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Inside Columbus’ Mission to Spread Its Smart City Knowledge

Driven by the idea that what works in a larger city won't translate to most Midwest locales, those behind the Smart Columbus initiative are on a mission to share their findings and “lift all the boats.”

On a recent late summer morning, the Smart Columbus Experience Center was pulsing with activity. Conference room spaces with names like Connect, Autonomous and Electric were filling with community groups. Dozens of software and other technology developers were collaborating over workstations, and at least a few people eyed a couple of new electric cars parked in the Center’s lobby.

The Experience Center, housed in a former parking garage in downtown Columbus, Ohio, on the banks of the Scioto River, works as a sort of nerve center, orchestrating a number of projects clustered under the Smart Columbus umbrella. These projects are harnessing technology to take on some of the transportation challenges around, say, the frustratingly high rate of infant mortality in the region, making it easier for residents with cognitive disabilities to navigate transit or smoothing the transition to electric cars.

In no small way, Smart Columbus — born about four years ago when the region was selected as the recipient of a $40 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant, which was met by millions more dollars in private and nonprofit investment — is an ambitious undertaking.

The initiative wants to make the Columbus area “the most prosperous region in the country,” said Mark Patton, vice president of Smart Cities at the Columbus Partnership, a business group leading the Smart Columbus project, and one of the key players making up the team of city, chamber and other officials. Patton is careful to note “prosperous” is not the same as “wealthy.”  

“Our definition of prosperity is essentially, lifting all the boats,” he said. “It is a big goal, but we’ve got everybody aligned on it, and saying, yeah, that’s the right ambition for the region. Because that would continue to attract people at all the work levels that you need.”

On the one hand, the overarching mission of Smart Columbus is a re-imagining of transportation across the 11-county region. This includes injecting next-generation mobility technologies like electric autos, autonomous vehicles and 21st-century public transit into the community. It is a wide-ranging mission that insists on collaborations across public, private and other segments.

“In the ‘smart cities’ space everybody’s more on a journey of, well, let’s learn together, because there aren’t winners and losers,” Patton reflected. “We all kind of lean and move together. So it’s way more collaborative than anything I’ve ever done.”

However, success will not be measured simply by how many electric vehicle chargers get installed — the city wants to see some 900 publicly accessed chargers made available — or the number of trips made on a new self-driving shuttle route through an economically depressed neighborhood.

Success will likely be determined in a broader fashion, as a measurement of how vigorously other communities across the Midwest and beyond head down the path Columbus has cleared for them.  

“Columbus is essentially a living laboratory, so we will be able to show our results, lessons learned, to the country. And hopefully they can take our lessons learned and use these projects, and modify [and] scale to however they need, so that they can hopefully benefit their community,” said Andrew Wolpert, project manager for Smart Columbus, speaking with Government Technology during a recent visit.

About a year ago the Smart Columbus team released its “Playbook,” itself an instructional manual for other communities aiming to launch their own smart transportation projects, but also an invitation to draw on Columbus’ experiences. So far, Ohio's capital city has exchanged ideas with some 60 communities. 

“I think we’ve made the most impact with mid-size cities, other cities in the Midwest,” said Donna Marbury, a “storyteller” with Smart Columbus.

“I think what the grant has been able to do is test out some of these pilots, and these projects, that we can share directly with them,” she added.

“With the EV charging, for example, a city like St. Louis or Indianapolis, they’re dealing with the same issue, where, is it the chicken or the egg? And Columbus can answer that for them better than an L.A. could,” said Marbury. 

Another project other cities may be eyeing as one to replicate involves trip-planning and transportation for expectant mothers. Research showed Columbus and Franklin County having one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country. Part of combating this problem means zeroing in on improved access to neonatal and pediatric health care. And often, a lack of transportation can be the missing link between making it to a doctor visit and staying home.

“There are many, many factors that go into infant mortality. Transportation is one of those many factors,” Wolpert said. “And so with this program we want to see how improved access to transportation could hopefully reduce infant mortality, and improve birth outcomes.”

“We’re really studying how different types of transportation services can affect moms’ ability to get to their doctors and their prenatal care,” added Mandy Bishop, program manager for Smart Columbus, which developed a pilot that includes a smartphone app where trips can be scheduled. The pilot also allows for children to be part of the ride, a need expressed by mothers in the city. The goal is to have 300 to 500 expectant mothers in the study, to get a sense of how the different types of non-emergency medical transportation impacts the ability to get to and from a doctor.

“Ultimately, that’s the No. 1 factor that affects babies getting to their first birthday,” said Bishop. “And so we’re very focused on that.

“What we’re seeing governments and industry do is, really solve maybe a smaller percentage of the population challenges, using technology,” she added.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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