Instrumented Interconnecteds Intelligent
November, 15th 2008

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Adam Christensen in

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It isn’t hard to rattle off a long list of problems facing the world these days. The systems that make the world work – food, healthcare, traffic, energy, and financial systems to name a few – are in dramatic need of change. They are all in need of becoming smarter to meet the needs of a complex world.

On November 6th, IBM’s CEO, Sam Palmisano, outlined a new agenda for addressing many of these issues – for building a smarter planet – during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Sam Palmisano - Council on Foreign Relations 

In the speech, he outlines a number of the challenges faced today by people, governments, businesses and organizations. A lack of clean water for a fifth of the world’s population. Energy systems that waste more energy than they produce. Traffic in our cities that clogs roads and chokes economic growth. 

Clearly there are no simple solutions for these problems.

Technology can play a big role in helping find answers to these problems. While the Internet currently connects more than a billion people, in just a few years, it will connect more than a trillion objects. Everything from cell phones, cars, roads, buildings, and even objects in nature itself, will have embedded technology and be connected to one another, enabling tremendous advances in how we understand how the world works and make smarter decisions to make it work better. 

But technology is just part of the solution. Without the people, policies and culture to inspire and execute the change, nothing ultimately gets done. From Sam’s speech:

Leaders will need to hone their collaboration skills, because we will need leadership that pulls across systems. We will need to bring together stakeholders and experts from across business, government and academia, and all of them will need to move outside their traditional comfort zones.

I’m struck by the questions this raises. What investments need to be made by both public and private institutions? What policy issues need to be debated and resolved? What role can individual citizens and employees play in helping bring about meaningful change?

I’m also struck by the potential opportunities inherent in finding solutions to these problems. 

The hope for this blog is to explore some of those opportunities. To surface some of the issues and challenges facing us as we collectively look to build a smarter world.

In coming days, weeks and months, we’ll be exploring new ideas and interviewing some of the world’s smartest people on these topics to address these issues that matter to the world.

In the meantime, tell us what you think. What matters to you? What do you see in the world that needs to be smarter? And what are your ideas on how to get there? Leave a comment. Let us know. We are listening.

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Posted by: David
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There are a slew of really good ideas here already. I just want to underline one that Bernard suggests, almost in passing — Twitter as a way of addressing parking problems. Think about combining Twitter with the kind of instrumentation of roads and parking spaces now underway in San Francisco ( ) — and, for that matter, with the overall traffic-management solutions that have been deployed in Stockholm, Singapore and elsewhere. So far, the combination of congestion pricing and technology has had a powerful and positive impact on gridlock, use of public transit and the environment. Imagine what this could become if it more dynamically tracked the behavior, observations and reporting of myriad inviduals. Way cool.

Posted by: Mike Wing
November 19, 2008
12:46 am

What an excellent post! It’s great to see leaders talk with the people about how we can make the world a better place.
One change we can make is encouraging telecommuting. Not only will this enable the greening of the planet, but I believe that this will raise employee morale. And, a happy employee is a better, more productive worker.
With telecommuting, employees won’t have to endure long, stressful commutes on these sometimes treacherous highways. Parents will have more time to spend with their children, which is important for building a strong family unit. People will live happier and healthier lives because their lives won’t be consumed with working and commuting.
Will there ever be a time when companies allow telecommuting to be commonplace? I realize that we must be vigilant in preventing hacking and other cyber crimes. But we can do it. We have the technology.
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Posted by: Giselle Conyette
November 18, 2008
10:18 pm

Bernard. Again, very provocative thoughts here. In particular, your thought about a nation becoming “something without historical precedent: a fast, intelligent, evolving network” is intriguing. A network (or society) that can be nimble and responsive is the ultimate goal. That’s mostly a cultural issue, more than a technological issue. But I wonder if technology can play a role in somehow easing the cultural transitions.
Alex, you’ve really hit on the hope for this blog – to debate what the right questions are to be asking, and what problems are that we should be trying to solve. Then, as you say, we’ve done half of the work already. Because the technology already exists to solve a lot of these problems, if they were applied in the right ways and if we had the right societal and cultural structures in place.

