Since we announced a competitive grant program for cities about two weeks ago, we’ve received an outpouring of interest that has surprised even us at IBM.
We had invited cities to apply for grants through what we call “The Smarter Cities Challenge,” for which IBM will award $50 million worth of technology and services to 100 municipalities worldwide. After spending weeks performing research, speaking with citizens, working alongside city officials, and canvassing communities, IBM volunteers will provide city leaders with a “road map” of recommendations for successful growth, better delivery of municipal services, more citizen engagement, and improved efficiency.
Why are we doing this? Aren’t cities too broad and complicated to take on as philanthropic projects? Leave cities to urban planners, elected officials, and civic groups. Why not just focus grants individually on elements of society, like education, economic development, health care or the environment?
Well, actually, we do that now. In fact, we have many programs that focus on those issues. Many other foundations have programs tailored to those issues as well. But what makes cities so attractive to us is that they bring all of those individual sectors and issues together in one ecosystem. It’s the ideal place to see how all of those issues connect to one another—for example, how an educated population with access to wholesome recreation and an efficient public transportation system can have an effect on environmental sustainability, jobs and economic growth.
We felt that in cities, where the key challenges come together, we could really make a real difference. What I mean by that is that while cities can and do differ from one another, there are many common strategies and sound practices that cut across the social and political spectrum—where education, and even transportation, effect economic development. And there are a variety of technologies whose applications are useful across many disciplines; for instance, the same analytics software or cloud computing that helps to plan budgets, crunch numbers and address key technical and infrastructure challenges, can also be applied to criminal justice, education and health care.
The timing is right for this effort. In 2008, according to the United Nations, more than half the world’s human population began living in cities for the first time in the world’s history. And given the economic difficulties, cities are desperate for help and are savvier about getting that help—teaming with the private sector, for instance. What better time than the present to focus on cities?
Baltimore was one of the first U.S. cities we’ve engaged with the the Smarter Cities Challenge. If the response we’ve gotten from the mayor and other city leaders there is any indication, municipalities are hungry for the kind of critical thinking and strategy that can animate their ideas.
Technology, when integrated into city strategy and planning, while not a panacea, can give city leaders the tools they need to implement new and more effective ways of providing services to citizens, improving our collective quality of life, and making a meaningful contribution that will endure.
Stanley S. Litow is IBM’s vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs and president of IBM’s Foundation