Author: Greg Clark
At first glance you might think that IBM, the US multinational technology and consulting business headquartered in Armonk, a sleepy suburb of New York state, would have little interest in cities and their future prospects. But IBM is right at the forefront of activity in the Smart Cities space, and together with other actors such as policy makers, leading academics, think tanks and citizen groups, may well be shaping the way our cities will look in the future.
In 2009, IBM launched its Smarter Cities Initiative, which focuses on making cities more ‘instrumented, interconnected and intelligent’, and looks to develop and tap into an integrated IT solutions market for urban areas. Since then, IBM has established itself as a leading provider of smart city solutions, focusing on using its technological expertise to collect ‘big’ city data and integrate city systems. The company’s flagship Smart Cities project to date has been the creation of a city-wide operations centre in Rio de Janeiro in 2011. The Centro de Operacoes Rio connects all of the city’s 30 agencies, and allows managers to monitor data feeds of information concerning weather, traffic, police, and medical services, so as to anticipate and prepare for any issues. IBM claims that the centre is the first in the world to be ‘on the path to integrating all of the functions of a city in a single digital command-and-control system’.[i] The company hopes that other cities will adopt the same approach to managing future challenges, and indeed what was a prototype in Rio is now a marketed product (the ‘Intelligent Operations Center’).
IBM is by no means the only multinational company to be focusing on Smarter Cities. As other posts in this blog series explore, competitors such as Siemens, Microsoft and Cisco are all jostling for the position to become the leading solutions provider for cities that are looking to become ‘smart’. Like its competitors, IBM is sponsoring city conferences and events such as the Cities Annual Summit in Tel Aviv, the Asia Pacific Cities Summit and the Future of Cities Forum. It is collaborating with actors in other sectors, such as the Centre for Cities, a think tank with whom it has co-hosted workshops focusing on infrastructure challenges in specific UK cities. In 2013, IBM announced collaborations with nine universities in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. to train students in ‘Big Data’ and ‘Analytics’.[ii] The company has also joined together with other prominent firms such as Mastercard, EdF and Cisco to form the Smart Cities Council, an ‘advisor and market accelerator’ which promotes the move to smart, sustainable cities.
But Antony Townsend, author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia, sees IBM’s cities offering as something slightly different from the other market leaders, spearheading an approach which focuses less on the hardware and more on the strategy of future cities
Certainly, IBM is engaging very closely with a number of cities around the world to help them develop strategies to become more future-ready. The company’s US$50 million + Smarter Cities Challenge is its largest philanthropic initiative to date. The scheme involves placing IBM expert teams into 100 partner cities for three weeks to work closely with city leaders and deliver recommendations as to how to make the city smarter and more effective. The scheme is in the final year of a three year run and has provided cities with advice on a whole range of challenges – from minimising the effects of flooding in Cebu in the Philippines, to helping Bucharest achieve its vision of becoming a vibrant commercial hub for Eastern Europe, and improving road safety in Edmonton, Canada. As more and more corporate players join the Smart Cities market, IBM may have already secured the goodwill and head-start it needs in order to remain a market leader for years to come.