In early 2009, bushfires fanned by winds gusting to 83 miles per hour raced across the landscape north of Melbourne, Australia, killing 173 people and destroying 3,500 structures. It was estimated that the amount of energy released during the firestorm was equivalent to the energy that would be released by 1,500 World War II-era atomic bombs.
The bushfires, together with the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, quakes in Haiti and New Zealand, the New Orleans flood and the volcanic eruption in Iceland, remind us of the terribly destructive power of nature. The fires were the catalyst that launched IBMers in Australia into focusing on the role that information technology can play in helping to respond to and mitigate natural disasters. Climate change amplifies natural phenomena, and the increased concentration of people in urban areas makes society ever more vulnerable. “These major disasters intersect with population density and the interconnectedness of economies and business,” says Glenn Wightwick, director of IBM R&D Australia. “Society has to become more resilient.”
Societal resilience has become one of the pillars of the research agenda for IBM R&D Australia, the newest of IBM’s global research labs, which will be officially inaugurated on Friday. It’s also the theme of The IBM Research colloquium that the lab is hosting tomorrow for more than 100 guests in Melbourne. That confab is part of an IBM Centennial program designed to convene thought leaders – including leading researchers and scientists, academics, leaders of industries, public policy makers and key IBM clients — for a series of talks and panel discussions on transformational technologies and their potential impact on the world.
The new lab has three items on its research agenda. In addition to disaster resilience, it focuses on bringing information technologies to bear on natural resources extraction and on life sciences research related to health care. The idea is to develop expertise and lines of inquiry that are closely aligned with the national priorities in Australia, and, at the same time, to develop technologies that can be applied anywhere in the world.
Critical to the lab’s effectiveness is its very close relationship with the University of Melbourne, which is one of Australia’s premier universities. The relationship began four years ago when the university began seeking a major research partner within industry–and chose IBM. Early last year, the university and IBM established a formal “collaboratory,” a long-term collaborative research project focusing on computational biology and the life sciences, which included the installation in Melbourne of an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer. When IBM launched a global expansion of its research efforts earlier this year, Melbourne was an obvious location to consider. The new lab is near the university campus.
The tie-up with the university is makes it easy for IBM researchers to get deeply involved in research into specific domains. For instance, earlier this year a handful of IBM computational specialists spent a month working side-by-side with academic researchers at the Bio21 Institute, a university research center. This experience resulted in new lines of research inquiry and a number of academic papers being co-written with their hosts. “This is a transformative experience from a research perspective that has brought all sorts of collaboration,” says Wightwick.
When IBM’s leaders began trying out the collaboratory model a few years ago, the advantages for IBM were obvious: it made an expansion of research more affordable and connected IBM more closely with the needs of clients. Now it’s clear that what’s good for IBM is very attractive to academic partners and government leaders, as well. IBM R&D Australia has been built from the ground up on the principle of collaboration.