Cloudy with a Chance of Money

There is a children’s book, which became an animated movie, about a town destroyed by giant pieces of food falling mysteriously from the sky. It turns out a similar thing can happen when the objects falling from on high are big bales of cash.

In 2015, ICF named Columbus, Ohio, USA as its Intelligent Community of the Year. The very next year, the city beat out 77 other small and midsize US cities for a grant of $50 million from the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. (Its status as IC of the Year helped.) Its winning bid called for many cool projects: 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.

Smart Results?

The Smart City Challenge lasted five years, with the last 18 months falling into pandemic-land. Unfortunately, its accomplishments were, to put it politely, limited.

In a 9-month test, six kiosks around the city were used to plan exactly 8 trips. Only 1,100 people downloaded the app for buses and ride-hailing in a city of 822,000. The truck project was cancelled.

There were positives. The autonomous shuttle was repurposed in the summer of 2020 to deliver boxes of food to local food pantries during the pandemic. Seventy pregnant women who tested an Uber-like service to take them to medical appointments were more likely to receive prenatal care.

And that’s all, folks, according to the city’s own report, which labeled the Challenge a success.

I absolutely do not mean to beat up Columbus. After all, ICF awarded the city its top honor – and did it for a reason. It’s a great midsize city working steadily and well on important problems. A multi-front, collaborative effort is expanding broadband, moving low-income students into higher education and providing acceleration, mentoring, seed funding and capital to new companies. The city already has a successful app called MyColumbus. It was developed for free by students at Ohio State University, polished up by a software company, and now provides everything from real-time updates on garbage collection and snow removal to the logging of service requests, which are resolved more than three times faster than phone complaints.

Some of the Smart City Challenge projects are continuing under Smart Columbus director Jordan Davis, and I wish them well. As she told WIRED magazine in June 2021, the city will move forward relying more on “empathy and engagement” than cool tech. That’s music to my ears, because community engagement is the real engine of positive and lasting change.

Solutions in Search of Problems

There are two real lessons here. One is that the Smart City movement is mostly a solution in search of a problem. Upgrading technology for a city may produce a few improvements, mostly minor and mostly unknown to citizens. It will not solve the real, crucial problems facing most communities: how to get the connectivity they need, train up a skilled workforce that earns good wages, create and nurture companies that will prosper in the digital age, and take care of all the impacts this will have on the community. That’s the work of the Intelligent Community.

The other big lesson is to always, always beware of bales of cash plummeting from the clouds. In our 20 years of experience, we have consistently seen that programs originating in the community, born of local needs and shaped by local priorities, deliver the greatest value for the longest period of time. When projects are cobbled together to win a mountain of moolah, they tend to produce what the Smart City Challenge did: a few interesting and costly pilots, and lots of reports.

There are no shortcuts on the Intelligent Community road. Heavy objects falling from above will never be much more than a hazard. Just ask the traumatized citizens of Chewandswallow, the town that met its fate under a barrage of meatballs.

Robert Bell
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research, analysis and content development activities.
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