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IBM experts positive about Belfast but highlight need to focus on long term

9 Oct 2013

Belfast communities are committed to making a difference in their city but need to make more time to focus on the future and less time looking back.

That is one of the conclusions reached by the six-person IBM team who visited the city for three weeks as part of its Smarter Cities Challenge, which aims to help cities around the world deal with pressing city problems.

Belfast was one of just 100 global cities, out of 400 cities that applied, to be chosen to take part in this three year philanthropic programme valued at $400,000 – making it the first on the island of Ireland and the third in the UK to be selected.

The team concluded that the city was in much better physical condition and its communities were much safer than many cities across the USA.

They found that the city has undergone impressive levels of regeneration work, provides significant opportunities for investment and is committed to providing resources to address social change.

IBM also stated that Belfast people were its biggest asset and they commented on the warmth of the welcome they received throughout their visit.

However, they pointed out that perceptions of inequality led to too many people being unwilling to leave their own communities for work and that the sense of belonging they felt in their own local areas needed to be translated into city-wide pride.

Lord Mayor, Councillor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, said: “After three weeks of analysis they have provided the city with a set of recommendations to help us get a lot smarter about how to spend public money on addressing some of the challenges that our city faces.

“They have provided us with advice on how we collaborate across agencies so that as a city we can target public money only on the best interventions that will bring about real and long term improvements to people’s lives.

“The council will take the recommendations gifted to the city by IBM and work with other key city stakeholders and government departments to build a smart city information hub so that we can make better and evidence based decisions for the future of this city and its people.

“Councils are about to change fundamentally by 2015 and the powers of the city, particularly in relation to planning the future of communities, will greatly increase. The recommendations from IBM will be essential in making sure that we agree the right priorities for the city and how to deliver them with the resources we have. “

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The final presentation, for about 170 leaders across Belfast, occurred in the Grand Ballroom at City Hall.  We had previously seen this beautiful room just over 2 weeks ago during a tour, but walking into it again, now, lent a gravity, a sense of history and responsibility to the work we had completed over the past days.

Nick and I paced the far end of the ballroom to work out our nervous energy as the audience began to file in.   We began with an introduction from the Lord Mayor, IBM’s Ireland Country Manager and Belfast’s Chief Executive.  Then it was our turn:  Anne introduced our proposal and summarized our approach, then I followed with the evidence-based decision model and outcome metrics, then Nick summarized the proposed business process and technology infrastructure.

I stepped up to the podium, took a breath, and began to talk.  I was surprised that my nervousness dissipated immediately – you never know if it will!  I can’t say I remember most of what I said – I tend to go to an indescribable zone when I do presentations that’s beyond thinking;  it’s feeling the room and just knowing without knowing.  I do remember lots of positive body language, heads nodding and attention across the room.   I remember saying several times “finding our common humanity” and that everyone, regardless of where they live, deserves to feel a sense of well-being and empowerment in their own lives.  At the end, I answered several questions about the metrics and various individuals stood to say they supported the proposal and wanted to move forward.  The City Council told us they were pleased with our recommendations too and expressed their intent to continue onward.

Perhaps a huge focus (some might suggest, overfocus) for me personally was the response of the professionals on the front lines, those who are right in the community, working with citizens.  Maybe it was because I remember only too well being a clinician myself and the overwhelming responsibility I felt, how quickly I burned out in the face of real people with real problems.   The day before our presentation, I had the opportunity to read an incredibly moving paper, written by a community worker, following the suicide of a young man in one of the two highly deprived areas of Belfast (these were our case study areas for the project).  His paper chronicled his experience, starting with the finding of the body by the young man’s friends, to telling his girlfriend, to working with the family, to trying to prevent the suicides of his friends.

There are no words. 

 

I hope that he and all the professionals like him knew that we listened, we heard, that the intensely important work they are doing matters.  I hope our modest proposal will make what they are doing more relevant. more measurable and more successful as Belfast embraces its future.  #smartercities Challenge

File:Gates in the 'Peace Line'.jpg

Gates in the Peace Line (photo credit:  Laurence’s Travels, flickr)

The thought of jaunting off across the world for an extended business trip has, generally speaking, been the absolutely last item on my To Do list for more than 7 years now, exactly the length of time I’ve been a working mother.  And yet, when, out of the blue, an email requesting me to leave my family for 3 weeks for a project in Belfast, Northern Ireland insinuated itself into my Inbox, I could feel the excitement and fear tumble together to quicken my heart.

I knew I wanted to go.  Again.

I’ve done something similar before, only last time was a month in the United Arab Emirates almost exactly one year ago as part of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps.

Then, it was that it was 4 weeks, a team of 11 IBMers from around the world and a culture vastly different than my own.

Now, my team is 6 including me, all from the US and UK on a project of only 3 weeks.

Then, it was about conquering a lifelong fear of taking risks of any type.

Now, it’s about challenge and doing some good in the world.

Then, I was a relatively new cancer survivor and the trip was, in many ways, the culmination of my recovery.

Now, I know that being plucked away from everything familiar and the people I love for an intense, short term philanthropic project with strangers is a profound gift of self-education.

Steve, in his usual unflappable monotone, had said, “Of course you have to do it.  It’s a great opportunity.  Don’t worry about anything, I can take care of the kids again.”  And just like that, the decision was made.

IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge is a 3-year corporate citizenship initiative begun in 2010, in which small groups of IBMers execute civic projects selected by each city’s leadership.  The Belfast Challenge will help improve the efficiency of healthcare services provided to Protestant and Catholic citizens in neighborhoods still divided by Peace Lines, or walls that were originally built as temporary structures during rioting in Belfast (known as The Troubles).

This blog will chronicle the 21 days of the Belfast Challenge, especially the personal challenge it offers in leaving my children, a 5- and 7-year old, and exploring a new culture from the perspective of a social-cognitive psychologist.   Hope you enjoy the ride!  #smartercities Challenge