Three years ago IBM began to evangelise a new vision: a Smarter Planet. We argued that information technology was reaching a new tipping point which would effect all of our lives. Technology was increasingly affordable and therefore ubiquitous — just consider the number of devices that have a computer chip inside them.
Furthermore these devices were increasingly able to interconnect, and therefore able to pass data back to existing IT systems.
However, IBM’s vision went beyond what others now refer to as the ‘Internet of Things’. We could see that we would have the capability to analyse the vast amounts of data generated and build reliable computer models to help us make more informed decisions, operate more efficiently or even predict the future.
At the same time there was a recognition that the world’s resources were increasingly constrained — a population that now tops seven billion is leading to potential food, water and energy security challenges. Collectively, we need to conserve or use those resources more efficiently.
So, we found ourselves with the opportunity to use new technological capabilities to make things work better — whether natural or man-made systems. It was not a difficult decision to choose to focus on the structures in which we could have the greatest impact on the most people — cities. Since that decision IBM has been involved in more than 2,000 Smarter City projects across the world.
We’ve moved well beyond the stage when our automatic response to a request for help, was to write a cheque. Instead we’re focused on using our professional knowledge and capabilities to help make a sustainable difference to our communities which we believe is effectively an investment in the long-term sustainability of our own business.
We all need access to good education, good housing, good healthcare, transport etc. These are the essential conditions for all our success — and they are all examples of services provided at a local city level. So, establishing the ‘Smarter Cities Challenge’ was an obvious development in our mission to deliver corporate social value.
The Smarter Cities Challenge is strategic philanthropy on a large-city scale. Through the three-year $50 million programme we have invited cities around the world to bid for the services of small teams of consultants, to work alongside city leaders on their most critical issues, in order to offer new perspectives on how to address the challenges their cities are facing.
After an initial pilot of the concept in the US, IBM launched the programme globally in 2010, not knowing quite what the response was going to be. As the first annual round of the challenge closed we discovered that we had over 200 bids from cities in mature markets. In the first year we selected 25 cities. Glasgow was the first city selected outside of the US and is one of only four from Europe, the others being Nice, Eindhoven, and Helsinki.
Glasgow City Council asked for assistance in reviewing its approach to tackling fuel poverty — something that impacts an estimated 35% of its citizens — and that was before the recent round of energy price rises.
This summer a team of five consultants flew in from around the world to live and work in Glasgow for an intensive three week period. They were supported by a local UK team, in which I’m proud to include myself.
We worked hard to understand the issues — from the perspectives of a range of stake-holders. We met with over one hundred individuals. We brainstormed ideas and in the final week publicly presented our findings to more than 80 people representing interested parties, including the leader of the council.
We also delivered a report containing 60 recommendations and ideas of how the council and its partners might further develop their work in this area.
Glasgow City Council have since announced a number of initiatives to address fuel poverty — or ‘affordable warmth’ as it is now known – and the establishment of a new strategic forum comprised of organisations to address the issue, using our recommendations as the basis for the group’s work.
The second annual round of the Smarter Cities Challenge has recently closed. As I write, we are facing the daunting but exciting task of sifting through the applications and deciding which of the many bids to select.
Once again we’ll do this based on where we can make the greatest contribution and where the outcomes have the greatest potential to make things work better — endeavouring to make progress step by step, system by system, city by city.
Mark Wakefield is IBM Corporate Citizenship Manager for the UK. This article originally appeared on LocalGov.co.uk