachable. To ensure the completed space can evolve along with faculty needs, the new offices allow for growth and change, without focusing on hierarchy. Classrooms also provide flexibility for faculty to modify the rooms as pedagogy and technology continually evolves.

Preserving the historical elements of Hill Hall was important to the entire team. The original central circulation stair that connects the floors was maintained, along with the original terrazzo floors in many areas.

With construction underway, Hill Hall will offer new benefits to students and faculty just in time for the 2018 school year. Improved accessibility, the addition of social/study spaces and the reorganized layout deliver a student-centric design, while still honoring the building’s historic past.