Atlantic Ocean/Long Island Sound watershed. Source: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
Atlantic Ocean/Long Island Sound watershed. Source: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

IBM refers to the Smarter Cities Challenge as a competitive grant, which I interpret as "free money to those who prove worthy." But that's not the case.

Instead, the company pulls together six employees who specialize in marketing, communications, technology, research and development, government, human resources, finance, business, legal matters, and/or disciplines like transportation, energy, and health. After studying the problem amongst themselves for several months, the team members spend three weeks meeting with city, county, and regional stakeholders -- elected officials, environmental and civic groups, citizens, government agencies, etc. -- to get a 30,000-foot view and propose a holistic solution.

The company values this assistance at $500,000.

The Smarter Cities Challenge is IBM's largest philanthropical initiative, but not its first foray into public works. In this June 2011 Public Works article, water managers in Dubuque, Iowa, explain how the company's "cloud" was helping implement advanced metering.

Suffolk County's challenge is to get buy-in for investing billions to centralize wastewater treatment. Roughly 70% of homes and businesses are on septic systems. Since Hurricane Sandy, nitrogen seeping out of bloated tanks has been poisoning shell fish and other marine life, affecting tourism and business.

This being IBM, the company's team used "big data" to prove something so obvious that most people don't see it: There's no such thing as "new" water. Whether it's rain, sewage, or tap water, a community's water supply is a single interconnected ecosystem.

In this video, the team recommends four very basic steps for justifying sewers and treatment plants. Hey, if that's what it takes to focus communitywide attention on an obvious public works problem, great.

Since the program's inception in 2011, 116 of the 500 cities, counties, and regions from all over the world (not just the U.S.) that applied have been accepted. That's about 30 per year, so why not yours?

A company represetnative couldn't provide a deadline, but says applications are due "typically at the beginning or end of a year." There are no restrictions; even "very small cities with populations of 30,000" have been chosen.

"Strong applications propose projects designed to address high-priority problems of critical importance to citizens. The city or region must be able to share detailed information to help the IBM team analyze the issue. Leaders must also guarantee face-to-face access to city, regional, civic, and business stakeholders for interviews with IBM team members so they may comprehensively assess a given problem and recommend solutions."

Not all the challenges are directly related to public works, but as Suffolk County shows some are. If you and your team are up for the challenge of applying, visit Good luck!

If your community has participated in this program, comment below or e-mail to let us know how effective this form of private support for public services is.