Our Journey


Smart Columbus team

November 3rd, 2021

Post by Donna Marbury, Smart Columbus Storyteller

In an effort to build a smart city, it is important to attract and develop the best people who can work in this fast-paced, evolving field and create tangible results. It can be difficult, as smart city concepts are still fairly new in the U.S., and many talented people may not have “smart city” experience on their resumes.

Identifying people who care about the growth of your city and have a passion to find answers are some of the key skills in being successful at a smart city organization, says Jordan Davis, director of smart cities for the Columbus Partnership.

To prepare for the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) Smart City Challenge, the City of Columbus tapped talent from within its departments and from other sectors to get ready for the scope of work that the grant would require, says Mandy Bishop, PE, program manager for the City of Columbus and Smart Columbus.

“When the City pursued the grant in 2016, it had already identified a Program Management Office (PMO) delivery structure that would consist of the appropriate skill sets to deliver the grant,” says Bishop. “The City looked first internally to deliver the Smart Columbus grant program and then it acknowledged it needed experienced staff that had large and complex program experience.”

After the City of Columbus won the Challenge in 2016, the work to create a team of people to deploy the grant came quickly.

“We had to organize and uplift leadership to meet the significance of the grant we had won and the investment that our community made,” Davis says.

First, an executive committee was organized, including Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther and his staff, and Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership. The City of Columbus and the Columbus Partnership co-chaired the executive committee with the main investors and partners on the initiative, meeting weekly for the first five months.

The Smart Columbus executive committee, with almost 20 public and private sector leaders was also developed to provide community perspective. That team continues to meet monthly to provide vision and guidance.

Some of the first questions the city had to grapple with were: what was the community’s expectations versus the grantors? And should the team that wrote the grant application be the team to make good on grant promises? The team needed to balance the rigors of managing a grant with attracting tech-savvy, future-forward talent who would deploy and develop programs.

Public/Private Governance Structure

An initial step in answering those questions was to find a third party to help create a team foundation. The city hired Deloitte to facilitate sessions that helped Smart Columbus develop its joint-venture structure, leadership and governance.

“That's when the mayor committed to uplifting a leadership role for Smart Columbus outside of the Department of Public Service, directly reporting to him. And the private sector needed to uplift leadership to meet that level so that we could move forward together and not be so siloed,” Davis says.

In addition to the Smart Columbus PMO structure, the overall PMO leadership was shifted into an informal public-private partnership structure. The City created a Department of Innovation, appointing Michael Stevens as chief innovation officer to co-lead Smart Columbus. Mark Patton, vice president of smart cities for the Columbus Partnership, was tapped to co-lead Smart Columbus to represent the private sector in this public/private partnership.

Smart Columbus is structured as a nonprofit, with the City of Columbus managing the $40 million USDOT grant and the $10 million Paul G. Allen Family Foundation grant. The team also found it essential to appoint a program manager role to facilitate the relationships with its grantors.

“The City’s strategy was to ensure it had the right people on the bus and then get them into the right seats,” Bishop says.

The City also developed the USDOT Project Management Plan—a rulebook for how the PMO is managed.

“It clearly defines organizational structure, roles and responsibilities, as well as processes and procedures to deliver the work of the grant,” Bishop says. “The role of the City is to deliver the grant while the role of The Columbus Partnership is to focus on amplification, engagement and leveraging the grant work to advance the regional initiative of Smart Columbus.”

Davis says it took nearly six months to arrange the governance structure of Smart Columbus.

“Arranging the governance structure gave us an opportunity to look at the types of skill sets that were needed,” Davis says.

Broadening Skillsets

Smart Columbus has at least seven engineers from the City of Columbus, four engineers contracted from area firms and some engineers from Ohio Department of Transportation and AEP Ohio working on several projects, though none of them had specific “smart city” experience. Bishop says that the engineers across multiple projects have had to broaden their skillsets to be more agile.

“Our team largely consists of engineers that have focused their careers on delivering infrastructure – highways, bridges, railroads and traffic signal systems. That workflow is very linear,” Bishop says.

Adding a heavy focus on technology into the mix of traditional engineering allowed for the team to broaden their skillsets and think more creatively, says Bishop.

“When I stepped into the Smart Columbus program, I viewed it as stepping into a transportation program,” Bishop says.  “I was really stepping into a transportation technology program. The vocabulary and terminology is vastly different. The expected pace in technology is very fast. If you think about the Agile way of delivering many of our projects, we are literally sprinting every single minute of the day.”

