How do they do that?

One secret to successfully funding a Smart City initiative

Jim Barbaresso / August 16, 2017
Jim Barbaresso

Over the past few years, I’ve given presentations about the growing trend of Smart City initiatives to numerous planning commissions and government agencies around the country. One of the questions I get most often during the post-presentation Q&A is, “How do they do that?”

In other words, “How do cities manage to take a relatively small infrastructure investment and grow it into a much larger pool of money to fund their Smart City initiatives?”

The answer I provide is always the same: They do it largely through embracing partnership.

To illustrate my point, I refer to Columbus, Ohio, a city that received an initial Smart City Challenge grant of $40 million from the U.S. DOT and $10 million from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation—both awarded in June 2016. At the time of the award, the city had secured matching funds of $90 million. Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther has since set a goal of $1 billion in public and private matching funds for the program. They are almost halfway there.

In 2002, long before Smart City initiatives were a fad, CEOs from the city’s top businesses and institutions got together with Columbus government leaders to create The Columbus Partnership. The partnership’s mission is to stimulate growth and development within the city through strategic public and private investments.

When the U.S. DOT announced its Smart City Challenge in December 2015, city leaders were able to call on the Columbus Partnership—which already had numerous collaborative successes under its belt—to support the development of a plan for an “integrated, first-of-its-kind smart transportation system that would use data, applications and technology to help people and goods move more quickly, cheaply and efficiently.”

While writing the proposal, Ginther and other city officials, along with the Columbus Partnership, shared the Columbus Smart City vision with CEOs from local companies and organizations such as Battelle, IBM, Nationwide Insurance, the Central Ohio Transit Authority, Cardinal Health, The Ohio State University and others. In all, more than 50 Columbus companies saw the value of investing their own resources, services and capabilities to do something good for the community, and enthusiastically supported the Smart Columbus proposal with vital commitments for in-kind investments.

For example, AEP, one of the nation’s largest energy providers, agreed to provide millions of dollars of investment in grid modernizations and electric vehicle infrastructure. Leadership from the Central Ohio Transit Authority also agreed to support several key projects. During the application phase, engineers worked closely with the project team and other private partners such as Mobileye (transit collision-avoidance system) and MassFactory (applications to support increased mobility for people with cognitive disabilities) to develop a plan for implementation and deployment.

Ultimately, their proven ability to create successful partnerships between the public and private sectors played a key role in Columbus winning the Smart City Challenge grant over 77 other mid-sized American cities.

As we know, cities are under greater financial strain than ever. The cost of traditional infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, is significant, so agencies are looking for ways to use technology to get more value out of the infrastructure investments they make. Technology is helping cities increase efficiency, add capacity, provide better service through apps such as multimodal trip planners and get the word out to users and residents about what options are available and how best to use them. With resources being limited, this smart investment of resources is more important than ever.

Columbus is not the only city that’s become smart about partnering to leverage investments. Other cities that participated in the U.S. DOT’s Smart City Challenge, including San Francisco, Austin and Kansas City, have been able to generate millions of dollars in investments from private sector resources to move the ball forward in their local communities.

In the long run, I believe we’ll see even more cities achieving this kind of funding by creating successful win-win partnerships between their public and private sectors. It’s the Smart City way to build sustainable solutions that benefit residents, businesses and visitors.


Barbaresso is national ITS practice leader for HNTB Corp.

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