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Columbus' Experience Center Branches Out to Include Smart City Tech

From its original roots as an electric vehicle showroom, the Smart Columbus Experience Center in downtown Columbus, Ohio, is exploring new opportunities to share a wider range of smart city technologies.

The Smart Columbus Experience Center is planning an expansion of its offerings and public engagement with more private-sector partners and a broader focus.

The Experience Center was originally formed as a centerpiece to showcase electric vehicles. Now, it aims to partner with original equipment manufacturers (known as OEMs), technology companies and others to feature innovations in areas like the Internet of Things, autonomous and other connected vehicle technologies and other smart city innovations.

Smart city officials in Columbus want the Experience Center to function as the cross-roads for a number of conversations around transportation and innovation, whether those conversations are focused on connected vehicles, or multi-modal transportation ideas.

“That is absolutely the vision,” said Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus for the Columbus Partnership.

Two years ago, Columbus was awarded a $40 million U.S. Department of Transportation Challenge grant to create a smart transportation system in which vehicles and roads communicate to make travel easier and safer. It also came with $10 million from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, with a goal of reducing greenhouse emissions and auto commutes.

In July 2018, Columbus opened its Experience Center in downtown. Since then, some 4,000 visitors have gone through the facility, taking electric vehicle test drives and other engagement events.

“In order to keep things fresh, and re-engage people… because of the success we’ve had thus far, we think there’s more we can do,” said Davis. 

The expanded mission of the Experience Center will not enlarge the facility, according to officials.

“The physical indoor space stays the same. That footprint stays the same. We are willing to move around some of the sets, like the way that the space is laid out,” said Davis.

“But we’re also looking at what can be done with the physical area around us, what can we put on the building that gives us a technology piece to interact with?” she added. “Or, are there other types of deployment that can be done in the surrounding area that brings the actual place and city into the demonstration?”

Experience Center officials want to use the facility to demonstrate the range of innovative technologies available to cities and transportation, beyond electric cars.

“The vision quickly expanded to, ‘Can this become a tangible place where people can start to understand the bigger concepts of what the future of cities will be like?’ And what the technologies, and the roles that different entities and systems have in bringing these things to life,” said Davis. 

That holistic view of a smart city means introducing innovation around other areas like transit or the role public utilities can play in supporting the energy backbone for the system.

“They can be really dense topics that can seem too complicated for residents, and I think that’s a barrier to making these investments at scale in communities,” Davis explained. “And so, centers like this help bring, I think, a tangibility an example, things that just aren’t buzzwords-rich.”

Proposals for partnering with the Experience Center should be made to the Columbus Partnership by March 30.

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 Yreka, Calif.