Posted by: Adam Christensen
November 18, 2008
6:59 pm

I agree with you Bernard, a techno-enabled direct democracy seems to be the natural progression of things. The archaic bureaucratic structures that stand between a need and an accommodation of that need only complicate matters and prolong the eventual resolution. These societal structures are becoming more and more unnecessary as the ability to become informed now not only belongs to those with the grants to conduct research, but anyone with access to a computer terminal and a discerning mind, however some type of check and balance system would need to be implemented only as a service to validate the majority decision and not to serve any special interests.
The problems Sam speaks of however fundamentally have to do with the uneven distribution of wealth because of an overall lack of moral economic policy making.
“A lack of clean water for a fifth of the world’s population”
The economic structures do not exist in these regions to build the necessary infrastructure making clean water delivery possible.
“Energy systems that waste more energy than they produce”
Depending on the status of the region, again, this problem can be mitigated with a financial investment into clean/efficient energy research.
“Traffic in our cities that clog roads and chokes economic growth.”
Cost of living is the main cause of traffic congestion. Those who cannot afford to live in, or near the central business districts must cope with longer than average commute times and all of the negative physical and mental health benefits that go along with it.
All of these issues can be solved by a shift towards humanitarian policy making. Thusly, the main change that would have to occur is a vast re-alignment of priorities all occurring in synchronicity. Technology can indeed help us achieve this paradigm change so long as it is seen as a tool of a massive and positive effort, and not the source of the latest and greatest distraction. The biggest obstacle we still face is not how to architect the technology to help us change, but to first become that ‘change’ ourselves. If we can ask the right questions, and find the right problems to solve, (which is half the battle) we would be well on our way to a new and better society, technology helping us along the way. If we merely ponder the word “change” and take shelter as a shower of generalities overcome our ability to reason, nothing much will truly “change.”

Posted by: Alex
November 18, 2008
11:48 am

I agree with you Peter. The only thing that I can see that individuals can do is to advance ideas or attempt to form larger groups to do so more influentially.
Social institutions like corporations could be proactive by creating forums and inviting participation. If these forums demonstrate that they can actually result in change (active), as opposed to just discussion groups (passive), people will be energized by the empowerment. This will mean that some decision makers will not only have to authorize the concept but some will also have to cede some authority to the new process — very hard to achieve! The reactive alternative is to wait and be pulled gradually by the technology but that will be inefficient at best and at worst will result in tragic distortions by old special interest groups.
“Network” and “society” are in many ways synonymous. A smart world will generate a flood of directly sampled data and we need to somehow learn to process it all the way up into a brand new, intelligent society. The U.S. will be leading the world as we did in the agricultural and industrial ages if we can turn our society and its institutions into something without historical precedent: a fast, intelligent, evolving network.
Many government institutions are those most threatened by the knowledge-tech revolution because better communications and collaboration will make them obsolete. If my town has a parking problem the issue can be blogged or twittered by those who observe the problem, others can suggest solutions and a direct vote can be taken. That would be an example of direct democracy. Now we have representative democracy with a town council and road commission in the middle, all devised before the transistor was invented! I think individuals, private foundations or entrepreneurial units of large corporations are likely the only ones willing to accept the risks of revolutionary ideas.
How can the basic structure begin to be defined?

Posted by: Bernard
November 17, 2008
2:12 pm

Bernard, interesting questions. And worth exploring. I’d love to hear more about what you mean by direct democracy. Particularly since one of the big questions still unanswered (and largely unasked) is “what can I do about this?” In other words, how can the average individual get involved and make a difference.
But to your first questions. I don’t know if size of government is the exact question though. Clearly all of them are going to need to make changes and make big bets (including investments). But I think the real unanswered question is how can governments and academics and businesses start working together in a more collaborative way to solve some of these problems. I wonder if there needs to be some rethinking in the nature of the relationships between these institutions and organizations.

Posted by: Adam Christensen
November 17, 2008
1:58 pm

Should government expand or contract as this paradigm develops? What about a direct democracy?

Posted by: Bernard
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