Big Blue, the nickname of IBM, one of the world's most high profile technology companies is thinking - and doing big again.
The American company, once a dominant leader in making computers, now wants to turn its attention to an even greater ambition: creating a Smarter Planet. IBM, which has offices in more than 170 countries worldwide, wants to position itself as a company that helps its customers make a better sense of the immense - and growing - volume of data that is being produced, so as to improve productivity and their quality of life.
From IBM's perspective, just about any human activity can be digitised: from the production of physical goods to the delivery of services. This means that with the help of technology, more efficient ways can be found to improve the everyday lives of everyone in this world. Computing was previously about mainframes and PCs (personal computers), but now, it is about digitisation, said Frank Kern, IBM's senior vice president and managing partner, IBM Global Business Services.
IBM's Smarter Planet strategy benefits from strong technological tailwind. The humble transistor - the basic building block of the Digital Age - now costs as low as one ten-millionth of a cent. This means that ever greater numbers of transistors can, and are being made and deployed - and things digitised. By 2010, there will be a billion transistors for every human being on earth, and the vast amount of data produced per day globally - 15 petabytes - is the equivalent of eight times that of all American libraries put together.
To Kern and his colleagues at IBM, the big question and bigger challenge is: How do we take all these data and solve the problems of Planet Earth? How are we making the world smarter in a positive way? Kern, an IBM veteran with more than three decades of service that has taken him all over the world, now leads a 100,000-strong team, IBM's Global Business Services division, which basically functions as consultants to IBM customers, advising them on the kinds of technology services and applications that they can stand to benefit from. Kern was speaking at a recent talk organised by SMU's School of Information Systems.
More than an ad campaign
The Smarter Planet strategy was launched by IBM's chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano in late 2008, when the world was smack in the middle of the financial crisis. There was a lot of internal debate about this, whether or not it should be introduced, said Kern.
In the end, the company went ahead, pulling together its global marketing muscle. The result: a slew of videos, websites, blogs and commercials. We were trying to put out a point of view: that this is a unique opportunity to create a smarter planet. It's not an advertising campaign but a strategy - this is something that will not last a year but decades, said Kern.
In a sense, the Smarter Planet is a reflection of the latest change in IBM's business model. Founded as a maker of counting machines in 1896, IBM has undergone several rounds of massive strategy makeovers that have become bookmarks of the various chapters that the computer industry as a whole has gone through. People used to think of IBM as mainframes and PCs. Today, 91% of the company's profits come from software and services. We are really a software and service-oriented company, said Kern. And now, IBM wants to deploy its know-how in various major areas of human activities.
New approaches to crime and fire
Hardcore tech geeks might have been disappointed that Kern's talk was thin on technology. It was, however, thick with broad, strategic vision, case studies, as well as smart analysis of data and information.
For example, IBM has been helping the New York Police Department (NYPD) put data together into the city's Real Time Crime Center. The system is able to uncover relationships between millions of pieces of information that were previously unknown, like tattoos and nicknames, leading to quick identification and apprehending of suspects.
More critically, NYPD is using data to predict where, when and what kind of criminal activity will take place. For example, with a known history of drug deals going on at a certain hour in a certain neighbourhoods, policemen will be stationed at the scene, providing a clear and strong deterrent to everyone but the most hardcore of criminals. Now, it is a different thought: you don't solve crime, you prevent crime, said Kern.
Evidently, the results are showing. Crime rate in the city has come down 27% since 2001, and a big chunk of the credit goes to the Real Time Crime Center. Interestingly, the Center is not manned merely by computer geeks tapping away on keyboards. Rather, it is staffed by seasoned police officers - gun-carrying, no less. To Kern, this is the right mix of ground-pounding first-hand experience of the police, combined with the extensive data analytical capabilities of the system that, together, create such a powerful and smart combination.
Besides crime fighting, data analytics are also used in fire-fighting. Again, in New York, if the city's fire inspectors were to inspect each and every 800,000 buildings within their turf, it would take 12 years. The database allowed the department to analyse various attributes of buildings: their location, structural make-up, history of incidents, and so on. In doing so, the department can identify buildings that are more likely to suffer from fire or other damage. And with such information on hand, fire inspectors will soon be on their way to enforce preventive measures on those identified buildings. Fire fighting is moving from the heroics of running into burning buildings, and into preventing fires, said Kern.
