• November 28, 2021

America’s ‘Smart City’ Didn’t Get Much Smarter

In 2016, Columbus, Ohio, beat out 77 other small and midsize US cities for a pot of $50 million that was meant to reshape its future. The Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge was the first competition of its kind, conceived as a down payment to jump-start one city’s adaptation to the new technologies that were suddenly everywhere. Ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft were ascendant, car-sharing companies like Car2Go were raising their national profile, and autonomous vehicles seemed to be right around the corner.

“Our proposed approach is revolutionary,” the city wrote in its winning grant proposal, which pledged to focus on projects to help the city’s most underserved neighborhoods. It laid out plans to experiment with Wi-Fi-enabled kiosks to help residents plan trips, apps to pay bus and ride-hail fares and find parking spots, autonomous shuttles, and sensor-connected trucks.

Five years later, the Smart City Challenge is over, but the revolution never arrived. According to the project’s final report, issued this month by the city’s Smart Columbus Program, the pandemic hit just as some projects were getting off the ground. Six kiosks placed around the city were used to plan just eight trips between July 2020 and March 2021. The company EasyMile launched autonomous shuttles in February 2020, carrying passengers at an average speed of 4 miles per hour. Fifteen days later, a sudden brake sent a rider to the hospital, pausing service. The truck project was canceled. Only 1,100 people downloaded an app, called Pivot, to plan and reserve trips on ride-hail vehicles, shared bikes and scooters, and public transit.

The discrepancy between the promise of whiz-bang technology and the reality in Columbus points to a shift away from tech as a silver bullet, and a newer wariness of the troubles that web-based applications can bring to IRL streets. The “smart city” was a hard-to-pin-down marketing term associated with urban optimism. Today, as 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.

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Still, Columbus officials insist the Smart City project was not a failure. In fact, the final report labeled the project a success. Now Columbus wants to rethink the slippery term.

“It’s not supposed to be a competition for who has more sensors, or anything like that, and I think we got a little distracted at a certain point,” says Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus, the organization charged with continuing the challenge’s work. Some of the challenge’s projects will continue. Davis says the focus will be, “How do we use technology to improve quality of life, to solve community issues of equity, to mitigate climate change, to achieve prosperity in the region?”

Think back to 2015, and the challenge’s techno-solutionist goals made sense. The future was coming quick, and the DOT hoped its seed money would help a midsize city like Columbus work with companies to plan ahead, with equity in mind. When it selected the city, the department said it was impressed by the number of local companies that had pledged additional support for the project. The challenge is “about using … advanced tools to make life better for all people, especially those living in underserved communities,” then secretary Anthony Foxx said. (He is now the chief policy officer for Lyft.)

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