The challenge

The Smarter Cities Challenge is a signature IBM Citizenship initiative that contributes IBM technology and the skills and expertise of teams of IBM experts to address key challenges facing cities around the world.

Contributing IBM technology and talent to tackle urban challenges

Winning cities receive a team of five to six IBM experts that deploys to the winning city to work closely with the city leadership for a three-week period on their proposed challenge. The IBM team works closely with its host city to gather information about root causes and potential solutions to the obstacles at hand.

The team then analyzes that data and uses its insights to offer support that can take the form of strategic recommendations, data-driven tools, implementation roadmaps and workshops and staff trainings. These outputs are drawn from the technical experience and strategic insight of the IBM team, city staff and community members to incorporate the entire community’s insight.

IBM cognitive computing and big data capabilities provide Smarter Cities Challenge winners with deep, data-driven insights into their urban challenges and enable them to generate and evaluate options that improve policy development and decision-making. This leads the way for creative new solutions.

Over the past six years, more than 132 cities have been selected to receive grants, each valued at $500,000; total contributions to date are valued at more than $66 million. Winning cities have used the recommendations prepared by Smarter Cities Challenge teams to make substantive progress on a diverse array of urban issues, including transportation, infrastructure, social services and economic development.

The program’s impact has been recognized by the White House and the federal governments of South Korea and Australia, as well as by the Committee for Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, among others.

In 2017, IBM is selecting cities to receive grants set to be deployed through May of 2018.

Global urban trends

The 2016 World Cities Report by the UN Human Settlements Program (UN Habitat) identified key trends affecting the world’s cities today: urbanization and the rise of small and medium-sized cities, decentralization of government, climate change and migration. With the gap between the rich and poor in both developed and developing countries at its highest levels in three decades, the intersection of these urban trends with increasing inequality poses opportunities and challenges for cities around the world.

From bridging silos in information and operations to investing in infrastructure, the Smarter Cities Challenge has helped more than 132 cities around the world to become smarter. Our discoveries chime with the recent findings of the UN Human Settlements Program, which highlights three key trends affecting cities today:

  • Urbanization and decentralization

    By 2050, 66% of the world's population will live in urban environments, with most growth happening in small and medium-sized cities. Urbanization and growing decentralization are forcing local authorities to become more self-reliant and increase their capacity to fund local services and institutions, turning cities into incubators that can test new public policy and local government-led initiatives.

  • Climate change

    Many cities are in areas vulnerable to climate change, such as river deltas, coastlines and drought-prone regions. As cities around the world experience significant shifts from historic weather patterns and an increase in extreme weather events, effective local resiliency strategies to bolster city and regional stability are increasingly important.

  • Migration

    Extensive migration across international borders has significant implications for urban communities, presenting both opportunities and challenges for cities receiving influxes of migrants. Large migration flows can rapidly increase the need for services, such as affordable housing, employment opportunities and sanitation. But with the population aging in Europe and other regions, cities also stand to benefit from the increase in migrants who can ease skill shortages and boost economies.

Social equity

Inequality has risen to its highest levels in the past three decades, interacting with the other trends in significant ways. Rapid population growth due to urbanization challenges the ability of many cities to provide services for residents in need, such as access to affordable housing, employment, transportation and healthcare. Low-income populations often disproportionately bear the negative impacts of climate change, while migrants often are a vulnerable population whose access to social and financial capital has been significantly disrupted.

These urban trends highlight priority areas for cities and regions to invest in and build capacity to support the needs of their current and future residents. Cities have an essential role to play in tackling these key social equity challenges by delivering vital city services and addressing disparities in social and environmental conditions.