Interview: Michael Dixon, General Manager Smarter Cities, IBM. Solving the challenges of fast growing cities
The progress of urban centres will soon be measured by their ability to innovate for a more efficient consumption of energy, water and other resources, i.e. their ability to maintain high levels of quality of life and sustainable development, Michael Dixon of IBM predicts.
Solving the challenges of fast growing cities- interview by Gorazd Suhadolnik.
By 2030 as many as 60% of the world population will live in cities. The world is overwhelmed by an unstoppable wave of urbanisation which is something many experts, both those coming, for example, from the United Nations as well as those from high-tech corporations, are currently troubled with. “Smart city” has become a motto heard on a daily basis. The planet’s sustainable urbanisation is as much involved with technological solutions as it is with the accessibility of a wide range of innovative solutions. We help cities engage in reasonable data utilisation, make smarter decisions, resolve problems faster and improve operative efficiency, says Michael Dixon, GM Smarter Cities at IBM. Dixon predicts that the success and progress of a city will soon be measured by its ability to innovate for a more efficient consumption of energy, water and other resources, i.e. its ability to maintain high levels of the quality of life and sustainable development.
What is of key importance for the operation of smart cities?
Some years ago, people started to realise that true value of cities lied in three elements: in making the cities instrumental, in collecting data, and in providing interconnectivity for the development of urban intelligence based on this data. Cities are starting to realise the possibilities of development that lies in applicative technologies and the value of changes in the way large urban centres are operated. For the last five years, we have been involved in an extensive portfolio of projects ranging from smarter cities to specific aspects such as smarter traffic, public security, social services, education, buildings, wáter supply, energy supply etc. And in their interconnectivity in resolving the requirements of our customers.
How fast is this business growing?
We employ people all over the globe and carry out housands of projects every year. Historically speaking, IBM is a production company manufacturing software and hardware, but clients are now increasingly interested in services. For this reason, the focus is now shifting from supplying customers with technology towards the utilisation of this technology in order to achieve results. More than half of IBM’s global revenues are generated from services. The other important issue is a separation made between mature markets (Japan, North America and Western Europe) and the growing market countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, Africa, Asia Pacific, Middle East). In different parts of the world IBM operates 11 research labs integrating research, hardware and software with data processing and analysis for the requirements of the consulting system, which represents a substantial portion of our operations. IBM is said to have the widest portfolio of analytical solutions on the global level. In 2012, we spent $6 billion on research and, over the last 20 years, we have been the company holding the highest number of patents in the world. This is an important and, at the same time, the most exciting aspect of our operations as our research is closely tied to the goals and projects of our customers, often being directly involved in specific projects.
What is the most innovative part of your applicative research in databases?
Research has many different dimensions, but modelling is perhaps its most breakthrough element. Through intense processing of big data we discover new patterns and adopt new decisions based on facts. By understanding the patterns, we are acquiring models which allow us to predict future events. We are beginning to understand what could be the next event in a specific set of data. This can be seen in traffic projects where we develop sophisticated solutions, while the road use patterns help us achieve better solutions and their planning for cases of future traffic congestions. The ability of prediction is also important in health care. Understanding a specific disease and what lies in its background from the data aspect makes the problem much more manageable in the future. The same concept can be observed in the public administration, social security and especially in public security. This way cities can acquire better, more efficient and usually also cheaper services.
How do you roughly divide different fields and sectors you optimise and connect?
Our first field comprises the public utility services and energy consumption, the second relates to physical issues such as transport, roads, operation centres and public security, while the third area includes public services such as health care, education and social service. In most cities, these sectors are being integrated and interconnected for the first time.
How does the development of computers, sensors and network technology allow more efficient management of the ageing physical infrastructure?
Besides buildings, roads and stadiums, there is also the physical infrastructure used for underground city supply. This infrastructure is not visible from the outside, e.g. pipes, cables, connections etc. It is very expensive and each of its parts is built separately. Through artificial intelligence, we can increase the efficiency of this infrastructure and make it more affordable. By managing traffic digitally, the roads can become better utilised as we acquire a better insight into traffic. In one of the cities, we analysed the operation of underground pumps which pump the rain water and prevent flooding. We established that the capacity in these pumps did not correspond with the water input. When there was no water, the pumps operated fully, and at times of heavy rain they operated insufficiently. For this reason, they wore off quickly. By introducing artificial intelligence, we started to manage the pumping capacity, which significantly lowered the maintenance costs and prolonged the optimal operation period in the pumps. Cities must become smarter in using their capacities and resources. You are trying to turn the response pattern into a system of predictions.
Could you illustrate that by giving examples?
One of the most interesting cases is the city of Rio de Janeiro, which will host the World Football Championship next year and two years later also the Olympics, which means they will have to organise two major events within a short timeframe. Through something we named the integrated Operations Centre, the city can manage roads, acquire real-time traffic pattern analysis and harmonise the results with current events in the city while at the same time using the advanced weather modelling and emergency action system in cases of heavy rain, flooding, landslide or fire. By using this system, Rio managed to reduce the emergency response time by 30 percent. Many cities would now like to set up the same system, i.e. acquire the big picture of current events. Furthermore, cities are increasingly dealing with public security and are trying to fully integrate relevant information from the sector, which ranges from the issue of thefts to the latest phenomena such as terrorist threats occurring in certain parts of the world. “Since the early history of mankind, people have wanted to know what would happen the next day, next week or next year. By analysing vast quantities of data we are now beginning to understand what could be the next event in a treated set of information.“
What about infrastructure that is not physically visible?
