IBM Smarter Cities Challenge: People’s Insights Volume 2, Issue 12

What is the Smarter Cities Challenge?

IBM launched the Smarter Cities Challenge to collaborate with local governments and co-fund technology-based solutions to city-specific urban challenges. Through the Smarter Cities Challenge, IBM aims to help 100 cities across the world address urban issues with $50 million worth of IBM technology and expertise.

smarter cities launch


IBM focuses on cities that collect data, and leverages its own technology and expertise to integrate city systems and solve problems. As former IBM-er Adam Christensen blogged:

 “Cities have tremendous opportunities to use data, connectivity, and sophisticated software tools to know themselves better and improve their efficiency and effectiveness as providers of services and engines of economic growth.”

The Smarter Cities Challenge was launched as a three-year initiative in 2011. By the end of 2012, IBM has sent 300 experts to work with 60 cities around the world. Winners of the final phase of the challenge were announced in November 2012.

How it works

Cities applied to the challenge online over three years and IBM announced 20 to 35 winners each year.

Blogger Itir Sonuparlak noted:

“In order to receive the funds and the expertise, the cities had to be prepared to match IBM’s investment with their own commitment of time and resources. The submissions that were favored included urban concerns that could be addressed using “smarter” technologies, the availability of data, and cities that demonstrated a record of innovative problem solving.”

IBM Smarter Cities Challenge

A team of IBM experts visits each winning city and spends three weeks working with local authorities to analyze the city and recommend smart city solutions.

Fast Company’s Ariel Schwartz wrote:

“The program… will give $250,000 to $400,000 worth of services to each city selected through the competitive grant process. Those services may include access to City Forward (an IBM tool which allows cities to analyze and visualize data across systems), workshops on social networking tools, time with top IBM talent, and assistance with strategic planning.”

In addition, cities are also introduced to the IBM Intelligent Operations Center, a robust tool that monitors and manages city services, in its effort to create smarter cities.

Writer Heidi Schwartz noted:

 “These pilots leverage IBM technology and will combine high volumes of data from sensors and databases (aka “Big Data”) with a layer of analytics software. This infrastructure will allow officials to visualize and manage operations more efficiently.”

Writer Rachel King pointed out:

“Essentially, IBM’s concept is to build a new user interface that exists between inhabitants and their city.”

To demonstrate the capabilities of its technology, IBM created the game CityOne – a virtual simulation of an urban city and the challenges it faces. As Fast Company’s Ariel Schwartz noted:

“Cities considering the application process might want to take a look at IBM’s CityOne, a city simulation game intended to help developers and city planners deal with issues related to climate change, electrical grid management, banking and more. The game could, in other words, help cities pinpoint problems that might be alleviated with a little help from IBM.”

IBM CityOne Trailer: A Smarter Planet Game

In their journey to make cities smarter, IBM experts address urban issues ranging from administration, citizen engagement, economic development, education & workforce, environment, public safety, social services, transportation and urban planning.

Then, IBM documents the experience and learning from each city into an executive report or case study and shares this on the Smarter Cities Challenge website – giving other cities and thinkers the opportunity to explore solutions.

Jen Crozier, Vice President of IBM Global Citizenship Initiatives, shared:

“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.”

IBM’s purpose

The Smarter Cities Challenge is an evolution of both IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative to address sustainable development, and also the IBM Corporate Service Corps pro bono consulting program to assist governments in developing countries with projects that intersect business, technology, and society.

The challenge reflects IBM’s vision of using technology to connect, monitor and analyze systems to create smart systems – smarter grids, smarter traffic management, smarter cities, smarter healthcare, smarter food distribution and so on – to achieve economic growth, sustainable development and societal progress.

As such, Smarter Planet is a part of both IBM’s business strategy as well as its CSR strategy. Edward Boches, Chief Innovation Officer at ad agency Mullen and professor at Boston University, noted:

“It’s a tagline, an ad campaign, a social media program, an attempt to educate customers and influencers, a library of thought leadership, an employee motivational program, and a clearly defined corporate mission.  Most importantly it’s a way to sell IBM and its services by framing the importance of, and the need to, harness the intelligence in the world’s and a company’s connected data.”

Blogger Mary Catherine O’Connor wrote:

“Does this grant project mark the dawn of philanthropy 2.0? Or is it a handy tool for IBM to market its services to urban leaders? It’s both. And for IBM, it’s also a way to advance its Smart Planet platform, which is all about building more efficient systems through analytics, sensor networks, cloud computing, building automation and other systems.”

Data, crowds and smart cities

Entrepreneurs, organizations and governments are keenly exploring the use of data, connected objects and crowdsourcing to make cities smarter – especially as cities become more crowded and congested.

open data


IBM’s City Forward is an open interactive platform that allows people explore city data and discuss findings with the City Forward community. IBM has also created the community People for a Smarter Planet to connect thinkers and changemakers around this challenge.

City Forward Introduction

Governments too are opening up data and problems to entrepreneurs, coders and citizens, with challenge platforms like Code for America, and Challenge Post in the U.S., and Spark Central in the UK.

Anthony Townsend, director of research at the Institute for the Future, argues that cities have a lot to gain by opening up to citizens:

“Why can’t the technology that makes the Web an intuitive and interactive, yet deeply personalized and social realm, be grafted onto the physical world in a similar fashion?…

“In the coming decade each city must strive to be as good a civic laboratory as it can be. It must provide a physical and social support system for hackers and entrepreneurs to experiment within.”

Finally, several entrepreneurs have launched projects to crowdsource ideas on how cities can prepare for the future (see our People’s Insights report on TED’s The City2.0 platform).

the city2.0



MSLGROUP’s People’s Lab crowdsourcing platform and approach helps organizations tap into people’s insights for innovation, storytelling and change. The People’s Lab crowdsourcing platform also enables our distinctive insights and foresight approach, which consists of four elements: organic conversation analysis, MSLGROUP’s own insight communities, client-specific insights communities, and ethnographic deep dives into these communities.

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As an example, 100+ thinkers and planners within MSLGROUP share and discuss inspiring projects on corporate citizenship, crowdsourcing, storytelling and social data on the MSLGROUP Insights Network. Every week, we pick up one project and do a deep dive into conversations around it — on the MSLGROUP Insights Network itself but also on the broader social web — to distill insights and foresights. We share these insights and foresights with you on our People’s Insights blog and compile the best insights from the network and the blog in the People’s Lab Quarterly Magazine, as a showcase of our capabilities. We have synthesized the insights from  2012 to provide foresights for business leaders and changemakers — in the ten-part  People’s Insights Annual Report titled Now & Next: Ten Frontiers for the Future of Engagement.

As you can imagine, we can bring the same innovative approach to help you distill insights and foresights from conversations and communities. To start a conversation on how we can help you win with insights and foresights, write to Pascal Beucler at