Why Columbus Won the Smart City Challenge

As you may have heard, last week the Department of Transportation awarded the City of Columbus $50 million in grants as the winner of the Smart City Challenge. In addition to this grant, Columbus will receive support from high-tech industry sponsors to “create a fully integrated, first-of-its-kind city that uses data, technology, and creativity to shape how people and goods move in the future.” Some of these sponsors will include Amazon, AT&T, Autodesk, DC Solar, Continental, MobileEye, NXP, Sidewalk Labs, and Vulcan. It’s been exciting to see the public and private sectors come together to form these creative plans since the program was announced last year. U.S. Transportation Secretary, Anthony Foxx, commented on this during the awards announcement:

“One way this is innovative is we see this evolution happening in the private sector,” Foxx said. “It’s a different way of thinking about transportation. I think there’s a message that we’re giving to the technology community through this Challenge. Getting their technology deployed is a huge challenge,” he added, “and we can gauge the appetite among America’s cities for these innovations.”

Following the winning announcement on June 23rd, I think quite a few people were surprised. Columbus, OH seemed to be the unexpected choice — at least I thought so when it beat out cities like San Francisco, Portland, and Pittsburgh. That was until I read more about their smart city plan.


Besides the additional $90 million in funding that the city was able to secure (which certainly played a factor), Columbus had a key differentiator that went beyond transportation — it focused on their people.

Sure, Columbus had a great plan to improve transportation technology (think electric and autonomous transit), but they focused on how these transportation improvements could solve real problems for people in their city. Their plan for the city’s transportation system will provide solutions to residents in low-income neighborhoods in and around Columbus who may not own credit cards or have a bank account. It will also help meet the transportation needs of these same residents by getting them to their jobs more easily and helping them receive better educations.

Another impressive focus in their smart city vision was how these improvements to the Columbus transit system would impact the city’s infant mortality rate. According to data provided by Columbus Public Health, 2-3 babies in Franklin County die before the age of 1 every week. That could be up to 156 babies each year. Columbus Public Health is taking part in multiple projects to help reduce these numbers, and felt this was important to incorporate in their citywide plan. City officials have said that by improving transportation options in poor neighborhoods, this could help new and expectant mothers receive better access to health care services, therefore reducing mortality numbers.


The City of Columbus’ Smart City Challenge plan is something that we can all take a note from as technology advances and smart cities begin to become a reality. Connectivity in our transportation systems is very important, but we always need to consider how we can make this technology solve problems that are very real to the residents in our communities. Sometimes we all need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

I, for one, am excited to see Columbus’ plan play out and expect it to be a model for other U.S. cities to follow.