Energy shortages, traffic jams, water shortages and digital divide were just a few of the issues chosen by teams from 31 top business schools across the globe to solve as part of Ericsson’s Networked Society Cities Case Competition.

The four-month challenge, laid down by Ericsson senior management, focused on how ICT can help solve the big issues surrounding urbanization. According to Ericsson, the idea for the competition grew out of a simple question: "Where do great ideas come from?" This quest led naturally to the new digital natives who will themselves be living, working and playing in our urban centers in the future.

Technology strategy gets a boost

But why business schools? One key reason is the need to elevate the importance of technology strategy in teaching curriculums as the communications industry transforms into a complex new stage. In the past, schools tended to produce engineers or business students or political science majors. Today, technology and the other disciplines are so intertwined that they cannot be taught or studied in independent silos.

"The networked society is full of potential, and talented students from top-notch schools have energy, enthusiasm and insights – a perfect combination for exploring beyond the business boundaries of today and trigger solutions for tomorrow," says Bina Chaurasia, Ericsson’s Chief Human Resource Officer.

NEST 2013 Miami Gala Dinner

ICT as an enabler of progress

Her view is echoed by Prof. N. Venkat Venkatraman, the David J. McGrath Jr. Professor of Management at Boston University, who wrote the cases and curated the competition. An eminent thinker in the field of networks and ICT, Venkat explains: "As technology transforms our way of life, we’ve seen a growing recognition that our industry is not just about outsourcing or mobile coverage. The ICT sector can be a huge enabler of human progress on a global scale."

The topic of urbanization was only natural, he says, when you consider that by 2050 some 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities. "The case competition was an ambitious experiment to engage with the next generation of business leaders on urban issues that really matter to all of us."

Global contest, local commitment

As a global company with operations in more than 180 countries, Ericsson invited top business schools across all continents to participate. In a series of rigorous qualification rounds, Ericsson top management met with and evaluated 31 teams. In the end, four finalist teams were invited to solve a final challenge at Ericsson’s global think-tank called NEST – The Networked Society Forum conference in Miami. In true "Idol style," they would present their urban vision and case for a city of their choice to 120 of the world’s top experts on ICT.

"Ericsson wanted to provide a forum for students with a vision for ICT. We were impressed with their effectiveness in combining burning social causes and their commercial relevance to present compelling proposals to ICT leaders," says Vaishali Shah, Ericsson Global Talent Acquisition Director.

It was a close contest and the contenders offered smart ideas for tackling meaningful urban issues. These ranged from re-integrating the homeless in Tallinn, Estonia, which was nominated as the most inspirational idea, to simplifying life in mega cities like Mumbai, India with 16 million inhabitants. The winning team from Argentina tackled the issue of soaring energy costs due to the removal of government subsidies.

"It was a huge privilege and challenge to present our thinking to such an impressive group of ICT executives."

(Viviana Gonzalez from IAE in Buenos Aires)

"I knew about Ericsson telecommunication services, but had no idea about the far-reaching scope of their ICT activities. We had the opportunity to visit their Silicon Valley campus and could clearly see the company’s focus on ‘what’s next for the industry?’"

(Ketan Chaudhry from USC in Los Angeles)

The commitment by Ericsson to invest in information and communication technology and strategy as part of the Networked Society vision is certain to continue on a global scale, with university students being an important focus and talent.