IBM held a two-day conference in New York last week called Smarter Cities. The agenda revolved around complex urban problems such as crime, transit, education, health, clean water and energy, and how information technology can help to address them. It was the ultimate soft sell; IBMs products and services were almost never mentioned. But in ten years time it may look like one of the smartest bets IBM has ever placed. As overpopulation, resource scarcity and climate change spark conflict around the globe, IBMs exercise in thought leadership could well position it as the go-to company for solutions that turn the solving of social problems into a multi-billion-dollar business.
Fix computers? How about fixing the world?
The Smarter Cities conference, one of three on IBMs agenda for this year and next, is part of the vendors broader Smarter Planet initiative that aims to use IT hardware, software and services to help address major social and economic problems. IBM believes that cities are a natural focus for two key reasons: the worlds population is becoming steadily urbanized, placing increasing strain on all types of support systems; and cities are relatively manageable microcosms of systems that operate globally.
IBM believes that a series of shocks over the last several years such as repeated energy shortages, rising temperatures and increasingly turbulent weather, terrorism and geopolitical tension, air and water pollution, AIDS and other public-health crises have generated sufficient concern to spark action around the globe. Furthermore, many of the systems that deliver services to the public, such as electric grids, water distribution systems, roads and highways, are antiquated and wasteful.
In IBMs view, solutions to these problems rest on three things:
- instrumentation, such as temperature and location sensors
- interconnection, through both wired and wireless networks that link not just people but cars and roads, pipelines, appliances, pharmaceuticals and more in vast information grids
- intelligence, by means of analytical tools that turn the almost unimaginable volumes of data from all these things into actionable insight and useful prediction.
IBM is already building a significant business in helping to modernize individual systems. To cite just two examples among dozens, the vendor recently won a five-year, 70 million contract from Malta to design and implement a nationwide smart electrical grid and water system throughout the island nation. And the city of Guangzhou, China picked IBM to manage its four commuter lines, 60 stations and 116 kilometers of track, and help make the transit system more intelligent and environmentally friendly.
The bigger challenge will be managing interactions among multiple systems; for example, integrating public transit and public safety information systems to reduce crime, or integrating public transit and education systems so that more children can get to school on time.
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