Regenerating Detroit: a smart decision

Wednesday 21 October 2015 by Travis Smith

For a succinct representation of what Detroit has been through during the last three decades, you need look no further than the historic Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood. Once a bustling hub of inner-city culture complete with two big band dance halls and the beautiful Montieth Branch of the Detroit Public Library, the area has struggled of late as a result of the city’s economic downturn. But the tide is turning, with significant sums of money being ploughed into regeneration.

I found myself in the neighborhood last month alongside my fellow Frameworkers, a team of IBMers and local community group the Philip Street Block Club. There we all were, wielding shovels and power tools, as we looked to clean up the area and lay the groundwork for a new beginning.

SCC: hard at work.

We were flexing our green fingers as part of IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge. For those who aren’t aware, it’s IBM’s largest philanthropic initiative – the company has contributed an estimated $50 million to the project to date. Since its inception in 2010, IBM has deployed 700 top experts to help 116 cities around the world become “smarter” by utilizing technology to drive economic growth.


I’m proud to have been involved in the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge for the past two years, thanks to my role at The Frameworks. We edit, proofread and design each report that IBM provides to the mayors and officials of participating cities, which feature detailed recommendations on issues such as transport, policing and energy use.

It’s a program that makes a difference. It’s a program that matters. After almost a decade in the advertising world, it’s easy to get lost in the hustle and forget the things we can do to make a real impact. I’m by no means taking credit for the amazing things that IBM does for the various cities it visits, but I’m happy to be involved and play a part in the final outcome.

Help at home

When Detroit was selected this year to be a Smarter Cities Challenge participant, it was a bit surreal. The project I had invested a lot of time in over the last two years was coming to my hometown. Although I don’t live in downtown Detroit, I fully appreciate the blood, sweat and tears (and dollars) that continue to be poured into the city in the hope of restoring it to its former glory. The city’s history has been well documented – and we’ve discussed it a lot ourselves. A helping hand from a program that leverages technology to help cities prosper is invaluable as Detroit continues its regeneration.

Detroit’s biggest challenge is urban blight. An estimated 84,650 properties are abandoned and/or neglected in the city. IBM deployed a Smarter Cities Challenge team in Detroit to help the Detroit Land Bank Authority reduce urban decay and build smarter neighborhoods. IBM spent three weeks in the city digesting data, talking to people, researching – and getting to work.

Split screen: hard at work.

What better way to help than by rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty? Our team of Frameworkers was lucky enough to spend the day with IBM and the Philip Street Block Club turning a few lots that were overgrown and littered with garbage into a nicely groomed landscape with new plants, trees and flowers. This wasn’t your typical work day; there was no talk about briefs or timelines, no one discussed feedback on other projects or new projects coming in. What there was, however, was determination and sweat. Lots of sweat – from everyone. That's how you get things done in Detroit: you work hard.

Travis with his workmen.

With the help of residents channelling their pride into making the city a better place, Detroit will continue to rebuild and get stronger. With the help of IBM, it will become that bit smarter, too.

The team with a finished flowerbed.


  • IBM
  • CSR
  • Smarter Cities Challenge