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Dear Cities: IBM Wants to Hang Out

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, December 1 2010

IBM is now accepting applications for cities that want to participate in the Smarter Cities Challenge, a project to send teams of IBM employees to 100 cities around the world, over the next three years, for about three weeks each, bearing technology know-how:

Each city participating in the Challenge will receive a donation of IBM services and/or technology valued at $250,000-$400,000 USD to address a specific problem or opportunity selected by the city in collaboration with IBM. IBM shall, in its sole discretion, select the cities to receive the Smarter Cities grants.

The deadline for applications is the end of the year.

The idea here is that cities are complex systems, and if IBM has systems engineering expertise, well, then helping some of the world's urban centers work out their problems is a task that IBM is well suited to help solve.

"When you recast social and political and infrastructural problems as problems of system design," IBM's John Tolva said at an event we sponsored last year summer, "you can turn a company of 400,000 nerds into — you can make it interesting to them."

That quote's about halfway through the video above.

Smarter Cities has already sent IBM employees to seven cities, three in the U.S. and four abroad. Jennifer Crozier, IBM's director of corporate citizenship, told me in a phone interview today that this is strictly a philanthropic enterprise; the teams in each city try to be agnostic as they recommend technologies to pursue, rather than recommending IBM products or solutions every time.

A common issue that cities seem to face is improving social services delivery, Crozier said. One approach is to share the data each city agency or authority collects about the same clients or stakeholders, something that Code for America fellows plan to tackle in Boston next year.

"We're collecting this data," Crozier said, "we're just not sharing it and so we're not getting a full picture."

The IBM team working in each city conducts interviews and research, then produces reports and presentations that outline a suggested plan of action to use technology to help solve whatever problem they've been asked to address, Crozier explained.

To participate in the program, the chief executive of the city (or county, or insert-municipal-government-unit-here) has to be on board, but Crozier pointed me to places where she's seen cities crowdsource ideas for what issues an IBM team should tackle.

Buffalo Rising, a Buffalo, N.Y. news site, and Arlington Now, a site covering Arlington, Va., have both asked their readers what they would ask IBMers to improve.

Crozier thinks that's a good idea. (Hint, hint.)

"A smart city, a transparent city that cares about its citizens would engage its citizenry in, 'what is it that we should tackle, team?'" she said.

The initiative will send IBMers to a mix of cities in both the developing and developed world.