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Did America’s ‘Smart City’ Get Any Smarter?

America’s Smart City

In 2016, Columbus’ capital Ohio was awarded a grant of $50 million over 77 other small and mid-sized US cities. This fund was meant to reshape its future by using it in tech to solve age-old problems. But technical hurdles, bureaucracy, and the pandemic dashed many of these plans.

“Our proposed approach is revolutionary,” the city wrote on winning the grant proposal back in 2016. The project pledged to focus on projects to help the city and its most underserved neighborhoods. As of now, five years later, the Smart City Challenge has come to an end, but the revolution never arrived. The pandemic hit just as some projects were getting off the ground — states the project’s final report that was issued this month by the city’s ‘Smart Columbus Program’.

Columbus indicates an increased skepticism of web-based applications on real-world streets and a shift away from tech as a panacea. The term “smart city” has been associated with urban optimism for quite a while now. Today, as the citizens think more carefully about tech-enabled surveillance, the concept of a sensor in every home doesn’t look as shiny as it once did. Still, Columbus officials insist that the Smart City project was not a failure. In fact, the final report labeled the project as a success. Now Columbus has to rethink this slippery term?

It’s not supposed to be a race to see who has more sensors, or anything like that, and that’s where I think we got distracted,” says Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus, the organization charged with carrying out the challenge’s work. Some of the challenge’s projects will continue. Davis declares the focus of the session will be “How do we utilize technology to improve living conditions, to help alleviate poverty, to reduce climate change, and to improve prospects in our community?”

Considering the challenging goals of 2015, it makes sense to use a technological approach. With the future approaching quickly, the DOT (Department of Technology) hoped its seed money would help mid-sized cities like Columbus plan ahead while considering equity. Department officials said they were impressed by the number of local businesses who committed to support the project when selecting the city. Using “advanced tools” to benefit all people, especially those in underserved communities is the challenge, Anthony Foxx said as then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development,  now the chief policy officer at Lyft.

Does this incident make it clear that private firms can’t predict the future of cities and may not have the best interests in mind?

Well, we cannot come to any conclusions about that sort. The reason being, this project of “Smart city”, abstained last year amid the pandemic and a bitter political battle with privacy advocates, local groups, and developers. The first competition of its kind was from the Department of Transportation. As part of the plan, Wi-Fi-capable kiosks will be used to assist residents with planning trips, apps to pay bus fares and find parking spaces, autonomous shuttles, and sensor-connected trucks will be tested.

From July 2020 to March 2021, six kiosks were used to plan just eight trips around the city. In February 2020, EasyMile introduced autonomous shuttles that can carry passengers at an average speed of 4 miles per hour. The service was halted fifteen days later after a rider was hospitalized after a sudden break. The truck project was canceled. There were only 1,100 people who downloaded the Pivot app, which allows riders to plan and reserve trips on ride-hail vehicles, shared bikes and scooters, and public transit.

In the end, Columbus may have been too ambitious from the start to accomplish a smart-city revolution. The project was expected to accomplish a lot, perhaps even too much, says Harvey Miller, professor of geography and director of Ohio State’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis. He points out that $50 million ($40 million from the federal government, $10 million from the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc.) isn’t much money, especially spread out over five years. Columbus wasn’t to blame for industry promises about the imminent arrival of self-driving vehicles being overstated.

Miller says Columbus was testing revolutionary ideas and they learned what works and what does not. According to Columbus, once the influenza pandemic hit, the project converted a former autonomous shuttle into a food bank delivery operation. Through self-driving, 500 boxes of food were delivered to a local food pantry each month between summer 2020 and spring 2021. Twenty-seven Columbus residents with cognitive disabilities tested an app to help them navigate public transit, with which 70 percent reported “satisfaction” afterward. To get to medical appointments, 70 pregnant women used an app-based Uber-like service. On average, patients visited doctors, pharmacies, and grocery stores more often than those participating in a control group without the on-demand service. According to the report, rides alone are unlikely to guarantee healthier births and babies, but they could make a ‘valuable contribution.’

Five of the eight projects launched by the challenge will continue, including a citywide “operating system” for sharing data between the public and private sectors, smart kiosks, and mobile apps for parking and trip-planning. As part of Smart Columbus, all residents who do not have access to broadband will be provided with it a problem that became even more serious as a consequence of the pandemic. Davis, the director of Smart Columbus, acknowledges that the program’s rules make it difficult to shape projects around the real needs of the community. The plan outlined five years ago had a limited number of deviations. The city will now focus on “empathy and engagement,” rather than “‘This is a really cool technology from the private sector.'”

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