COLUMBUS, OH — "A city that stays the same falls behind."
On the banks of the Scioto River in Columbus, OH, Bicentennial Park welcomes visitors with a plaque remembering former Mayor Michael Coleman and that phrase, which he used repeatedly to urge the city to maintain what he called an "environment of progress."
And across the street from the park, at the just-opened Smart Columbus Experience Center, residents and visitors can see what that progress looks like, both in the city’s present and future. Opened earlier this year, the center allows visitors to explore new transportation options such as electric vehicles (EVs) and see technology demonstrations for new initiatives.
It is funded by the city's $10 million Paul G. Allen Philanthropies grant — which accompanied its $40 million Smart Cities Challenge grant from the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) — as well as from state and corporate sponsorship.
"Smart Columbus is about envisioning a future for our city that benefits us all, and transforming mobility to make our community safer, more equitable, more vibrant and more sustainable,” Mayor Andrew Ginther said in a statement when the center opened on June 30. "I hope every resident who visits the center will see how our efforts to embrace the latest mobility technologies will personally benefit them; and that they will identify ways — big and small — that they can act to help us transport our city to the future."
One of the center’s major focuses is to help visitors learn more about EVs, with adoption growing both among private citizens and municipalities who are electrifying their fleets. The center’s role is to help people with the research phase and to serve as a place to go before a dealership to learn more, said Smart Columbus Director Jordan Davis.
"What we're finding is that if people don't come across EVs in their neighborhoods or with their friends or online, they'll never really get to that option," Davis told Smart Cities Dive in an interview at the center last week. "This is a step in the research phase for people that are looking to buy a car, that they can come here with no sales pressure that is brand agnostic."
EVs that have been provided by local dealerships and manufacturers’ corporate offices are on display — Honda’s United States headquarters is in the city, and it has a research and development facility nearby. Not only do visitors get to read about them, they can go on a test drive, too.
Seven days a week, staff take potential customers out on a pre-planned route that includes highway and city driving to showcase the performance of an EV, as well as to dispel any worries about difficulties charging them. Zach McGuire, smart mobility and EV adoption team manager at Smart Columbus, said most people find it to be an "eye-opening experience."
"You can see it out in the showroom, but once you see it out in the wild, it has more of an impact," he told Smart Cities Dive.
Elsewhere, the center offers information on how internet of things (IoT) will enhance the city; and a display screen with modules that show how things like autonomous vehicles (AVs), connected vehicles and the sharing economy will affect residents’ lives. Another interactive display shows how even the smallest innovations have helped in the city.
Davis cited the example of Officer Fletcher Farr of the Columbus Police Division, who is shown on the display board. In the display, the officer describes how the department’s new electric bikes have helped the bicycle division respond quicker to crimes, as well as conserve energy and build better relationships with those in low-income neighborhoods. The officers' usage of the bikes makes them more approachable than if they were in a squad car.
Like in New York City and Newark, NJ, Columbus is looking to roll out interactive kiosks, manufactured by local company Ike, that have information on transit, local events and places of interest. The kiosks, which will provide Wi-Fi connectivity, also look to provide residents with information on health care, shelter if they are homeless and food banks.
And while many of the initiatives are in various stages of development, Davis said it is about getting people to use their imagination and understand how Columbus’ smart city projects will improve everyone’s lives.
"We're just trying to be provocative, asking, 'Can you imagine it on our streets today?'" she said.
And the center’s location in the heart of downtown is significant. When the city launches an AV shuttle demonstration in December, one of its stops will be outside the center, just another way to draw people to the city’s Scioto Mile of parkland and cultural attractions.
"This is in the thick of the summer activities in the community," Davis said. "That was really important to us because we wanted the program to be as accessible as possible. Any degree of curiosity that somebody has about what Smart Columbus is, they can come in here."
And while it is still early days, Davis said that already, the center has had a strong reaction from those who visit, and will continue to be a focal point of the city’s efforts to innovate.
“Some of it is symbolic in the sense that it's in the heart of our downtown, it's highly accessible,” she said. “But the truth is, the amount of people that walk in when they're on a walk, and they're like, 'I've heard of this and I have no idea what it is,' then they connect something in their life to the program is unbelievable ... It's cultivated a lot of substantial engagement and conversations with residents.”