Fulfilling the Promise of Smart Columbus

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I am proud to report that my adopted hometown of Columbus, Ohio, is on a roll.

About a year ago, Columbus beat 77 cities to win $40 million in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. Other finalists included Austin, Dallas, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland and San Francisco. Columbus then went on to win another $10 million from Vulcan Inc., Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen’s company, to cut emissions through the adoption of electric vehicles. On top of all that, thanks to Columbus’ especially strong public-private partnership, the private sector has raised more than $100 million in additional money for related efforts.

This is a great time for Columbus.

The team responsible for securing these coveted grants and donations is part of a group called Smart Columbus. The mission of Smart Columbus is to be the epi-center of intelligent transportation, both in R&D and implementation, for many years to come. The objective is not to deploy technology for technology’s sake but to solve problems. The city wisely talked with community leaders and residents to identify problems that the Smart Columbus initiative could possibly address before crafting its winning bid. Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther in particular took a stand to ensure this initiative would lift up all residents.

Some of the objectives that Smart Columbus is tackling include:

  • Lift a low-income community out of poverty
  • Give students of all ages unprecedented access to education
  • Connect hardworking people to jobs

Fulfilling the promise of Smart Columbus is going to be challenging for many reasons, but perhaps the biggest challenge will be understanding the target customers’ true needs. There is no question that giving a low-income community access to online courses, online job boards, and driverless cars can lift some people out of poverty. But, as Kentaro Toyama, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, pointed out in a piece for USA Today:

“Technology widely disseminated only amplifies inequalities. Ivy League graduates are better equipped to learn from online courses than people who struggled through high school.”

He also notes:

“How can it be that something that benefits so many of us could worsen inequality? The simple answer is that technology helps us in proportion to what we already have. That is to say, digital tools benefit the haves more than the have-nots; they don’t add the same, fixed benefit for everyone.”

Technology only helps those people who have the intention and capacity to use it. To illustrate this point, Toyama said the following in a TEDxTokyo talk:

“Many of you have probably heard the saying that ‘If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach him how to fish, he eats for a lifetime.’ This is a saying that really hits the mark, but what is really interesting about this saying is that it doesn’t say anywhere that you should build a man a turbo-charged, heat-seeking, robotic fishing pole. I think what is most effective (to make social change) is for people like us to teach and mentor and expand our social circle to include people we might not normally interact with so that we can share those advantages that we have, so they can actually meet the challenges of life on their own.”

For smart cities, the “turbo-charged, heat-seeking, robotic fishing pole” is smart technologies. It can deliver superior results for people who already know how to “fish,” but it won’t help people who don’t know how to fish.

To lift a low-income community out of poverty, Columbus must also help its people improve their skills and competencies so they can take advantage of smart technologies and gain employment. This will require old-fashioned soft skills like teaching and mentoring. Fortunately, Columbus is up to the challenge because the private sector is eager to help address these soft needs, too. Into the future we go.

(This article initially appeared in The Business Journals, July 3rd, 2017)

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