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Smart IBM Reaches Out to Smarter Cities with Cash in Hand

RP Siegel | Monday April 4th, 2011 | 0 Comments

I have to say, I was pretty excited when I read about IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge Grant Program, where a number of cities (up to 100 eventually) will be awarded, on a competitive basis, roughly $4-500,000 each in computers and consulting services, based on their vision of how, given those resources, they would move the needle on the quality of life in their respective cities. Not only does this represent a benchmark level corporate citizenship program, but it is also razor-sharp marketing and public relations. Considering that “creating smart infrastructure for cities around the world has become the new frontier of urban planning, a global business estimated to be worth as much as $122-billion over the next two years,” this sounds like a very smart move for IBM, who is planning to give away $50 million over the next three years. Twenty four cities received awards last month in the first round. More than 200 cities from around the world applied.

According to the company’s website:

“Teams of specially selected IBM experts will provide city leaders with analysis and recommendations to support successful growth, better delivery of municipal services, more citizen engagement, and improved efficiency.”

Nowhere, in that statement does it says anything about sustainability. And yet, when you look at the programs that were selected for their “smartness,” you see things like better utilization of vacant housing stock (Syracuse), identification of at-risk students (St. Louis), city-wide wireless implementation (Chengdu, China), infrastructure and environmental issues (Rio de Janeiro), reducing rush hour traffic (Stockholm), expansion of urban farms (Milwaukee) and implementation of a environmentally-friendly lighting system in schools (Budapest). These are all things that will make these cities more sustainable. Is that selection bias on the part of IBM or is it simply question of sustainable being the new smart?

IBM’s vision of Smarter Cities includes innovation in:

  • Economic development
  • Transportation(Airports, Trains and Traffic management )
  • Social services
  • Education
  • Healthcare
  • Energy & Utilities

The challenge has a number of requirements for the cities applying which include: discrete sets of issues to deal with, an assurance that IBM would have full access to the city’s data, a population of approximately 300,000 to 750,000 residents, and the equivalent of the top city official signing off on the proposal. Overall, the selection process was quite competitive. “We were looking for cities where you could really make an impact,” says Stan Litow, IBM’s Vice President of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs and President of IBM’s Foundation.

With populations booming, infrastructure crumbling and government budgets imploding, more and more cities are turning to companies like IBM, Cisco, Oracle and GE to jump-start their recoveries in a new form of public- private partnerships. It’s a new model that has companies moving into the vacuum that was left in the aftermath of two, now three wars, plus a financial meltdown, in which other companies were the recipients, not the benefactors of public largesse.

But is this philanthropy or smart business? Perhaps it’s a little of both.

According to Bruce Katz, founding director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, “Multinational corporations have discovered cities and it’s probably one of the biggest market trends in the world.”  Toronto-based urban designer Ken Greenberg compares IBM today to the companies that built the Canadian railways, taking on the role of “nation builders.” The challenge will give IBM an opportunity to showcase their solutions, and since many cities share the same problems, this could lead to lots of new business.

What do you think of this new trend? Wouldn’t it be nice if the financial service companies that we gave billions to in bailouts got behind it?

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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