Ultimately, Bishop says, it is important to find engineers who are up for the task of thinking outside of the box when it comes to marrying traditional engineering technique with the faster pace of technology deliverables.

“Our team embraced this fast approach to the delivery of our software projects. We incorporated it into launching the self-driving shuttle, providing flexibility to develop multiple projects in the city and develop the standard operating procedures and test plans for the shuttle,” Bishop says. “Our team has grown from a bunch of infrastructure engineers to leaders in the technology space.”

People-Centered Data Specialists

The Smart Columbus Operating System is an open-source platform being developed to support Smart Columbus projects and be adopted by other cities and businesses. The project needed data specialists who could not only execute the technical aspects but understand that human value of the projects being deployed.

Because of the breadth of the Operating System project—directed by on-site contractors from Columbus-based Accenture—Davis says the data specialists needed to be able to communicate this complex system to a diverse group of stakeholders.

“The Operating System required a lot of expertise, so that’s why we engaged a strong partner to help us build it. We were lucky to have a partner in Accenture that was located in Columbus and have those contractors work at the Smart Columbus Experience Center with the rest of the team,” Davis says. “The SCRUM and Agile processes are embedded in how they work and is very different than how many other traditional processes work. It’s been a good education and awareness to work alongside them.”

Cultivating Electrification Roles

Finding people with expertise in the smart city and electrification industries is a struggle for many organizations pursuing such work. Davis says that Smart Columbus had to make a decision whether to outsource to special interest groups and non-government organizations that specialize in electrification or tap local talent and support them in growing with the organization.

Smart Columbus decided to hire two smart mobility managers—one focused on managing relationships with local car dealers and vehicle manufacturers and the other managing the Acceleration Partner program initiatives to expand mobility options and the Ride & Drive Roadshow. Both hires were local talent, passionate about the community and environmental issues.

For the first role, Davis said it was important to hire someone with a sales background who could appreciate the pressures that local car dealers were facing. For the second role, an expertise in designing and managing educational programs was an essential piece, as the Acceleration Partner program has grown to 70 corporate members.

“Neither of the people hired were electric vehicle experts when they came in. And we are all still learning the acronyms of the industry,” Davis says. “You can try to design pre-described positions, but at the end of the day it's about people. When you find people who have the right ingredients, you can design the rules around them and then the organization can be more successful.”

Uniting a Communications Strategy

Though Smart Columbus is comprised of leadership and staff from several organizations who manage two separate grants—the $40 million USDOT grant and the $10 million Paul G. Allen Family Foundation grant—it was clear that the organization needed an aligned communications strategy.

The team created a marketing and communications director position that worked across both grants to make sure public and media relations would be aligned.

“We knew we couldn’t go communicating to the public or to others outside of the community with different stories. We needed to all be speaking from one strategy. That was a critical central role we created,” Davis said.

Smart Columbus also has a hybrid public relations/brand journalism role, called the storyteller, who focuses on creating best practices and lessons learned content on the Playbook website. Davis says the role is important to not only provide transparency to the industry but create a how-to guide for other cities interested in smart city and electrification programs.

“It's not a traditional PR role, where the history of the organization is documented through press releases,” Davis says. “We knew that this was a huge opportunity and that we had a responsibility to document our successes and challenges as a way to bring other cities forward and help inform the industry on how to evolve their business models.”

Building Talent & Skills in Your Community

As more cities and businesses begin to take on smart city work, it will be important for organizations to seek out people in their communities who have a passion for change and an entrepreneurial spirit, even for public sector positions, Davis says.

“The ability to be entrepreneurial within a regulated, government environment or a community is more important than ever to embrace the future of the digitalization of services and government data,” Davis says. “Figuring out how to find the right people that might not have the expertise or technical credentials but have the ability to figure it out is really important.”

An important piece of Smart Columbus’ staff synergy is that people from several public and private entities work together at the Smart Columbus Experience Center, to promote working quickly and closely with one another. This allows for better understanding of projects across all teams and allows people to develop valuable skills important to the industry and to the community.

“We now have a bench of people in our community that have a skillset that it's really hard to replicate from any other experience,” Davis says. “We’ve been able to create a collaborative environment where these different skillsets, conversations and priorities are converging in real time which makes our work really makes it special.”


Sign up here to stay up-to-date on the latest from Smart Columbus.