If we want to build a Smarter Planet — one where societal systems such as electricity and water distribution, healthcare and even physical infrastructure such as buildings and bridges become networks embedded with sensors and software — there may be no better place to start than with our cities.
Today more than half the world's population lives in cities. By 2050 two-thirds of humanity are expected to be living in and around metropolitan centers. The 19.20.21 project notes that our world has become a network of "supercities."
Cities are a natural starting point for building a Smarter Planet because they are also where multiple infrastructures that we need to become more intelligent come together: transportation and traffic, food supply chains, retail stores and the places where people live and work. Of course, major cities are the nexus of economic, intellectual and social innovation as well.
Cities are also on the front lines of many of the sobering challenges we need to overcome: the demand for clean water to support billions of people who lack this most basic resource; energy from renewable sources that will enable us to fuel green growth. Energy and water issues overlap because almost all of the world's supercities, and many others, border oceans. If climate change results in a substantial rise in sea levels, as many experts warn, many of these urban centers, from New York to Shanghai, will be imperiled.
To meet this unprecedented mix of threats, the world and its cities don't just need smarter infrastructure, we need to extract actionable intelligence from these complex systems. What kind of intelligence do we mean, and what is new about it?
In his 2005 book, On Intelligence, Palm Computing founder Jeff Hawkins returned to his first love, brain science, to propose this definition or model:
“The capacity to remember and predict patterns in the world, including language, mathematics, physical properties of objects, and social situations. Your brain receives patterns from the outside world, stores them as memories, and makes predictions by combining what it has seen before and what is happening now.”
Hawkins' hypothesis — which suggests that human intelligence is based on building a complex model of the world and constantly testing it– seems ripe for extension to the new nature of organizational intelligence. For IBM, especially our consulting services, I think that model is also evolving to include a hybrid of deep people powered-expertise with a whole new category of tools and techniques for analyzing the world via input from smarter systems.
Simply put, new analytical applications, and the human experts who will develop and apply them, will unlock unprecedented knowledge and benefits via systems such as a smart "energy Web" or a secure "medical Internet" for electronic healthcare data and patient record. For example, a new electrical grid embedded with information technologies and sensors will generate data “that can be analyzed in realtime to help predict maintenance problems and equipment failures, and can be used to better forecast capital equipment expenditures," noted Jeffrey Katz, chief technology officer in IBM's energy and utilities industry sector, in this post.
The island of Malta in the Mediterranean, for example, just announced a plan to build one of the world’s most advanced “smartgrids” to turn their national infrastructure for electricity and water into a more intelligent system. IBM is one of the partners in the effort.
If similar kinds of physical networks such as supply chains and wireless sensor networks in factories, office building and highways serve as the like nervous system of a smarter city's body — its eyes, ears and sense of touch — then this new intelligence will be the brains to help us gain new understanding and greater mastery over our complex world.
So what makes this new or different from the kind of data-mining and information-crunching commonly done today? One given is that the volumes of data involved are already big, but will continue to grow sharply. Large enterprises can expect the data they manage to grow by almost 60% a year. Not surprisingly, 85% of CIOs do not believe that their information is currently well managed.
What's different is the variety of information — geospatial or location-based information, digital multimedia and environmental metrics — to name just some of the kinds of new data cities and companies are wrestling with.
Fortunately, we are also crossing a threshold in our ability to capture, process, and analyze complex data in fundamentally new and deeper ways. In fact, data diversity can become an asset, since in enables new insights to be gleaned by correlating a wider range of information types.
Another major distinguishing characteristic is the velocity with which data needs to be captured and processed to be useful. Complex traffic patterns, millions of financial transactions per second, video from tens of thousands of security cameras, or various human behavior patterns are all examples of where we need to sift through not mountains of data, but rather rivers of dynamic, changing information. Indeed, for information from smart systems to be most valuable, it often needs to be processed in close to realtime. If not in seconds, then perhaps minutes or hours, rather than days or weeks.
In effect, we need to be able to find digital needles in haystacks – haystacks that rolling past on fast-moving trucks.
Moreover, the need for speed is also about getting rapid return on this new intelligence so that it can be applied right now to help the world's economy — and the cities at the center of it — get back on our collective feet.
Beyond those vital near-term needs, this new intelligence is also about the longer range ability for our cities to thrive, not just survive. And only by measuring, monitoring and ultimately perceiving the complex patterns of how cities work can we begin the greater work of making these human hives cleaner, more productive and more livable for billions.
Building out of sensor-driven infrastructure is a necessary start, but what will really make our cities smarter is the advanced analytics, data visualization and simulation technologies that will help us "know how to grow."
IBM Global Business Services