IBM’s Smarter Cities: A Synergistic View of the Modern City

Smarter Cities is IBM’s initiative to utilise the wide array of data and instrumentation available pertaining to city life to enable cities to become smarter in their integration and delivery of services and planning.

Earlier this year, IBM launched their Smarter Cities Technology Centre in Dublin, which will eventually employ up to 200 people, across a wide variety of disciplines. Pól Mac Aonghusa is a Senior Manager at the Dublin Smarter Cities centre, and describes IBM’s approach to building smarter cities as, “a very synergistic view of how a city needs to work as a total organism”.

“We’ve noticed that the world in general has become increasingly instrumented. Devices are telling us about the world, and so there’s a huge amount of instrumentation out there. That’s interesting, but in another way it’s an enormous challenge, because actually what you want to be able to do is interconnect all of those things so that you can get data from rich and diverse sources.

“Ultimately, what you want to generate is the ability to create insights from all sorts of rich data sources so that we can make our cities smarter. And if you think back to IBM’s business model, we are about very, very large system integration. We are about enabling through our technology.”

With half of the world’s population now domiciled in cities, Pól says that IBM views the city as the, “emerging model of economic development, of human concentration, and therefore as a future marketplace for IBM”.

In setting up the Smarter Cities Technology Centre in Dublin, IBM has entered into a non-commercial, research-based collaboration with the city’s local authorities, who have made much of their data available for research, which can be scaled and applied internationally.

Pól believes that, in Ireland “public thinking is quite enlightened in this general area”, and that for this reason Dublin presents an interesting research base, being as it is, “a well known city which is not so big that it’s unmanageable, yet it’s not so small that it’s not significant, where we have a very good open relationship with the city through their interest in research”.

This project represents something of a departure for IBM, not least in terms of recruitment, a process which is ongoing for the Dublin centre. As well as scientists and technologists, “all the kinds of people that you would imagine IBM would want to hire”, the project will involve people with specific expertise in the domains of water, traffic, energy, and other areas less commonly associated with technology.

“The idea of sharing research is also one that is new for IBM, “we realise that, even for a company the size of IBM, a city is a huge proposition, and so we’re creating a model of research which is based on collaboration”.

“If you’d come to an organisation like IBM several years ago, a lot of the research would have been behind closed doors; very much proprietary. But particularly when we started to talk about cities and how we can make them smarter, we realised that we needed a different model of research, so we are very actively seeking the right kind of collaboration with industrial partners, with interesting small and medium enterprises, and also with academic and public sector partners.”

Much of the work in Dublin is centred on trying to understand, to research and to figure out what might be the next generation of computer technology that can exploit both the data made available by cities themselves and also created by mobile devices, and that can then utilise that data in a “smart” way.

“If you think about water, for example, that’s everything from raindrops, to recycling, from flushing toilets to drainage, to flood management and flood prediction. So, for example, the kind of questions there are, “how can we help a city optimise distribution and production of drinking water?”

“The kind of insights that our scientists can provide help do things like predicting where are the smartest places to install various pieces of equipment on the network like pressure reduction valves and so on, that can influence how water is distributed around the network.

“If we had readings from smart meters in peoples’ homes, we could create feedback for these people that could help them alter their behaviour in terms of water consumption, and maybe help reduce the overall consumption of water in smart way.”

An example of a current research project at the Dublin Smarter Cities centre is a study of how analysis of social media feeds could potentially help determine the actual social usage of the city, which could then be utilised to inform certain planning decisions, like the location of amenities or different types of business.

“We’re not there to criticise the decisions that might have been made; I’d hesitate in any sense to do that, that’s not really our remit; but what we can help to do, perhaps, is present data and views of data in ways that will help decision-making, whether that’s faster decision-making or more informed decision-making.”

Pól sees the future, and true utility, of data as being bi-directional, where for example, in addition to providing data about its inhabitants, the city will receive data from them, much like the analysis of social media feeds being investigated in the Smarter Cities centre.

“If you say to me, ‘Is it going to fix process A, or is it going to improve process B in some way?’ That’s more than I can answer because there are obviously political considerations and the IMF and everybody else. What I can say is we believe that we can help people make better decisions, we believe that we can help people make more efficient and maybe faster decisions. How quickly those filter into practice? That’s beyond my pay grade!”

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