THE BLOG

Sharing Insights Into Smarter Cities

11/15/2012 03:07 pm ET | Updated Jan 15, 2013

Smarter cities are essential. For starters, more than 50 percent of us live in cities, and we depend on them for clean water, safe food, safe streets, good schools, good jobs -- all of the big and small things that make cities viable and vibrant communities. Look across the boundaries of culture, geography and language, and you'll see that the challenges facing cities are universal. For while each locality has its own unique characteristics, the needs and aspirations of its citizens are the same, and the demands placed on its leadership are remarkably similar.

In St. Louis, for example, law enforcement and the courts are learning to use new tools that help them share data on criminal activity. The goal is to speed access to a common set of crime data in real time to improve public safety. The data favors no layer or level of government, and promotes shared decision making -- regardless of the sometimes disparate organization structures of government.

Indeed, the ability to collect and analyze data is a common theme in the smarter management of cities worldwide. For example, traffic congestion in Nairobi, Kenya is so serious that it costs the city more than $500,000 per day in lost productivity and excess fuel consumption, and threatens to stifle the economic development of a region that is exploding onto the world stage. Boston's traffic congestion problems are similar to Nairobi's, but by measuring and analyzing traffic data, it is possible to develop solutions in either city - both to ease traffic congestion and maximize resources. In each instance, the challenge is being able to act promptly and intelligently on the data..

Since cities around the world face public safety issues, the lessons learned in St. Louis can -- and do - provide global insight and benefits. And while traffic congestion has long been considered the bane of almost every urban area, we now appreciate that this "inconvenience" has a measurable cost to productivity and the environment -- an understanding that is the first step to creating solutions for cities in every region. We can apply the same principles of data-driven understanding to issues related to economic development and social services. The critical step of gathering and analyzing data is necessary in every area of city service, along with the painstaking process of listening before acting.

Making cities smarter isn't only about data analytics. It's also about the type of community engagement that requires participation from businesses and civic and community leaders, as well as everyday citizens. In the same way that no single constituency is responsible for a city's challenges, no isolated group can solve them on its own. This is especially true in an era of diminishing resources and global competition. In an interconnected world, a city cannot prosper if it stands alone. And within the community of a city, no changes -- however large or small -- can be implemented without active citizen support.

The conversation about the future of cities also must be global, and sharing best practices and understanding how to act on them is essential to accelerating the changes that can improve the quality of life for all urban citizens. From my perspective, the conversation also must encompass how organizations -- especially innovative corporations -- encourage their top talent to contribute time and expertise in service to the greater good. It's about changing the way we do business, and about understanding that well-functioning cities are vital to building effective businesses.

Stanley S. Litow is IBM's Vice President of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs and President of the IBM International Foundation. The Civic 50 has just named IBM as America's Number One most community-minded company.