Water, power and traffic
There are also attempts to apply new intelligence in areas and forces greater than those man-made. For example, to better understand a nearby source of water, IBM has teamed up with The Beacon Institute, which researches the links between rivers and society, to launch a major study of the 500-km long Hudson River using the River and Estuary Observatory Network (REON).
The REON is an integrated system of sensors, robotics and computational technology based on IBM's Stream Computing computer architecture. The multitude of sensors captures and transmits real time data like temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and pollution level. Other tags track movement of fishes and other marine life.
IBM and its partners hope that such a detailed way of observing, understanding and predicting how rivers and their ecosystems work, will facilitate a translation of such data into knowledge, and then, into better policy and management for people whose lives - in the case of Hudson, 12 million of them - are touched by the river. Water is a huge issue, one fifth of human beings do not have access to clean water, by 2025, this will go up to one third, said Kern. We've got to do something about water and better understand it.
The company is also seeing lots of possible application in another utility-related field: power. Specifically, by digitising power transmission infrastructure into smart grids, utility companies can discover and cut down on wastage that would have otherwise occurred when they transmit electricity from power generating sources to end users. According to Kern, 40% of the power generated worldwide goes to waste. To put this wastage into another perspective, this 40% is enough to satisfy the needs of Canada, China, and Germany combined. Power generated and not properly used - that's wastage, said Kern.
Any discussion on a smarter planet is incomplete without some attention to smarter cities. Demographers have estimated that by 2050, 70% of the world population, or six billion, will be living within urban areas. Cities are something important to talk about, there are also a lot of frustrations about cities, said Kern.
For most city-dwellers, one of their key grouse is that of congested traffic, and according to figures cited by Kern, Americans lose US$18 billion in wasted productivity because of poor traffic conditions. As part of IBM's Smart Cities offering, traffic flows, transportation patterns and so on, are closely monitored.
Closer to home, IBM has for several years, been working with Singapore's Land Transport Authority to develop and implement intelligent traffic monitoring and prediction systems. IBM's expertise includes advance transport data analytics, allowing effective management and integration of transport information; information dissemination - tools for timely and accurate dissemination of transport information to the public, as well as simulation and modelling, which is the use of high performance computing for modelling.
IBM hopes that it can help to predict where and when congestion will occur, and perhaps, improve efficiency of the traffic. Clearly, these are pressing issues yearning for solutions. For now, besides Singapore, Smart Cities technologies are also being introduced in Brisbane, London and Stockholm. Why should there be all these efforts to make places and cities move 'livable'? So that you can attract the best talent, because the future is all about attracting talent, said Kern.
Issues on abuse
Inevitably, when vast amount of data is being collected, be it from non-living things or human beings, the issue of privacy and abuse of such information will arise. Kern concedes that this is a wide-spread concern, especially in countries like Germany and other parts of Europe. The data is all there, they are all over the place, it is flowing. Does this give people the chance to invade others' privacy, the chance to bad things? Yes, he said.
But, this does not mean the whole trend of the digitisation of the world needs to be put to a stop. We've got to recognise that what we need is not a cut in the flow of data, but smart governance. We need to put in place measures to prevent such abuses. You are not going to stop it or slow it down. We need smart discussions; we need dialogues with parties concerned with this issue. But, people need to recognise that the data is all there, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, he added, referring to two highly popular social networking websites where users tend to post their personal details.
Kern also addressed concerns that some people might feel left behind by all this massive digitisation of our living and working environment. To him, this fear needs to be overcome. Everybody should embrace and make full use of technology - even more so for business leaders. I don't know how one can be a CEO today without leveraging on technology, he said. People used to be very worried about computers, thinking that we will become over-reliant. Well, the world is moving forward and there is no stopping, said Kern.
More than just the sheer momentum of digitisation, Kern feels that the world is now at an inflexion point, where changes will come faster, reaching out to a wider population. Data, and the analysis of data, is already driving the next wave of productivity. And this wave will only get bigger. This is a massive opportunity. The digitisation of data is changing the world in many exciting ways. This is the beginning of something greater in the change and more significant than ever before. We are working towards a smarter planet for a smarter world, he said.