A Smart Approach to Fixing Cities' Problems

Harvard Business Review

It used to be that when a heavy storm hit South Bend, Indiana, waste water spilled into the St. Joseph River and backed up in basements. That's because, like some 800 other cities in the United States with combined storm and sanitary sewers, South Bend's pipes and treatment plants were easily overwhelmed.

The city was faced with the prospect of a major infrastructure overhaul that could have cost $120 million. Instead, the city teamed up with University of Notre Dame, local technology company Emnet, and IBM to seek a low-cost but effective solution to the sewage problem. The three groups came together and brainstormed new ways to automate the analysis of large volumes of data, much of it real-time in nature. They set out to find new ways to predict problems before they occur and respond more effectively. The group also wanted to ensure that municipal workers had the right information to easily spot trouble before damage occurred.

First, professors at Notre Dame designed a network of sensors to monitor the flows of water throughout the system. Some graduate students working on the project formed a start-up company, Emnet, to commercialize the technology. Notre Dame received software from IBM designed to allow research students to develop creative applications for managing water. From the possibility of smart phone apps that let people report flooding, to social media tools that gather insight on water systems, students were turned loose to innovate using new software tools they would not have otherwise been exposed to. In turn, the technology was used to automate otherwise manual and labor-intensive data collection.

The result: a new method for monitoring and pro-actively controlling the city's wastewater collection system that dramatically decreased back-up and sewer overflows, costing only $6 million to implement (compared to the estimated $120 million). Now, South Bend's combined sewer management system lives in the cloud. To cut costs, the city rents technology services delivered over the Internet rather than buying computers and going to all the trouble of setting things up. This way, they can view the collection system's vital signs on a computer dashboard to find out instantly what's working well, and when it isn't, to kick off activities to address issues before they mushroom into bigger problems.

But the role of strong leadership in this success story must not be overlooked. In the case of South Bend, it started with Gary Gillot, the now retired director of Public Works. He had a vision that the city could ultimately find a better way to collect and visualize data about water, solving a tremendous problem faced by hundreds of cities just like South Bend. He teamed with then Mayor Steve Luecke who helped pave the way for the required approvals, and overcoming funding obstacles to make the vision a reality. When the City changed mayors recently, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was brought into the team, understanding the importance of the issues and further supporting the ongoing initiative.

Ultimately, this public-private collaboration combined the expertise of the city, academia, and the tech industry to create an innovative approach to water management that can be replicated elsewhere in cities with similar systems. Time and again, we have seen city leaders rise up, set a bold vision and then take the practical steps to make progress. In Dubuque, Iowa, city leaders such as Mayor Roy Buol set out to build a more sustainable city, engaging citizens in the process. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, under the leadership of Mayor Carlos Gimenez the Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department is pioneering a project that will save some $1 million a year in water costs. City leaders such as these are to be commended for their willingness to try something different.

Corporations and small businesses use new technology and strong leadership to make their operations more successful, why not cities? This remarkable success story in South Bend, a city of 130,000, shows how strong leadership, next-generation technologies, and public-private collaboration can help make cities work a lot better, even at a time when public funds are in short supply. These days, cities are tremendous engines for innovation and economic growth. Young people, professionals, and empty-nesters are drawn to them in search of excitement, culture, and career opportunities. We have the potential to spark a true renaissance for cities, so they're not just bigger — they're better.

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