From an office in Franklinton, Smart Columbus partners are putting their plan into action.
Those leading the charge for the Smart Columbus transportation initiative have plenty of work to do over the next three years, and they think they have the perfect place to get the job done.
Housed in a former Franklinton shoe factory that was converted into the Idea Foundry a few years ago, Smart Columbus staff and partners are working in an environment designed to foster open communication and collaboration. Such an approach is key as a joint venture led by the city of Columbus and the Columbus Partnership tackles the task of meeting the ambitious goals set forth in the $40 million federal Smart City Challenge award won by the city in June 2016. An additional $10 million comes from Paul G. Allen's Vulcan Inc.
The big-picture charge from the US Department of Transportation is for Columbus to address how emerging transportation data, technologies and applications—everything from self-driving vehicles to smart street lighting—can be used to address mobility challenges and spur reinvestment in underserved communities.
The focus of the Vulcan grant is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through decarbonization of the electric supply and transportation sectors.
“We're approaching this as a startup,” says Mike Stevens, city government's chief innovation officer and point person on Smart Columbus. “We wanted to find space where we could have collaboration and tear down the physical and metaphorical barriers that break down communication.”
A Smart Columbus staff that in May totaled about 12 full-time equivalent employees is based in a 1,100-square-foot office on the second floor of the Idea Foundry. There are no walls inside the office, and Mark Patton, the Columbus Partnership vice president for the Smart Columbus effort, likes it that way.
“It really gives the place a lot of energy,” says Patton. Among the benefits he mentions: He can communicate instantly with colleagues instead of getting bogged down in emails, text messages and phone calls.
Smart Columbus also leases two conference rooms at the Idea Foundry and has full run of the building's communal areas and work nooks. Staffers and representatives of Smart Columbus partners can wander around inside the 60,000-square-foot building—there are inspiring views of the Downtown skyline out third-floor windows—and even play a game of ping pong on its lower level.
A West Coast native, Patton has extensive experience in the tech sector and economic development, including three years at JobsOhio, the state's nonprofit economic development organization. Stevens served as the city's deputy director of economic development until leaving for a time in 2012 to head a nonprofit economic development organization near Chicago. They are leading Smart Columbus' day-to-day efforts with Jordan Davis, a Columbus Partnership staff member who serves as its Smart Cities director.
All three are quite familiar with what is known as the Columbus Way, which is characterized by collaboration among the public, private and education sectors for the greater community good. It was critically important in Columbus topping 77 communities to win the Smart Cities competition.
Reflecting that spirit of cooperation, Smart Columbus is led by an Executive Committee whose members represent Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, the Partnership and key partners such as Ohio State University, American Electric Power and Nationwide Insurance.
Patton and Stevens say their charge is twofold. The first is to meet the goals attached to the federal and Vulcan funding; there are 27 items alone in the federal grant. The second is to build a Smart Columbus model that will be sustainable and transformational after the grant period ends in 2020.
“We're going to successfully execute the grant deliverables,” Stevens says. “We have the resources and expertise in the city to do that and the support of the private sector to expand that expertise. But the real measure of our success is going to be how transformative these ‘ladders of opportunity' we're creating will be for our neighborhoods and residents.”
Those ladders involve using new and improved modes of transportation to connect Columbus residents—especially those in underserved areas—to employment, healthcare and job-training. Smart Columbus ideas include autonomous vehicles to drive workers from COTA's Easton Transit Center to their jobs within Easton Town Center and a “smart pass” system that will enable people to buy one card to use COTA, Uber, Lyft, Car2Go and other transportation options in the city.
“Mayor Ginther calls mobility the great equalizer,” Stevens says. “It's about using mobility options to improve opportunities for people.”
In Patton's view, the Smart City award has given Columbus “a real shot at greatness” over the long haul. He's convinced the city and region can be at the forefront of a new wave of mobility options to address traffic congestion, improve residents' lives and boost the economy.
He and Stevens are also quick to point out that the financial moorings for Smart Columbus extend much deeper than the $50 million in federal government and Vulcan grants. An additional $500 million has been pledged to smart transportation and smart grid projects by the private and public sectors. Ginther's goal is to see $1 billion pledged for Smart Columbus transportation projects from local sources by 2020.
The funding mix already includes $175 million from American Electric Power. There is also Honda Motor Co.'s $124 million investment to build an advanced wind tunnel at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty and $15 million from the state of Ohio to develop a Smart Mobility Corridor along US Route 33 between Dublin and East Liberty.
“It's a big bucket (of funding) and legitimate stuff we think is truly incremental investment,” Patton says.
AEP views Smart Columbus as a precursor to its vision of becoming the energy company of the future, says AEP Ohio President Julie Sloat. A member of the Smart Columbus Executive Committee, she says AEP is so committed to the initiative that it has assigned one of its employees, Ryan Houk, to the Smart Columbus office at the Idea Foundry.
