Columbus Partnership harnesses Columbus' strengths in Smart City Challenge

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Columbus Partnership demonstrates how a culture of collaboration might help win the $50 million Smart City Challenge.

The email announcing the Smart City Challenge from the US Department of Transportation landed in Rory McGuiness's inbox right as Mayor Michael Coleman's administration was packing up and newly elected Andrew Ginther was making plans for his first 100 days as mayor. McGuinness, a deputy director for the city's Department of Development, smelled an opportunity.

The email said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx had just opened a $50 million competitive grant available to mid-sized cities like Columbus if they could show they could become optimal proving grounds for community-based intelligent transportation systems, or ITS. Such systems present a wide open frontier that includes everything from electric vehicles and charging stations to autonomous "driverless" vehicles, automated bike and car rentals and enhanced transportation options for low-income residents.

"This immediately struck me as a fantastic opportunity to help connect the disconnected folks in some of our neighborhoods," Ginther recalls from early transition meetings. "We know how important transportation is to the ladders of opportunity, jobs, education, childcare and fresh food." He also recognized the opportunity to harness public-private forces to turn the project around at "light speed" relative to most government initiatives.

And so began a successful first-run collaboration involving Ginther, the Ohio State University, Battelle, AEP, Nationwide, Honda, IBM, L Brands, Cardinal Health and many others. The project quickly gained steam with lobbying and development orchestrated by the mayor's office, aided by a high-level grant-writing team at Battelle and constant attention of the Columbus Partnership and its executive director Alex Fischer.

Soon after the email, Coleman and Ginther put the Smart City Challenge at the top of the transition agenda. They put Fischer in the loop, and Columbus Partnership members traveled to Washington D.C., San Diego, Silicon Valley and elsewhere to learn more about autonomous cars and to lobby federal representatives.

"We got lucky," Fischer says of a D.C. fly-in of Columbus Partnership CEOs. "We got an audience with Secretary Foxx, and we made a real impression on him as to our relationship between the city and the private sector and the working relationships we have."

And then it appeared to Fischer that Foxx had one of those dramatic ah-ha moments. "Mayor Ginther was giving his side of the vision, and a number of the others were providing their perspective from the corporate and research side. You could see how it was resonating with Secretary Foxx and his team. You got a first-hand validation of how special this Partnership we have is. You realized how damn powerful this story is, how powerful the combined expertise is."

Mayor Ginther agrees. "Secretary Foxx said he was lucky to get a group of CEOs in a room when he was mayor of Charlotte, let alone fly them to Washington," Ginther recalls. "It really showed him our collective commitment to become a national leader."

By March 12, Foxx announced that Columbus was one of seven finalists for the comprehensive grant and technology package, earning the city $100,000 to flesh out its transportation vision into a more complete strategy and implementation plan.

There was good news and bad news. Columbus had beaten out 71 other cities and was a finalist along with some great company: Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland and San Francisco. The bad news was how formidable those cities seemed at the time, given their proximity to high-tech companies and research institutions.

But at press time for this magazine, Fischer remained undaunted while awaiting the final grant announcement in June. The city had just barely missed bringing the Democratic National Convention here, and "moonshot" proposals are likely to pay off one of these days, he notes. "I'm confident going for aggressive swings, not bunts, when we get up to bat," he says.

Indeed, ambitious projects like the Smart City Challenge will test whether Columbus' culture of collaboration-a hallmark of the Columbus Partnership-can integrate community, educational and business resources to compete with some of the most forward-looking cities in the United States.

The Columbus application for the Smart City grant includes a project with 12 initiatives from the high-tech to the mundane-like on-the-street and on-vehicle sensors for providing real-time transportation systems and even a land use strategy to deal with scarce parking spaces Downtown.

The initiatives fit under an umbrella of five Smart City project strategies:

• Develop smart transportation corridors to demonstrate intelligent transportation technologies.

• Improve traffic data and provide a routing app for trucks to move freight more efficiently.

• Lower traffic congestion due to major events and incidents with better data systems.

• Improve transportation and data access for residents without smart phones and bank cards.

• Expand smart and electric vehicle use through Smart Grid expansion.

