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When communities set out on massive, multidimensional civic improvement projects, a necessary first step is gaining agreement from the principle players in government, business, and the non-profit sphere on what they want the city or region to be–its brand, if you will. This is a conclusion IBM executives have drawn from dozens of Smarter Cities engagements in communities scattered all over the globe.

That ambition is more easily stated than accomplished, but some of the work IBM  is doing in Poland points to lessons that could help community leaders elsewhere.

Katowice, with a population of about 300,000,  is the unofficial capital of the Silesa region in southern Poland, which is known for its coal mining, steel making, and other heavy industries. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region has suffered economically. Its coal mines, in particular, became less competitive, resulting in a loss of tens of thousands of mining jobs.

Fortunately, the city and the region have some inspired and energetic leaders, among them Katowice Mayor Piotr Uszok. The goal is to shift to high-tech and service industries–supported by improvements in the transportation system. Uszok asked IBM for help in devising an economic renewal plan, and, as a first step, we sent in a five-person team from our Corporate Service Corps to help size up the situation.

The CSC, which has been called a “business” version of the Peace Corps, sends small groups of IBMers with diverse talents into countries or cities to help them craft economic development strategies, beef up government services, and improve systems such as transportation, health, and water. Some of the teams, such as the one that went to Poland, are made up entirely of executives–bringing a higher level of expertise and management skills to the projects.

Visiting Katowice this spring, the team engaged with a group of community leaders who have been jointly developing regional strategies for several years. At the same time, they’re open to new ideas, particularly along the themes of attracting foreign investors to create new jobs, improving the quality of life, and updating the transportation system.

The team members met with about 200 people from government, academia, and businesses. From these conversations they drafted a set of recommendations, which they presented to mayor Uszok in a marathon five-hour meeting. (The mayor demonstrated his commitment to strategic planning by continuing the meeting even though the city was under a severe flood threat.)

Part of the plan in Katowice itself is to tear down large sections of deteriorated, Communist-era buildings and replace them with stylish, modern structures. They’re creating a pedestrian zone to encourage shopping and cultural activities in the downtown.

But Katowice is also working with leaders in about 25 neighboring cities to create a regional program, as well. The challenge is coming up with a unifying theme that all of the cities can agree on. “They’re trying to merge their brands to have one voice,” says Karen Howe, an executive in IBM Systems & Technology Group who was one of the Corporate Service Corps team members.

For Karen, the brand challenge was best illustrated by the fact that when the team visited the various towns around Katowice, they were usually presented with small metal pins by the local leaders. “We got a lot of pins with different slogans on them,” she says.

A second CSC team is visiting Katowice this summer to help flesh out the branding, economic development, and  transportation proposal’s made by Karen’s group.

Mayor Uszok seemed pleased by his initial encounters with IBMers.  “Very often we have visits of teams from other countries in order to evaluate our town,” he said at a press conference in May. ” However, in the past, there was never such a case that a team of experts tried to experience living in the city and verify its strong and weak points, and later pull together a list of recommended activities.”

Film maker Woody Allen is credited with the quip, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” The CSC teams are dedicated to doing a lot more than that. One of their challenges will be helping communities to redefine themselves in much the same way that great companies establish their brands. In Katowice, step one of that mission has been accomplished: recognizing that it must be done.

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