Ho Chi Minh City is engineered to accommodate about three million people, but its population now tops 7 million–and it seems like half of them are riding motorbikes at any given time of day. So chaotic traffic was the first fact of life that struck members of a team of six IBMers when they landed in the city on Feb. 20 to begin the process of helping local leaders put together a plan for upgrading the city’s infrastructure. “The two-wheeler traffic was the highest I’ve seen on the planet,” marvels one of the IBMers, Guruduth Banavar, the former head of IBM Research in India.
Banavar, who is now the chief technology officer for IBM’s Public Sector business unit, was part of the team that spent three weeks in Ho Chi Minh City as part of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps. program. We send small groups of top-talent employees to emerging markets to help improve economic development, government services, and the like. The group that worked in Ho Chi Minh City was the first to be made up of executives. It was also the first to help a city in an emerging market look at all of its challenges holistically and come up with a master plan for taking them on. As a result of the engagement, Ho Chi Minh City and IBM have now formed a Smarter Cities alliance.
The city has adopted a 10-year redevelopment plan and will work with IBM on seven pilot programs in areas ranging from transportation to food safety. IBM will also help the city set up academic programs to prepare young Vietnamese to launch careers in technology services. “We think they can leapfrog their peers in other cities in eight to 10 years,” says Banavar.
One of the top priorities is dealing with traffic, of course. In one of the the pilot projects, IBMers will re-use a software tool developed in 2007 for analyzing traffic patterns in Singapore. They’ll monitor downtown Ho Chi Minh City traffic and create a model for predicting when intersections will clog–so the city can change traffic signals or deploy traffic cops to re-direct traffic and avoid grid-lock.
The lessons IBM learns in Vietnam will help it refine its approach to Smarter City projects in developing nations. One of the challenges that the government of Ho Chi Minh City has to overcome is the fact that there’s little coordination between the city’s government bureaus. Yet the systems they oversee, from traffic to water to electricity to public safety, area all interrelated. One of the goals of the new city plan is to bridge between the departments with coordinated strategies and shared data. These insights will be useful in other emerging-market cities, as well. “We can help change the governance structure of cities,” says Banavar.