The Smart City vision, Columbus-style, includes high technology, intelligent traffic flow and a community that works better due to integrated transportation systems. Open data-lots of it-on traffic, vehicles, bus stops and other infrastructure will flow freely, telling riders with smart phones when the next bus will come, where it's going and what the fare will be. Drivers of electric vehicles-if drivers are needed in an age of autonomous vehicles-can learn where the nearest free charging stations are. Alternatively, integrated data makes automated bike and car rentals appear on a phone app or at a friendly kiosk.

Ultimately, transportation cores would connect neighborhoods from Linden to the Hilltop with job centers like Downtown, Easton and Polaris, with Nationwide Children's Hospital, and with OSU, Columbus State Community College and job training centers, not to mention grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables.

The winner of the Smart City competition will receive a $40 million grant from the US Department of Transportation, plus $10 million in private investment from Vulcan and its founder, Paul Allen, a Microsoft co-founder. The winner will also get technical expertise, software and products from several other companies involved in transportation, communication and environmental technologies.

As Columbus CEO went to press, city officials and Battelle grant writers were enhancing sustainability and implementation sections of the written application. Oral presentations follow, and-amazingly fast for a government agency-the actual award will be announced by Foxx sometime in June.

Members of the Partnership are "in it to win it," they stress. But the grant competition will also keep strengthening and expanding the way key institutions and businesses work with state and local government-and with each other, they say.

"The Partnership in Columbus-and I've worked in both the Bay area and in Tennessee, with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory-is a little different. It's special, very connected and there's a very strong spirit of cooperation and interaction amongst all the entities in town," says Jeffrey Wadsworth, CEO of Battelle.

"I haven't seen it this way elsewhere. Columbus is moving forward, and the collaboration manifests itself in an almost automatic desire to help out," Wadsworth says. "They really seem to be genuine. Everyone reaches out to each other and wants to do what's best for the area."

"Alex has an excellent relationship with Nick Akins (CEO of American Electric Power), (President) Michael Drake of OSU and all the top people at all these organizations. He said we need to get this done," says Ram Sastry, AEP's vice president of infrastructure and business continuity. "I think of it like an engine, and the Columbus Partnership is like the oil that lubricates the engine for smooth and efficient operation. They make sure there's the right dialogue with the right people at the right level."

Fischer himself likes the Columbus Partnership's role as a connector and aggregator of resources and skills, but he gives primary credit to Ginther and his academic, research and corporate partners. "I would say the mayor's engagement on this project in particular, but also in other matters, has really upped the city's game," Fischer says.

"It's been reassuring as we regularly get accolades all across the country for our Partnership and the good working relationships," Fischer says. "At the same time, it's not taking away anything from Mayor Ginther's commitment to neighborhoods and building the middle class. His goals are our goals, and we're in this together."

Columbus is a strong competitor for the Smart City money because of who is involved, Fischer says. "This is clearly in the wheelhouse of expertise from Honda, Battelle and OSU. It's a natural builder of economic opportunities as well."

There is no question that the Smart City effort reveals how much the Columbus Partnership has become a platform for bringing people together at the top, says Drake. He's a big fan of Fischer, who he called intelligent, talented and experienced.

"I think the relationship between the Partnership, the university and the city is worthy of celebration," he says. Drake, an avid guitarist, AEP's Akins (a drummer) and others celebrated Ginther's inauguration by playing "Learn to Fly" by the Foo Fighters at an inaugural party at Shadowbox Cabaret.

"We do so many things together, and we cooperate on so many aspects of our work," Drake says. "All of this contributes to making this one of the most active and progressive cities in the country."

Will Columbus rise to the level of the competition, or rise above it? Ginther is optimistic.

"One of the things Secretary Foxx impressed on us is that it's not about where you are. San Francisco, Austin and Portland are further ahead in response to transit options. But Columbus has the opportunity to so dramatically move the needle by accelerating the development of intelligent transportation systems. We really become that laboratory and best practice classroom to transform other cities in the Midwest and the South."

Mike Mahoney is a freelance writer.

Photo caption:Partnership members and guests examine a driverless car at Google Ventures in Silicon Valley.

Photo credit:Photo by Andy Gottesman