IBM and Earthwatch Team Up to Tackle Sustainability in Chicago

For the month of August, 14 IBM employees from around the world assembled in Chicago as part of the company’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC). The program has sent teams of the company’s most talented employees to countries around the world to provide pro bono counsel to local governments, nonprofit organizations, and small businesses that are grappling with issues that intersect business, technology, and society. Since its launch in 2008, the program has sent nearly 4,000 participants on 320 teams to 40 countries to work on over 1,300 projects.

IBM partnered with Earthwatch to find Chicago nonprofits that aligned with the Earthwatch mission: to engage people worldwide in science and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment, with a focus on urban sustainability.

The majority of the global population lives in cities, and increased migration to these areas is projected to continue. Aside from the impacts of increased population, climate change is also having an effect on urban settings and the people who live there in ways we have yet to experience. The four nonprofits selected are working to address the impacts of climate change in Chicago and educate future generations.

Alliance for the Great Lakes, Center for Neighborhood Technologies, and Openlands are actively running programs to expand the use of green infrastructure and other natural systems to manage stormwater, mitigate heat, improve flood resilience, and build a more resilient city. Teach For America Chicago-Northwest Indiana is training promising young leaders to teach in low-income schools in the region.

But each organization faces challenges in these programs. By partnering with Earthwatch and IBM, they gained a month of consulting from high achieving IBMers from around the world.

During their time in Chicago, the 14 IBMers were not only embedded in the nonprofits, they were also able to learn about climate change and its impact on cities from Earthwatch facilitator Gitte Venicx, and participated in invigorating discussions. One example is Earth Overshoot Day, which marks the date by which we – human beings – have exhausted and depleted nature’s budget for the year. Aside from looking at the problem, the team discussed what individuals and corporations can do to be part of the solution.


IBM employees conducting fieldwork
IBM employees
IBM employees hard at work.

“It was interesting to me to see how much harm we cause with global warming and how fast the process has been in the last few decades, so it is scary to think about what else can come as development continues to get faster,” IBMer Elvira noted on her blog documenting her experience in Chicago.

The team also delved into citizen science. Dr. Kevin Czajkowski joined the group from the NASA GLOBE program to study the Urban Heat Island effect: urban areas that have significantly warmer temperatures than surrounding rural areas, mainly driven by various human activities. Over two Saturdays, the team paired up and went to different parts of the city equipped with infrared thermometers to measure surface and air temperature, and document cloud coverage.

“Taking part in the citizen science activity was a great a reminder that we are all accountable in taking care of the world we live in. May we all take the necessary actions, big or small to do our part,” IBMer Kat wrote in a blog post summarizing the work.

At the conclusion of the month-long program, the IBMers shared their findings. Here is a snapshot of each of the nonprofits and the guidance the teams offered:

Alliance for the Great Lakes
The Alliance for the Great Lakes works to protect the Great Lakes for today and tomorrow. They involve tens of thousands of people each year in advocacy, volunteering, education, and research to ensure the lakes are healthy and safe for all. IBMers helped to develop a maintenance model that ensures long-term management of new green infrastructure features along commercial streets in South Chicago. The maintenance model identified the roles and responsibilities necessary for long-term maintenance of the green infrastructure features.

Center for Neighborhood Technology
The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) delivers game-changing research, tools, and solutions to create sustainable and equitable communities. They help neighborhoods, cities, and regions work better, for everyone. Here, the team worked to develop a business plan to help strategically guide the expansion of CNT’s RainReady initiative, which aims to find solutions to the problem of inland flooding.

Openlands is one of the oldest metropolitan conservation organizations in the nation and has helped protect more than 55,000 acres of land for public parks and forest preserves, wildlife refuges, land and water greenway corridors, urban farms, and community gardens. The IBM team helped to evaluate current needs of the organization and provided guidance on how best to invest limited resources in a high functioning, easy to use data system that can track, measure, evaluate, and analyze the impact of various green infrastructure programs.

Teach for America, Chicago-Northwest Indiana
Teach for America is a network of leaders transforming the education landscape in Chicago and Northwest Indiana in order to ensure that one day all students have access to an excellent education. The IBMers provided guidance on flow and design of a virtual platform for the more than 3,000 TFA alumni in the Greater Chicago region who are either in the classroom or work in the education field to get further development and resources, and share best practices.


This is the first time CSC has taken place in the U.S. and Earthwatch is honored to be partnering with IBM on this program.

To learn more about the CSC experience, check out the daily blog the team kept while in Chicago, CSC Team USA 1, or watch this video from NBC 5 Chicago.