On June 21st, 2015 the media announced the most unlikely Smart Cities award in the U.S. to the City of Columbus, Ohio. The US Department of Transportation had issued a nationwide competition, offering a midsize city (population size between 200,000 and 800,000) the opportunity to receive a federal grant of $40 million to begin the implementation of a smart city initiative. With the federal grant came a private sector award from the Paul G. Allen Vulcan Foundation of $10 million to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the electrification of the transportation sector.
Columbus had outbid 77 other cities in this competition, and more impressively, 6 other finalists; including, Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland, and San Francisco. In the end, Columbus won because it had the City, led by its Mayor, as its champion; it had a stellar proposal that incorporated a social agenda beyond just sensors and interchanges, and had a magnificent team to see it through.
On January 9th, 2017, I invited stakeholders from the winning team (US DOT, City of Columbus and Ohio State University) to participate in a panel discussion I was hosting, sponsored by the Strategic Management Committee of the Transportation Research Board, at our annual meeting in Washington, D.C. The panelists engaged in a lively discussion of how the award was won and what their own expectations are going forward.
Several things were and are quite clear: The U.S. is not a front runner in this space. In Europe, the Netherlands and Germany are thinking creatively and very 21st century! In Asia, the south Koreans, and Chinese have already invested billions of dollars into smart cities. Kazakstan has already built a smart city of its own – Astana. And in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to build 100 smart cities around the country to further the work India has done in Pune and Kochi, with 20 cities currently in design.
So what is a smart city?
There are numerous definitions of what a smart city is. My definition is simple: It is an urban area with highly sophisticated infrastructure at its core, offering sustainable living, intelligent communications, efficient and intelligent transportation and energy solutions to its population. To qualify as a smart city, again based on my definition, the infrastructure must be leveraged to significantly improve the quality of life of its people, and the quality of the city and its surroundings as a whole.
Why is the Columbus award so meaningful?
As with many innovations, the US is able to mobilize thought leadership and mindshare like no other nation in the world, when it puts its mind to something. Look at the challenge to go to the moon. More importantly, look at the catalytic effect that challenge had on the technology innovation that followed. Over $200 million has already been earmarked to support the smart city initiative in Columbus. And this is the tip of the iceberg. I believe this award, to a vibrant small city in the heart of America, can have that same effect as the decision to go to the moon. I believe there are several opportunities that can and should be leveraged by the City of Columbus;
Columbus should, first and foremost, ensure that all city agencies are participating in this initiative.
Columbus should reach out the other 6 finalist cities to set up a hands-on collaborative program. Each of these cities has the mindshare of outstanding academic institutions behind it. Each of these cities had outstanding ideas in their proposals, that can and should be leveraged.
The universities in all 7 cities should establish incubators to focus on smart city technologies, and create working groups for mindshare across institutions.
The private sector should invest in setting up accelerators focused around smart cities and work with these 7 cities to solve specific problems these cities identified in their proposals.
Keiretsu Forum is doing its part. We have created a global smart cities committee to share and disseminate thought leadership. I lead it. Keiretsu Forum Midwest has established a Midwest Committee to work closely with the City of Columbus and other cities in the region, to promote investments in the start-up community.
I will be watching this story unfold and will be reporting on it regularly. Maybe one day we will have a smart city on the moon as well.
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