“We view this as an opportunity to accelerate some of the programs we have underway or pending with the (Public Utilities Commission of Ohio),” Sloat says. “All are critical infrastructure needs that (go with) the whole Smart Columbus idea. … If it works as planned, we can leverage this across the others states where AEP operates.”
The programs include charging stations for electric vehicles, micro-grid and battery storage technologies, smart street lighting, smart electric meter infrastructure and distribution technology to improve the reliability of electric service and the power grid.
“This stuff blows my mind,” Sloat says. “It's a ton of fun, and we get to meet the smartest of the smart people.”
She feels the Smart Columbus joint venture between the city and the Columbus Partnership makes perfect sense, seeing it as another reflection of the Columbus Way.
“It demonstrates the necessity of having a well-funded, functioning public and private partnership working toward a common goal, whether it's the social, economic or environmental issues we all face,” Sloat says.
In agreement is Carla Bailo, Ohio State's assistant vice president for mobility research and business development. She was a founding member of the group that wrote Columbus' winning Smart City proposal and also serves on the Smart Columbus Executive Committee.
“You cannot do Smart City in isolation,” she says. “There are so many things that have to be considered. The city has its viewpoint, industry has its viewpoint, and (academics) have their viewpoint. If you want a holistic solution, you need to involve all elements of the community.”
Bailo says Smart Columbus created 14 working groups to handle different elements of the US Department of Transportation and Vulcan projects. For example, the Data and Analytics Working Group is tackling the task of creating the Integrated Data Exchange. It is a cloud-based platform that will integrate data from multiple sources such as Smart City technologies, transportation and community partners, including food pantries and medical providers.
She is also a big believer in the Idea Foundry being the center of Smart Columbus' operations. The former Nissan North America executive loves spending time there with other project leaders and staff members.
“It's fun to see the viewpoints in that kind of open, sparring ground where you can talk about anything,” Bailo says. “That kind of environment breeds open communication and dialogue.”
As of May, Ohio State had committed $15 million to Smart Columbus: $5 million for electric vehicle projects, $2 million for autonomous shuttles and $8 million worth of research by faculty and students.
Much of that work will involve programs in the College of Engineering, which has been working on smart transportation projects for more than 30 years, says David Williams, dean of the college. Faculty and student researchers there are working on projects that include smart street lighting, autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles and smart grid technology.
But Williams emphasizes the broad reach of Smart Columbus also will pull in other disciplines at Ohio State: the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, Fisher College of Business, Moritz College of Law, and the colleges of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; Nursing; Optometry; and Arts and Sciences. About 90 faculty members and 50 students will be involved in Smart Columbus-related projects.
“The ultimate aim is not simply to demonstrate the technology but to use it to improve the lives of residents of underserved cities, giving them better access to food and healthcare and address infant mortality problems and so on,” Williams says. “Engineering, technology and public policy will be used to solve those problems within cities.”
In addition, he says dozens of companies are coming to central Ohio to deploy their transportation technologies as part of the Smart City endeavor. Their presence and experiences here are expected to be felt long after the grant period ends.
Nationwide Insurance is also heavily involved in Smart Columbus. Two of its executives—Mike Keller and Guru Vasudeva—serve on the Executive Committee, and Nationwide employees are involved in working groups dealing with autonomous vehicles, Downtown parking, and data and analytics.
The Smart Columbus initiatives will affect Nationwide in a number of important ways, says Mark Berven, president and chief operating officer of the Columbus-based insurer. They include the impact that self-driving vehicles will have on highway safety and insurance rates, as well as the effect that smart mobility advances could have on urban development. More directly, they could help Nationwide's ability to recruit talent in central Ohio and move employees more efficiently from one office to another in the region.
Berven says Nationwide has been involved in smart-vehicle research since 2006, when it launched its SmartRide program. It provides personalized feedback to help Nationwide customers make safer driving decisions and receive insurance discounts of up to 40 percent.
Today, the company is especially interested in smart technologies that will ease traffic congestion and improve highway safety in urban areas. Berven says Nationwide also embraces Ginther's “great equalizer” philosophy on smart transportation helping residents in underserved areas get to the doctor or to a job.
“For us, it's about employment and economic opportunities for Columbus and seeing Columbus thrive,” he says.
While corporate support has been strong, Davis says Smart Columbus is working to get even more central Ohio companies invested in the effort.
“The Partnership wants to see how it can expand the grant program to a more sustainable effort and not just a three-year burst of cash,” she says. “We're trying to think about it long-term and more globally.”
Adds Bailo: “This is not something that will happen overnight. I think 20 to 50 years down the road, we'll still be seeing the fruits of what we've started today.”
Patton has big long-range expectations as well when it comes to what the work being done by Smart Columbus now will mean for central Ohio's future.
“This is an incredible moment for Columbus,” he says. “This city has the right bones and mix of things to really grow this. Our best days are in the windshield, not the rear-view mirror.”
Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.