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The dream of ‘Smarter Cities’ is more than just a slogan for IBM. In 2009, the company publicly committed millions of dollars and thousands of hours to delivering real urban improvement in 100 key cities around the world. This has been the ‘Smarter Cities Challenge.’

Omaha, Nebraska is a city that is going places. Unfortunately, that’s been exactly its problem. “Omaha has seen sprawling urban development in recent decades,” explains Mark Esseboom, Governmental Programs Market Support Leader for IBM Europe. “Omaha began as a city on the banks of the Missouri River 150 years ago – and it has expanded continually westwards ever since. Especially in recent decades, it’s been cheaper to develop real estate on farmland to the west, than to regenerate what was already in the downtown area.”

From this, Omaha has faced a constantly widening suburban sprawl. The result? Continual hikes in maintenance costs for an expanding civic infrastructure, and an underinvested downtown. “That’s been bad for business, and has led to social issues in the heart of the city that swallow up more budget. It’s a stretched city: There isn’t enough money to pay for it at its current size, and there isn’t enough to grow the inner city. So that was our starting point: How can we rebalance the city towards growth?”

The challenge: Making cities smarter

The ‘Smarter Cities Challenge’ is IBM’s global campaign to bring its Smarter Planet vision to life. In 2009, the company itself to a three-year initiative, investing IBM expertise and dollars to help 100 cities around the world deliver real improvements in their civic infrastructures.

“We don’t just look at the city’s technology,” says Esseboom. “We look at the urban infrastructure, fiscal strategy, education, business, local culture – everything. It really reflects the fact that IBM today is so much more than a tech company.”

In October 2012, Esseboom was part of a task-force of five IBMers – airlifted into Omaha for the latest rapid research project. “Over three weeks, we interviewed close to 100 local people – town planners, civil servants, developers, NGOs, local residents, business owners and politicians. Our schedules were packed with fact-finding visits to key parts of the city. And we came up with a set of recommendations.”

It is an effective way to kick-start civic improvement. “Politicians, developers, residents only see one part of the puzzle. And not only does each have his own bias, they’re embedded. That means a team like ours can add real value. We’re able to look at the problem holistically and then join the dots quickly between areas of interest, or bring best practices from one department into another.”

The team’s final recommendations were detailed and extensive: their report covered all aspects of Omaha’s civic management, from education policy to welfare and taxation.

For Esseboom, his primary hope is that the city will adopt the team’s core recommendation to rebalance Omaha’s economy using a new fiscal strategy. “We researched examples from other cities and proposed differentiating between low-density population areas and high-density areas in the levies; in other words, you base taxes on actual usage rather than a flat percentage. It’s our belief that that would make it not only much fairer, but also more sustainable for the city.”

It is now for the mayor and his colleagues to fight the political battles to put those ideas into statute. “They were really on board with our recommendations, and I think it would be really heroic if they were able to get these things applied, especially given that some of the proposals are very politically divisive. We all now hope it will make all the difference in helping a great city build itself towards the future.”

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