One such example is the health care system and the question how to provide thorough care for the health of people, while at the same time reduce their need to visit a doctor or a hospital. Furthermore, we addressed the issue of classroom behaviour very seriously and asked ourselves how we could use the observation and data analyses in school behaviour. In a number of cities, we intensely explore the water management systems and seek new solutions for more efficient management of water consumption, water collection and waste water, i.e. how to obtain the most from the available water resources. In Kitakyushu, which is, like many other places in Japan, tackling the power supply shortage problems, IBM is involved in setting up an effective smart network for the generation and consumption of electricity.
Could you provide an example of a city revitalisation project?
Yes, that would be Rochester in the State of New York, which is a domicile city of two formerly large corporations – Xerox and Kodak. The dramatic decrease in their operations caused evere erosion and aggravated the quality of life in the city. In last few years, they decided that the quality of life is important for the health of their inhabitants so they formed a community including everyone, from university medical research laboratories to local shops, and concentrated on the issue of health, healthy food, exercise and active life. The city has become one of the healthiest places to live in the USA, the economy started to recover, the GDP is increasing and people are again moving to live in Rochester. The obstacles for progress in smarter cities are neither financial, as the issue lies merely in spending money in some other way, nor technical. They are completely practical, organisational and cultural in nature.
Could you pick out any project as your favourite?
Many of them are interesting and all of them are good. I think it is important that these projects have already been implemented by several hundred cities all over the globe and that every one of them is focused on the specific needs of a city. There are currently excellent projects implemented in the Netherlands, where they are, naturally, dealing with the water issue. Then, we are developing some very interesting things related to public buildings and facilities in India. In Australia, IBM deals with emergency management in cases of forest fire or floods.
Could you describe the process of transformation into a smart city and the way you connect with local experts in such cases?
The success of a project largely depends upon cooperation with local companies as their knowledge is priceless, while at the same time IBM's contribution in both regional and global know-how is also important for a city. People often want to apply the best solutions coming from other parts of the world. In India, Brazil, China and Russia companies are experiencing an incredible economic uplift and they refuse to merely follow the flow. They want to shape the future. They see such projects as true challenges. You had a lecture about redefining a city budget at the conference on large European cities held in Ljubljana. I actually talked about management, about great challenges faced by leaders, especially in Europe where they have to deal with complex economic problems. Europe must bring some difficult decisions, but this does not mean that good and smart things will happen along the way. Leaders now have the chance to turn the flow of events. Although this cannot be started and finished within a year, the application of technology for the first time in history offers us a chance to change the society – in cities which have physically been built for centuries, the operations and services, quality of life and prosperity can be improved by the use of artificial intelligence.
Can true transformation into smarter cities only be seen in the metropolitan urban centres with several millions inhabitants, or can smaller places also tackle this challenge?
As the economic indexes show, and as it can obviously be seen, the fast-growing small cities will record large growth in their GDPs over the next 15 years. Some big cities are now reaching their utmost limit, which means they are becoming vast and extremely complex. Some of the fastgrowing small cities can face big problems, but these problems are more manageable, e.g. it is much easier to manage the road system in Ljubljana than in Shanghai. The city of San Francisco decide to fit more than 1600 kilometres of the waste water system with sensors, similar to those that have long been used in oil pipelines, for detecting and repairing any damaged pipes in flood-proof drainage systems.
What could Ljubljana, and entire Slovenia, gain with the concept of Smart cities?
This is a question for the city management. I can say that there is interest in standard fields such as health and education. Slovenia would, of course, be interested in a project of forest management. In any case, both Ljubljana and Slovenia are excellent examples of how things can be turned for the better. There is currently an interesting Project conducted nearby, between Bratislava and Vienna, where they are negotiating a construction of Green highway for electric cars. What will life in cities be like in 2030? I would like to know that myself. I believe the energy consumption will be much more efficient, the traffic will change extensively, it will be hard to find just one person sitting in one car, more people will use intelligent vehicles, big changes will be observed in health care, and we will reach the point where we will use electricity for the purposes of digital identification, all of which connect the (public) services and different levels of access to things – life will be a lot easier. However, the greatest challenge enabling all these changes will lie in structural shifts. I believe there will be lots of competition among towns and states and that education will become more importans. Perhaps life won't seem much different at a glance as people will still sit and engage in conversations. However, services will undergo intense change and development.
Will you then still be working for IBM?
I don't know. I love my job very much, it is very exciting and we develop many positive things. I am very optimistic about the future.
- On the global level, 80 % of all carbon emissions are produced by cities.
- One billion and plus automobiles are currently used around the world. By 2020, the number will be doubled.
- The cities are losing 50% of water supplies due to leaking infrastructures.
- One third of all global energy supplies are used by commercial and residential buildings.