America’s ‘smart city’ isn’t getting smarter

In 2016, Columbus, Ohio, outnumbered 77 small and medium-sized American cities For a bowl worth 50 million dollars He was supposed to reshape his future. Department of Transport smart city challenge It was the first competition of its kind, envisioned as a down payment to start adapting one city to the new technologies suddenly popping up everywhere. Ride companies like Uber And the elevator they were going up, Car sharing companies like Car2Go They were raising their national image, and self-driving vehicles It looks like it’s around the corner.

“Our proposed approach is revolutionary,” the city wrote in its grant-winning proposal, which pledged to focus on projects to help the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. It has made plans to try out Wi-Fi-equipped kiosks to help residents plan trips, apps to pay for buses, rides and find parking spaces, autonomous shuttles, and sensor-connected trucks.

Five years later, the smart city challenge is over, but the revolution never arrived. According to the final project report, released this month by the city’s Smart Columbus program, the pandemic hit just as some projects were taking off. Six kiosks placed around the city were used to plan just eight trips between July 2020 and March 2021. EasyMile launched independent shuttle buses in February 2020, carrying passengers at an average speed of 4 miles per hour. Fifteen days later, a sudden brake Send a passenger to the hospitalPause service. The truck project has been cancelled. Just 1,100 people have downloaded an app called Pivot to plan and book trips on ride-hailing vehicles, bikes, shared scooters, and public transportation.

The contrast between promising technology and reality in Columbus points to a shift away from technology as a silver ring, and a newfound wariness of the problems that web-based applications can bring to the streets of IRL. “Smart City” was a difficult marketing term associated with urban optimism. Today, as citizens think more carefully about technological empowerment controlHowever, the concept of a sensor in every home doesn’t look as bright as it once was.

However, Columbus officials insist that the smart city project was not a failure. In fact, the final report described the project as a success. Columbus now 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 might get a little distracted at some point,” says Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus, the organization tasked with continuing the challenge. Some challenging projects will continue. Davis says the focus will be, “How do we use technology to improve quality of life, to solve societal justice issues, to mitigate climate change, to achieve prospects in the region?”

Think back to 2015, the goals of tech solutions to the challenge make sense. The future was coming fast, and the Department of Transportation hoped its seed money would help a mid-sized city like Columbus work with companies to plan for the future, with equity in mind. When it chose the city, the department said it was impressed by the number of local businesses that pledged additional support for the project. Then-Secretary Anthony Fox said the challenge was to “use … advanced tools to make life better for all people, especially those living in underserved communities.” (He is now Lyft’s chief policy officer.)

It is now clear that private companies cannot predict the future of cities and may not take their interests into account. Davis says the choice of Columbus led to a flood of proposals from companies that ultimately proved difficult to manage, and “at times distracting.” Meanwhile, Uber (and Lyft) owns Pulled out of autonomous vehiclesEspecially after testing an Uber vehicle Hit and kill a pedestrian in Arizona. google sister Sidewalk Labs Promised in 2017 To build a futuristic neighborhood in Toronto. But The project was killed last year Amid the pandemic and the bitter political battle with privacy advocates, local groups and developers.

Smart city projects are still ongoing all over the world. Toyota Building a self-driving car friendly community outside Tokyo. Sidewalk Labs Just Announced Advise real estate developers In a few American cities around the “innovation plans.” And the “Smart Traffic” projects led by Alibaba Connect in China, Malaysia and Macau.

In the end, Columbus’ smart city revolution may have been overly ambitious from the start. “A lot of people were expecting too much from this project, maybe too much,” says Harvey Miller, professor of geography and director of the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis at Ohio State University, who helped plan and evaluate the challenge. He points out that $50 million ($40 million from the federal government, $10 million from late Microsoft founder Paul Allen Vulcan Inc.) isn’t much money, especially spread out over five years. It’s not Columbus’ fault that industry promises about the imminent arrival of self-driving cars were overstated.

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