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Could you really be working smarter?

The Smarter Cities Challenge can show you the way

In any organization that is facing increased demands with the same or reduced resources, you’re going to hear this sooner or later: “We don’t have to work harder; we have to work smarter.” The same chapter of that management textbook has the “think outside the box” phrase. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that “work smarter” mantra followed by any concrete advice on how to work smarter. That part is left to the worker bees to figure out. What if you really could find a way to work smarter?

The IBM Smarter Cities Challenge is an invitation to do exactly that. Each year, IBM awards a total of $50 million in IBM consulting services to cities looking for better ways to do what they do. Working from the advantageous perspective of many years of know-how and with no political agenda, the project has the potential to revolutionize the way your community works and delivers services.

Most grant programs buy equipment or fund the hiring or retention of employees, and we all know of situations where that money was squandered. The City of West Speed Bump buys a $150,000 mine-resistant tactical vehicle for its SWAT team because they could put a “homeland security” label on it, but the town can’t afford the gas to fill the tank up all the way. This program isn’t going to get you money for hazmat suits, blimps, or nuclear-powered pogo sticks. This is know-how, brought to bear on your city’s (or county’s) problems.

Smarter Cities isn’t a lottery. Applications need to address specific and real problems the local government is trying to solve, and IBM is more likely to give the assistance to cities that understand their problems and are willing to listen to people with possible solutions. Recipients of the grants aren’t obligated to act on the solutions IBM proposes, but those that don’t invite a valid question: if you didn’t want to know, why did you ask?

St. Louis, MO was a Smarter Cities Challenge award winner for 2011. There is an extensive report on the Smarter Cities Challenge website that describes how the IBM work group analyzed the city’s functions and came to their recommendations for change. One issue was the identification of a disconnect between the different city agencies involved in the criminal justice process. Although each entity—the police department, circuit attorney, circuit court, and probation and parole office—embraced a culture of accountability, that accountability ended at the walls of each office. The result was a pattern of “fall between the cracks” problems when an issue couldn’t be addressed within the office that discovered it. IBM recommended creation of “a unified culture of accountability” driven by the mayor’s office that was over all of these departments.

Local governments regularly pay huge fees to IBM and other consulting organizations. The studies are often commissioned so as to appear to address a problem that has politics at its root, and they result in the creation of reports that go unread and unheeded. There’s no guarantee that won’t happen with a Smarter Cities Challenge solution, but in this case you have nothing to risk by trying. At worst, you’ll be no worse off than you are; at best, you will have some workable solutions making you better and more effective at doing your job. Applications for the 2012 cycle close on December 16, 2011, and are available on the Smarter Cities Challenge website.

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