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IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge: A Chance for Cities to Re-envision their Futures

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The city is making a comeback. In the United States it seemed for a time that cities were on the verge of obsolescence–being replaced as the centers of culture and economic growth by the sprawling suburb. Yet the successes of New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and other metropolitan areas clearly demonstrate that the institution has a lot of vitality left in it and a lot of potential as the breeding ground for new ideas, new forms of expression, and new waves of economic growth.

That's not to say that cities, in general, are thriving. But there are grounds for optimism. Well-managed, forward-looking cities where government, business, and other civic leaders work together have a chance to dramatically increase economic prosperity and quality of life for wide swaths of their populations. What they need is a vision of what they can become, a strategy for getting there, and a lot of collaboration.

It's difficult to muster this kind of effort at times like these, when the sluggish national economy provides no tailwind and declines in tax revenues threaten existing government services. But times of stress can create opportunities. When the old forms bend to the breaking point, it's easier to contemplate new forms and rally support behind them.

This is where a new program launched today by IBM comes into play. The Smarter Cities Challenge, a competitive grant program, will provide consulting and technology assistance valued at $50 million over the next three years to 100 cities worldwide (50 in North America; 50 elsewhere). The purpose is to help cities come up with plans and strategies for kindling vitality based on IBM's Smarter Planet agenda. 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 company has launched pilots in Baltimore, Austin, and Charlotte.

IBM invites cities to learn about the program and apply for grants at It also invites IBMers to help get their cities involved or even to become members of small teams of experts and consultants who will engage with the winning cities. If you're an IBMer and you're interested, contact your local Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs manager.

I, for one, plan on participating–trying to get my hometown of Pittsburgh interested, connected and selected.  I grew up in Export, a played-out coal mining town east of Pittsburgh, went to college at Carnegie Mellon University, and have watched Pittsburgh strive to stay relevant every since. The city has done a pretty good job. In spite of losing tens of thousands of steel and heavy industry jobs over the past 30 years, it has re-invented itself as a center of medical research and practice, university education, and high-tech industries. But there's much more than can be done–given Pittsburgh's brains, expertise, and economic resources.

My thought for Pittsburgh focuses on economic development. The city needs to create a flourishing entrepreneurial environment what can help build the industries and jobs of the future. The opportunity is to make Pittsburgh a locus for Smarter Planet industries–ones that use data, interconnectedness and intelligence to make the world work better. The city is well suited for this because the theme aligns with the capabilities and interests of some of its leading employers, UPMC, CMU, and the University of Pittsburgh, and it can tap into local expertise in high-tech manufacturing, software, mining, and energy generation.  Pittsburgh could become a Smarter Cities industry cluster.

This is an opportunity for people who care about their cities–IBMers or not– to help make good things happen. Don't miss out.