03/29/2012 02:56 pm ET Updated May 29, 2012

How to Transform a City: Lessons from the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge

"The secret of getting ahead is getting started." Mark Twain

Today, IBM announced the 33 cities that will participate this year in its Smarter Cities Challenge grant program. This marks the second year in a three-year, $50 million, 100-city initiative. IBM sends five- or six-person teams of experts in a range of disciplines to help cities formulate strategies for improving the quality of life for their citizens.

By now, IBM has amassed a wealth of knowledge about how to help cities get started on transformational projects. Last year, the company engaged with 25 cities around the world, including St. Louis in the United States, Glasgow in the United Kingdom, Chiang Mai in Thailand and Johannesburg in South Africa. The previous year, they ran test programs in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Katowice, Poland; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Chengdu, China; and elsewhere. The themes of the projects ranged from education, transportation and to public safety to energy and sustainable economic development. Here's a post on the Citizen IBM blog from Stephen Mandel, the mayor of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, about the engagement there.

After each engagement, IBM's Corporate Citizenship team identifies lessons learned. The exercise is partly aimed at improving the program itself, but the team also gleans insights that could help any leader in any city launch an initiative aimed at fundamentally transforming an aspect of how the city works. Here are some of the most critical lessons for leaders:

Be Bold-Even Audacious. If you don't set a high bar and really challenge yourselves, the progress you make will be marginal at best.

The United Kingdom, for instance, has set a target of halving carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2025--with a progress report due in 2014. Glasgow, a Scottish industrial city, will require significant improvements in energy conservation to meet the overall goals. But, at the same time, the city has a high ratio of poor people who suffer from what city leaders call "fuel poverty." Nearly 35% of Glasgow households can't afford to heat their homes properly. The goal is to address both problems with the same initiative. For starters, the city is paying for a fuel subsidy program for poor people using the proceeds from clean energy projects.

Think Differently. Be willing to try new ways of doing things. Just being more efficient with conventional approaches, even those that worked well in the past, won't work best now.

Antofagasta, Chile, is a thriving port city in the country's arid mining region, but it lacks some of the quality-of-life amenities befitting a city of its size and importance. The city leaders decided to take an unusual tactic: Make the city greener, literally, by irrigating parks and open spaces. Yet the dry climate made that goal particularly challenging. The IBM team crafted a set of proposals designed to get the most out of the limited supply of water.

Pick a Target That's a Shared Priority. To get something difficult done, it will have to be at or near the top of the priority lists of all of the participants. Everybody involved has to pull together or the group will be pulled apart.

The political leaders in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and Charlotte, the county seat, invited municipal leaders from throughout the county to come together and agree on a project they could take on together. The theme they settled on, integrated regional capital planning, may not seem sexy, but, in a state where local government power is dispersed, it's a necessary step for getting big things done.

Partner with Businesses and Non-profits. It's important for city governments to engage with other actors in society, including universities and other non-profits, business organizations and individual businesses. Also, the earlier you get all the stakeholders involved, the better.

In Philadelphia, the Digital On-Ramps Initiative is aimed at preparing residents to work and thrive in the 21st century economy. The initiative is being planned and managed by a consortium of institutions, including city departments, Drexel University, and a handful of civic groups, including the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, which is made up of representatives from government, business and neighborhood groups.

Encourage Citizen Involvement. Citizens can provide valuable insights into the most effective ways to improve the quality of life in their city. In this social networking era, it's even more crucial to engage with citizens, and, thanks to all of the new technology tools that are available, it's easier to do so.

Helsinki, Finland, faces social shifts resulting from an aging native population combined with immigration from Eastern European countries. It aims to open its data to the public, but needs to identify the most effective ways for communicating with a changing citizenry. The IBM team met with a group of citizens gathered at a local university and solicited ideas for open-data applications that would appeal to the people of Helsinki.

Understand the Value of Data. Evidence-based decision making really works. You can do things smarter and better, also more efficiently and more quickly.

In Syracuse, New York, a former industrial center with a sizable housing vacancy problem, city leaders realized that gathering and analyzing data is crucial to identifying which troubled neighborhoods have the highest potential for turnarounds. That way they could focus resources on them. A close look at the data showed--perhaps counter-intuitively--that neighborhoods with a high rate of calls to the police about drug use and loud disturbances have a high potential for being saved. It means the residents care enough to complain.

Invest for the Future. Sure, money is tight, but cities must be prepared to invest up front for long term benefits.

Chengdu, China, has laid out a five-year plan for investing in cloud computing resources to support its many Intelligent Chengdu initiatives. Chicago, Illinois, plans to invest in creating five new science and technology-focused schools, which combine high school and community college, in partnerships with IBM and four other corporations. The city's leaders understand that they have to invest in programs that will take years to deliver results. They think it's vital to creating the skilled workforce that's necessary to sustain a dynamic economy.

Take Action Immediately: The research and final report aren't of much value if cities don't take action based on them. These can be small steps: reallocation of funds, new data gathered, a working group set up or a staff position created. The most important thing is to keep the process moving.

A number of the cities were quick to implement some of IBM's recommendations. For instance, Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, has signed agreements with all its municipalities to develop a consolidated capital budget planning process. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is developing a program for helping residents to continue or resume their educations. And Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, analyzes traffic data more rigorously to improve road safety.

For the complete report, click here.