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Nearly four years into the Smarter Planet journey, IBMers have undertaken more than 2,000 engagements with governments and businesses aimed helping them use cutting-edge technologies to make their systems for getting things done work better. These encounters are all over the map, geographically and figuratively. But important lessons are being learned. And, in particular, one interesting pattern is emerging. For organizations of all types, good outcomes depend on addressing the yin and yang of building a smarter planet: a combination of improvisation and preparedness–or long term planning.

Improvisation: In the realm of smarter planet problems and solutions, there’s so much variability that no single blueprint will fit every overtly similar situation. Organizations have to be flexible and creative to get stuff done. They can’t let the need for a master plan or budget-tightening pressures paralyze them.

Preparedness: While creative fixes can help city leaders manage their systems for the short-term, the longer-term vitality of cities, countries and organizations depends on leaders adopting a mission and a strategy for achieving it. But even that’s not enough. They have to anticipate the challenges to come–everything from next year’s big storm to the impacts of climate change to the next big financial shock–and build resilient systems capable of withstanding them.

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A good example of improvisation comes from Nairobi, Kenya. Throughout the world, many cities are starting to roll out vast networks of video cameras trained on highways and intersections. The  goal is to use video images to provide up-to-the-minute reads on traffic conditions–so local authorities can manage traffic better by changing traffic signals, rerouting, or sending police or public works employees to address problems as they emerge. In Nairobi, rather than wait for an extensive deployment of its own video cameras, the city made a deal with a local Internet service provider that had installed some cameras so it could show live traffic situations on its Web portal. They have plans to buy and deploy their own network of cameras. “But, in the mean time, they’re working in partnership with a private company. They’re making do,” says Wendy Lung, the director of corporate strategy for IBM Venture Capital Group.

Lung was one of six IBM executives who recently spent three weeks in Nairobi working with local authorities to help them come up with a plan for modernizing the transportation system. They’re participating in IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge as members of the Executive Service Corps, a free, volunteer effort modeled on the US Peace Corps that’s aimed at providing expert advice to cities around the world while helping IBM train leaders capable of dealing with the cultural, political and financial challenges inherent in doing business globally.

The Nairobi leaders didn’t see their arrangement with the ISP as the long term solution, but it’s a practically approach to problem solving that works and helps them get stuff done. And it raises the question: What other creative approaches could the Kenyan government leaders take to accomplish their goals? Lung and her colleagues had creative problem solving in mind when they made recommendations at the end of their engagement in Nairobi. One of them: That a wide variety of government agencies in Kenya–and, indeed, across East Africa–would to well to share a single cloud computing set up for handling many of their transportation-management needs. This would make it easier to share information between government agencies, and they’d save money, as well.

But while Nairobi’s short-term approach to getting access to traffic video was smart, inspired improvisation only goes so far. Consider last year’s Japanese earthquake and tsunami. It’s impossible to respond adequately to a disaster of that magnitude. So it’s vital to take the long view, anticipate potential problems, and build systems capable of avoiding them or diminishing their impact.

This approach depends to a great extent on honesty and transparency. Organizations and societies have to be willing to confront their vulnerabilities and make the policy changes and financial investments necessary for dealing with them.

Colin Harrison, an IBM Smarter Cities technical strategist, has traveled to Japan repeatedly since the quake to help out with recovery and preparedness. A surprise discovery in the aftermath, he believes, teaches us a great deal about the importance of facing our societal demons head on.

The Japanese coastline has cliffs some 60-80 meters high that are pierced by rivers draining the inland plain. These rivers have carved narrow valleys ending in bays. There are many small fishing villages along this coast. When the tsunami struck, the wall of water entered the bays and the steep valley walls acted like funnels—so the flood surged high and devastated the fishing villages. In the aftermath of the quake,  people discovered long-forgotten, centuries-old stone markers in these valleys that are inscribed with warnings not to build houses below the level of the markers. Japanese ancestors knew of the risks of major tsunamis, but over the centuries their descendants forgot or decided to take the risk.

Harrison’s takeaway: “Prepare for the next disasters by making societies more resilient—because disasters will surely come.” One of the core principles for achieving resilience is to create diversity within systems. That way, if one element fails, others can succeed and help balance out the losses. The Internet is designed based on that principle. In the district east of the Japanese city of Sendai, which was devastated by the quake and tsunami, the people living there had become critically dependent on one form of economic activity, farming. When the disaster struck, their entire economy was destroyed, since the salt water has made their land infertile for decades to come. IBM is now working with universities and farmers to establish new approaches to agriculture, such as hydroponic farming.

Resilience has become a major theme for IBM researchers in Japan, the United States, Australia and elsewhere. Much of this work is being done in collaboration with governments and universities. But there’s a private sector angle, as well. A group of major corporations has become so concerned about the resilience of societies and industrial infrastructure that they have formed a loose confederation, called the Resilience Action Initiative, to proactively address issues arising over the next decades due to the combination of population growth and resource constraints.

It’s early days for the initiative, but IBM has begun gathering information and experiences that can help build a new methodology for creating resilience. In fact, it treats some of the Executive Services Corps engagements as”scouting parties” to help shape their thinking, says Harrison.

Which takes us back to the yin and yang of the smarter planet. In a time with so many economic, political and social conflicts in play, the push and pull between improvisation and preparedness is shaping up to be one of the important dialectical relationships of the 21st Century–and one that won’t be easy to work out.


Read a white paper about IBM’s commitment to Africa.

Here’s a white paper about IBM’s Transportation Maturity Model.

Here’s a study by UN-HABITAT about Nairobi’s economic prospects.




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