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.

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