IBM Smarter Cities Challenge – Christchurch

Canterbury Development Corporation (CDC) chief executive Tom Hooper says it was a privilege for CDC and Christchurch City Council to host the team of six senior IBM executives for three weeks as part of IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge.

“I’m sure everyone involved found the experience as valuable as the staff at CDC did. We came away from our final briefing with the IBM team feeling really inspired and energised by their take on the huge potential in Christchurch; the massive opportunities that lie ahead of us and the ways in which we should maximise those opportunities.”

The Smarter Cities Challenge is a US$50 million global philanthropic competitive grant programme that pairs IBM’s top talent with city leaders to suggest new ways a city can leverage its resources.

Christchurch is one of 31 cities worldwide to host a grant-funded team this year, following an application from CDC.

The IBM team met with a wide range of individuals, companies and organisations from the business community, the agriculture, technology, education and manufacturing sectors, as well as central and local government officials during their visit in late May.

Business South spoke with one of its executives, Drew Clark, director of corporate strategy, IBM Venture Capital Group, Foster City, United States during his visit.

He says Christchurch is “pretty unique” of all the cities the programme has engaged so far.

“On one hand there was the obvious devastation to the city centre. However the disaster also presents a unique catalyst for economic growth and change and an opportunity to identify how the city will move ahead.”

Clark is impressed at the “heavily instilled culture of pragmatism and innovation” in Christchurch but says it needs “a little push”.

“There are already great university systems and some world-class initiatives in place. With more structure and increased connectivity and collaboration I think Christchurch will really start to operate in top gear.”

He was particularly impressed by EPIC and Powerhouse, where “lots of clever ideas can come from serendipitous moments around the water cooler”.

High value manufacturing, healthcare and agribusiness are other sectors where greater collaboration could benefit, he says.

“The Centres of Excellence at Canterbury and Lincoln Universities are already creating these types of innovation spaces around agribusiness, where like-minded people work together.”

However the “magic” starts to happens when all these groups begin to cross-fertilise, he says.

“If someone is thinking about a problem it is often the perspective of someone from a totally different industry that can create the spark.”

Clark expects Christchurch to become a “smarter and more efficient” city as new smart capabilities are installed in various parts of the city.

“New capabilities create new jobs and as they require people to manage them and interpret the data they produce.”

He is also impressed by Re:Start mall where he was a regular visitor for coffee.

“I didn’t realise container coffee could taste so good. In fact dining out was one of the personal highlights for the team. The food and wine was exceptional everywhere we went.”

The formal report and recommendations from the IBM team should be released to CDC sometime this month.

However before leaving New Zealand, they did a presentation to stakeholders providing a broad outline of their findings.

“The formal report will build some context around our recommendations, and also detail some specific actions, milestones and dependencies. We will then be available to follow up and offer further assistance.”

Although he wouldn’t be drawn into specifics of the recommendations, Clark said the attraction and retention of talent will be one of the key factors to economic growth in Christchurch.

“It is important for the city to graduate the right skills into the workforce, and also look at ways to attract the right skills if they are not here already.”

Although Christchurch is the “nerve centre”, Clark says areas outside the city are equally important.

“A healthy, vibrant city must sit within an economically prosperous Canterbury region.”

In terms of the city’s recovery, Clark says an “amazing” amount of work has already been done, with the city’s ability to bounce back “much faster” than other disaster zones he has witnessed.

“The resilience and can-do attitude of the people is playing a big part in the recovery.”

CDC’s Tom Hooper says there is no ‘silver bullet’ for the unique post-quake environment Cantabrians are living and working in, and that no one was expecting IBM to solve the city’s problems in just three weeks.

“But it’s really useful to have a fresh set of eyes and a new perspective, which the IBM team provided. When you’re living this day in and day out you can get too close to things, so a different way of looking at our challenges and issues, and how to tackle them, was certainly refreshing.”

CDC was now looking forward to receiving the formal report from IBM and analysing the final recommendations, he says.


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