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Jennifer Crozier, Vice President, IBM Global Citizenship Initiatives

By Jennifer Crozier

We’ve just concluded the IBM Smarter Cities Summit – a gathering of the 2013 Smarter Cities Challenge winners, urban policy influencers and IBM experts for a two-day working session of sharing global perspectives and best practices. Up for discussion were issues related to economic development, transportation, sustainability, and more. And we spent time analyzing the common characteristics of cities that are able to make demonstrable progress in becoming Smarter Cities: reliable and accessible data, clear governance and meaningful civic engagement.

These three themes emerged again and again, and seemed to transcend characteristics of a city’s geography, size or economic position.

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IBM launched the Smarter Cities Challenge two years ago with the aim of providing IBM’s most valuable resource – the problem solving skills of our employees – to address some of the most pressing urban challenges. By the end of 2012, we will have sent over 300 experts in teams of six to 62 cities around the world, after considerable pre-work and planning. Teams spend three weeks on site, working on projects selected by mayors.

What We’ve Learned

Over the past two years we’ve learned a great deal and developed an incredible network of forward thinking city leaders. In this year’s application pool, sustainability was the most popular challenge posed by cities, and our teams will look forward to tackling those challenges alongside perennial priority subjects like economic development and transportation.

Unsurprisingly, good data is central to making the most of scarce resources. Many cities have large quantities of data, but data is too often isolated and defies efforts for meaningful analysis. A city also may lack rigorous standards for collection, maintenance and analysis of data – making conclusions and actions elusive. City leaders are craving support in managing and understanding the masses of data that surrounds them.

While Mayors are often blamed or praised for a wide range of outcomes in their cities, those outcomes are often beyond their control due to fragmented governance structures, with powers partially delegated to city, county, state and national authorities. For example, a city may set land use and zoning policies, but rely on a regional transportation authority to provide public transportation, and use federal funds to pay for essential road repairs. Yet when citizens are upset about traffic congestion, they frequently complain to mayors, who only oversee a small portion of the situation. Mayors who make progress on critical issues make the most of their own authority, and collaborate closely with state and federal officials to affect broader policy decisions.

Lastly, while governments can influence many areas of urban policy, some outcomes can only be achieved with meaningful and lasting engagement of citizens. Many cities have begun to embrace open data initiatives, establish 3-1-1 service hotlines and provide services via cloud platforms, which all hold tremendous promise in improving the efficiency of service delivery.

But to achieve the truly ambitious goals like reducing carbon emissions and improving health outcomes, cities must go beyond efficient service and engage citizens actively as collaborators working toward a common good. Few cities have been able to fully leverage the opportunities provided by civic engagement, though many have begun to experiment in this area.

We are honored to be working with such a distinguished group of city partners for 2013, and look forward to helping address the challenges they have put forward. While the first two years of the program were about building expertise and connecting city leaders, the third year of the program will focus on synthesis, and the ways in which the lessons learned from one city can be combined with those from another to yield unexpected insight into the challenges facing cities.

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October 4, 2013
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