What Makes a City “Smart” and Who Decides? From Vision to Reality in the USDOT Smart City Challenge

Jae Teuk Chin, Andrew Guthrie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The concept of a “smart city” has gained currency in urban policy as a recognition of the potentially transformative role advanced information technology will play in city operations as the twenty-first century progresses. Who decides what makes a city smart and who is that smart city for are crucial questions for the urbanist literature to systematically address. Despite the concept’s recent popularity, “smart city” is a contested term and remains a chaotic dimension of urban theory. Theorizing the smart city in a US context must address a particular mix of built forms, public policies, and social conditions—all of which shape how transportation and other systems help constitute the city. To deepen understanding of the smart city concept in both theory and practice, this research explores the framing, construction, and contestation of the smart city concept through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT’s) Smart City Challenge (SCC), launched in 2015 as a competitive grant program with the intent to provide a spark for incentivizing the development of smart infrastructure in mid-sized US cities. We compare the action plans of the seven finalist cities selected to create plans to implement their visions, including Columbus, Ohio, the eventual winner. We employ interpretivist content and discourse analysis of the applications and award decision, as well as of early implementation in Columbus, to explore shared meanings of recurring themes and key concepts, building a grounded theory of the smart city in the US context. The findings of the comparative analysis reveal further insights into prevailing challenges in smart city deployment, particularly for areas lacking inherent technology platforms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-31
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Urban Technology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2023


  • Columbus
  • Smart City Challenge (SCC)
  • U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT)
  • smart city
  • vision elements (VEs)


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