Smart Columbus inspires some really long-term thinking.

Columbus is already feeling the impact of Smart City. Since beating out 77 other communities to win the $50 million Smart City Challenge in 2016, the two main partners on the Smart Columbus project—the city of Columbus and the Columbus Partnership—have grown that financial support to $500 million with additional private and public investments. Smart Columbus also has conducted nearly 1,000 electric-vehicle test drives since March, enlisted 48 companies in its accelerator partner program to encourage alternative transportation, hosted visitors from all over the world interested in learning about the initiative, and refocused resources to support a transportation assistance program for low-income pregnant women.

This month, the Smart Columbus Experience Center is expected to open. Located on the Scioto Mile at 170 Civic Center Drive, the public educational center will highlight cutting-edge technology and interactive exhibits and offer visitors the chance to test drive the latest electric-vehicle models. “Obviously, Smart Columbus has given us a really special platform to be able to tell our story as a region and expose really what makes us distinctive through this work,” says Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus at the Columbus Partnership.

Over the next three years, Smart Columbus' pilot programs—which are turning central Ohio into a hotbed of transportation innovation—could rev up the local economy, offer mobility solutions to impoverished and isolated neighborhoods and showcase Columbus as a technological marvel. In fact, the city's reputation is on the rise even at this early stage. “We've done a number of international trips, and everybody knows who we are, and that's a real change,” says Mark Patton, vice president for Smart Columbus at the Columbus Partnership.

The opportunity is also inspiring some deep thinking. Mike Stevens, the chief innovation officer for the city of Columbus, says Smart Columbus has community and business leaders reimagining the city. “I think it's been a real catalyst throughout the region and throughout the different sectors,” he says. That's led to the pursuit of bold ideas such as the Hyperloop connecting Columbus, Chicago and Pittsburgh, Davis says. “I think there is a change in the conversation in the community and boardrooms within the city,” Davis says.

Indeed, Smart Columbus has the Columbus Partnership doing some really long-term thinking. Alex Fischer, the president and CEO of the Partnership, says that as a result of Smart Columbus, the organization has begun to explore the possibility of developing a 100-year plan for the region. Fischer, an urban planner by training, says this idea is inspired in part by the 1909 Plan of Chicago, developed by the legendary architect Daniel Burnham. That vision called for a bold reimagining of the city, including a highway system, an improved lakefront and centers of intellectual life, all with the aim of creating a “Paris on the Prairie.”

The 100-year-plan idea is still at its early stages—Fischer has just begun to talk about it with Partnership members. But it obviously poses some major challenges. It would have to be done in collaboration with plenty of partners, including the city of Columbus and Franklin County. What's more, it's an especially challenging exercise in a time of so much technological disruption, when it's difficult to predict what might happen five years from now, let alone 100. “Alex is a force of nature,” says Partnership executive committee member Nancy Kramer, chief evangelist for IBM iX (formerly Resource/Ammirati). “He's unafraid to make an audacious kind of statement or an audacious kind of goal.”

So how would the Partnership put together a 100-year plan? First, its leaders probably would bring in lots of outside experts and conduct plenty of field trips to learn from the best in the world, long a tradition of the organization. It also might not be so much about predicting the future as it would be about setting a target way off in the distance and creating an outline for getting there. “I think what Alex is really saying is we've got to start thinking long term,” says Alex Shumate, managing partner for the Columbus office of Squire Patton Boggs and a member of the Partnership's executive committee.

Matt Scantland, the co-founder and CEO of CoverMyMeds and a member of the Partnership, agrees. “If you're thinking about a 100-year plan, you're thinking about investing in the long term to meet the needs of people a long time from now, and that type of bold thinking is a huge asset to the city,” Scantland says. “It's about recognizing that the decisions we make today need to be informed by not the needs of today and yesterday, but the needs of what Columbus will look like as a leading city many years from now.”

While the outlook for Columbus is strong, there are risks, too. Technology is threatening the banking, insurance, automotive and retail sectors—all critical industries in central Ohio. “I think in the next five to seven years, we'll see more change from an economic and technological perspective than we've seen in the last 30 years,” says Drive Capital co-founder Mark Kvamme, a member of the Partnership's executive committee. “Which is both an opportunity for a place like Columbus but also an area of concern. And so we've got to stay ahead. We cannot rest on anything.”

Fischer floats the idea of setting a long-term goal of becoming the best city in the world. If the Partnership does that, the 100-year plan could focus on what that means, in terms of population, transportation, economic vibrancy, equality, culture and so forth. “I think when we started, we wanted to be one of the best cities in the Midwest,” Shumate says. “I think where we are now, we're focused on being one of the best cities in the nation. Obviously, the next goal is to be one of the best global cities, and that's where Columbus can be if we continue our momentum and our track record of success.”

Dave Ghose is the editor.


The Other Side of a Smart City

CCAD design students offer a dystopian take on technological change.

Columbus Partnership leaders aren't the only ones in central Ohio thinking about the future of smart technology. This spring, 11 graduate students at the Columbus College of Art & Design imagined what a smart city might look like in 2050—and it's a scary sight.

As part of their integrative design course, the students researched elements of a digitally interconnected city, speaking with experts in the fields of healthcare, safety, law and technology. Those conversations then inspired “design fictions” in which students created 11 objects that represent scenarios that could develop if technology runs amok.

The purpose of the class's “smart city design challenge” isn't to predict the future, says Mercè Graell, chair of CCAD's master's program in integrative design. Rather, it's to explore the human consequences of technology. “It's to think, ‘Well, if we advance in that direction, these are the things that might happen, so do we really want to continue in that direction?' ”

Here are three of those scenarios.

The Memory ATM

Student: Maurshell Stokes

Scenario: With Elon Musk and other technologists celebrating the possibility of brain implants, Stokes imagines a future in which we've tapped into the brain's limbic system to allow people to deposit their memories into digital bank accounts.

Design Statement: “You can upload your memories at no cost and access them whenever and wherever you want. As with any public resource, the risk of being ‘watched' caused many to fear the information their memories may reveal. In addition, there is a rise in criminal activity that no one saw coming, causing citizens with the limbic implant to question, ‘Are our most intimate moments safe?' ”

The Digital Mouth Mask

Student: Kendra Rabineau

Scenario: As anyone on Twitter will tell you, trolling is a problem on social media. Rabineau imagines how this phenomenon will play out in a future society that seamlessly weaves itself with virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

Design statement: “In order to interact with others, a digital citizen must wear a state-certified mouth mask. Any verbal language determined to be too destructive will be altered, autocorrected by AI for the good of others. This will ensure that citizens experience a safe space. Yet regulations to our language will come with many potential drawbacks. Artificial intelligence reflects the bias of its creators. If AI is going to decide which words are too negative or aggressive to be spoken, how is it going to be fair and inclusive?”

The Workplace Playpen

Student: Elle Miller

Scenario: As more jobs are delegated to machines, remaining work requires “human touch and human heart.” But who will do these jobs if the next generation, steeped in text messaging and social media, never learns how to interact with each other face to face?

Design statement: “The market had well paying, in-demand jobs and a workforce that couldn't fill them. So what did we do?

We started to play—professionally. … Professional play was seamlessly incorporated into the workplace. Executives built block towers together, and they learned how to brainstorm a plan together. Meeting spaces encouraged dress-up and pretend play so staff could practice being empathetic. And CEOs wrestled with each other to sharpen their decision-making skills. We learned the opposite of play isn't work, it's stagnation.”