City Smarts: Tech Giants Tinker in Giant Systems of Systems

IBM Envisions Sustainable Cities that Are Wired Up and Interconnected

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If you think IT and sustainability are two totally different worlds, think again.

Most of what is referred to as “smart” these days — smart transportation, the smart grid and smart cities, for example — is made intelligent by processors, sensors and analytical software, and of course the servers that make it all possible. So it’s not surprising to see tech giants like IBM wanting to create a smarter planet, Cisco wanting to craft smart tech solutions for utilities and companies, and plenty of other, smaller companies wanting a piece of the action.

But while the money and hoopla surrounding all things smart can cloud the issue a bit, the point is that infrastructure in this country is sorely in need of an overhaul. In its Smarter Cities Virtual Leader Forum today, IBM recapped what it’s doing to make education, transportation, government, energy and healthcare smarter. It sees cities as systems of systems.

“Where these systems touch each other, we can find ways to improve cities,” IBM researcher Ching-Hua Chen-Ritzo says.

It’s a point IBM has been hammering home over the last several months: City systems need to be connected to one another in order to optimize resources and operate more efficiently. But Pat McCroy, outgoing mayor of Charlotte, N.C., illustrates the point far better than any high-priced ad campaign.

In his talk about smarter transportation today, McCroy outlined the decade-long process that resulted in his city’s smart growth plan.

“You can’t separate smart transit out from everything else,” he said. “And you can’t take smart transit as a project, but as a process that never ends. In our case, we integrated transit, roads, land-use plans, sidewalks and bikeways and then we integrated a housing plan, an economic development strategy and a public safety strategy to ensure that the area around each transit stop is safe.”

The result? A 60 percent increase in bus ridership and light rail ridership that already hits the city’s 2020 ridership goals. McCroy also told listeners something IBM smart planet ads likely won’t: Making cities smarter takes time and a lot of work.

It took Charlotte at least a decade to figure out its vision and begin taking the steps necessary to make it a reality, and McCroy says it’s just the beginning of a process that should continue for another 100 years.

“One of the great mistakes people make is they will finish one part of the process — a new light rail route, for example — and treat it as the beginning and end of a single project,” he said. “That will fail in the long run. There will always be another part that should be implemented next, and it’s all part of an ongoing process.”

The other crucial element of a smart city strategy, according to McCroy, is communication and buy-in from the public. It’s a lesson he learned the hard way. After getting buy-in early on by presenting the public with graphic depictions of what their city would look like if they didn’t plan smartly vs. what it could be if they did, McCoy got residents to pass a 1 percent sales tax to help fund the vision. Then he stopped telling them about it. Five years later, when there was news of budget overages and hold-ups on some of the projects involved in the vision, there was what McCoy describes as a “rebellion.”

“A lot of people had never heard about the vision, they had only heard the bad news about delays and overruns so they questioned what we were doing and why we were doing it,” he said. “I learned then, you can never stop communicating, because the public is always learning and getting new info. Messaging, communication and education go on forever, not just at the beginning or end of any particular project.”

Charlotte isn’t the only city IBM is trying to help smarten up. The company is holding Smarter Cities forums throughout the country, hoping to bring city leaders together to learn from each other and to position itself as the hub of that learning. The company describes the initiative as a strategy to use the existing billions of Internet-connected devices to improve the functionality and operational efficiencies of infrastructure. IBM is working with large cities, such as New York and Mexico City, in addition to smaller cities, including Chesapeake, Md., and Dubuque, Iowa.

Discussing a smart transportation approach to solving the congestion and traffic problems in Mexico City, Adriana Lobo, director of Mexico’s Center for Sustainable Transport, says the solution is much less about hard infrastructure changes and more about software that can boost awareness and give people the information they need to make intelligent choices.

Jesus De La Rosa, government program executive for IBM Mexico, adds that such information needs to be available for multiple, interconnected systems:

“An intelligent world generates information, makes that information interconnected, meaning that all who work within a system can share information, and then analyzes that information to anticipate the future.”

As Recovery Act funds begin to roll out to cities throughout the United States for projects to improve transportation and the grid, the hope is that they will be able to do exactly that: anticipate future needs and invest smartly now.


See also:

Will Smart Grid Benefits Be Limited by Dumb Buildings?

City Smarts: Tech Giants Cut Through Those Frustrating Municipal Inefficiencies

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