Building a Smarter Planet

ITP.net speaks to John L Kennedy, Vice President of Marketing for IBM about the company's Smarter Planet initiative

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Building a Smarter Planet Instrumentation, Interconnectedness and Insight are driving the Smarter Planet initiative, says Kennedy.
By  Mark Sutton Published  July 25, 2009

IBM has recently launched its Smarter Planet initiative, which, in the company’s own words, looks to make our smarter world a better place to live. The program has a wide ranging remit to look at how smart systems can be used to improve efficiency and solve problems facing public and private sector organizations. ITP.net spoke to John L Kennedy, Vice President of Marketing for IBM about the initiative.

What is the Smarter Planet initiative about?
John Kennedy: Smarter Planet is IBM’s vision and point of view on dynamics in the world. It is more than just a point of view on the wider world, the economy and changes happening; it is also a point of view on how businesses, our clients, can use opportunities they have to out perform, and be more competitive, in what we are calling this new smarter world.

At the macro level, it starts with the observation that we are living in a time of significant change. The economic dynamics are well understood, but there is another aspect of this, that three things are happening around us, they are all related, and a consequence of each other. The first, as in Thomas Friedman’s book, the world is getting flatter. That is a result of the proliferation of the Internet, the more connected society.

As a function of that, the world is becoming smaller. Then there is a third key trend that is accompanying this – the world is also getting smarter.

We don’t mean necessarily the millions of people entering colleges and universities, we mean smarter on the basis that we have a proliferation of instrumentation all around us, in every part of our life. That’s the first cornerstone of this vision that the world is getting smarter, is that you have this proliferation of devices. We are seeing instrumentation in systems in all parts of our lives. It is driven by the fact that there are billions of transistors for every human on the planet, and that the cost of those is tiny.

Even though there are a billion people on the internet, there are billions of devices that now talk to each other - there is an internet of things. You have a car that can talk to a mechanic, to signal the fact that it needs a repair; you have store shelves, when it is running low on inventory of a certain product, it can talk to a supply chain and it becomes replenished. You have this instrumentation in all these devices, but the second dynamic is you have this new connectedness between devices, and as these devices talk, it creates systems that didn’t exist before.

The most powerful part of the world becoming smarter, is that there is the computing power and the software to take this data and understand it in a way that gives you a new level of intelligence. The smarter world view is driven by these three ‘I’s, instrumentation, interconnectedness, and, when you apply the science to understand the data you create a new level of insight into the way these systems work. You can recognize patterns and create new intelligence with the data. If enough data exists, you can actually then begin to recognize patterns and predict outcomes - it is about creating intelligence, being able anticipate change.

In the time we are living in, this is a bold vision, but it gives a lot of hope for how society might improve, particularly as many economies around the world are slowing and governments are looking for ways to rebuild their infrastructure. This vision comes at a perfect time, because it is not just about repairing infrastructure, you can prepare it for the future. You can take traffic systems, and build in a smart traffic system that allows for more congestion management.

At a commercial level, a go-to-market level, how does the initiative play with IBM?
You now have this capability to make the systems work better, make them work smarter, and you have the chance to apply this to very practical issues in industries. With economic stimulus [packages] around the world, there is an opportunity to help governments.

We can also have a discussion with an industry around how to make their industry smarter, and to go implement, for example smarter retail. So we sit with a retailer, and we have a certain view point on, given that we have the instrumentation capability, with sensors and actuators and RFID and so forth, to instrument an entire supply chain, from the physical product to when its sold. We have the ability to monitor that system end-to-end, and the ability to understand how goods are moving through the system, what goods are moving through the system, the ability to automatically replenish and match demand for the product, all the way through to the manufacturer. We talk about how we can make their supply chain smart.

Another good example is with utilities, where we would talk about how the energy grid is becoming smarter. Another industry that is really crying out to be made smarter is the health care industry. The health care system in some ways is not a system at all, because you have pockets of data, which sit with researchers, with care providers, with doctors, with insurers, but the ability to share that data could yield new possibilities. In many hospitals and doctors offices, record keeping is still paper-based. In the US, every year there are over two million prescription errors due to handwriting eligibility. The fact that we live in a world of barcodes, and UPCs and RFID codes, and something as serious as getting the right prescription is a problem, seems hard to understand. That is where things like electronic health record management is a good proof point for making healthcare smarter.

Another way to bridge this commercially, is companies of all kinds are facing pressures that co-exist across all industries. One is all companies are dealing with the overwhelming amount of data. That is a basic problem that all companies have.

Another consequence of living in a smart world is that there’s more interconnectedness, and consumers and customers have new expectations. Power continues to shift to the consumer, because there is more information, so companies have to be able to respond much quicker to these new demands.

A third area is that companies need to do more with less. Companies have fewer resources, there is less demand, there is economic pressure - companies have to be more resourceful, particularly in terms of managing costs.

The fourth area, which has been a issue for some time is how to manage the infrastructure. Companies have made investments for years, but capacity utilization, particularly of IT infrastructure remains a problem. Now through instrumentation and interconnectedness, companies can redefine the way they look at infrastructure, not just IT, but also their whole business infrastructure, what we are calling the dynamic infrastructure.

So we can talk about [Smarter Planet] in terms of unmet needs companies have in a smart world.

In terms of IBM’s services, does this initiative focus on specific industries or is it more of an umbrella?
We think this ability to take advantage of these new capabilities applies to every industry, but there are some that are hotter than others, that seem to be crying out for the greatest opportunity and appetite for change. There are three particularly - utilities and healthcare and the opportunity to create smarter cities, to work with governments. Cities are where all these systems come together, and there is a chance to work with cities to look at their power, look at their water, look at their healthcare, look at their infrastructure, look at their traffic systems, to help make the city smarter.

One of the reasons we think IBM is uniquely positioned in this space is we have industry expertise across all industries, and in a way we think this is something we have done for the entire 97 years of our history. We have always applied our deep expertise in systems, our deep expertise in industries etc in working with our client, whoever it is, to help them solve these problems. We are now living in a time when the problems are different, but this is what we are good at.

Are there new technologies that are specifically enabling this, especially in terms of data processing and the sheer volume of data, is it going to be possible to collect and process the data?
One of the key enablers is the pure advancements in data processing horse power. Recently IBM broke the petaflop barrier, and it is advancements like that that will enable us to not only manage it [data] but to mine it for the insights and the intelligence.

The other thing that positions IBM well in that space is that we have been building out our software portfolio to give companies the tools as well, so our acquisition of Cognos which gives us more business intelligence and analytics capabilities is a key asset as well. With things like sensors and actuators and RFID you get the ability to instrument the physical world as well as the virtual world. The fact that you can take data from these types of data in the physical world, that is also a recent development that lets us look at these systems in a holistic sense.

Is IBM involved in that end-point sensor technology at all?
We’re not in the business of building sensors, but our model has always been one of a partnership, so we partner with companies that are expert in their field, and that is part of our strategy. It is building up our eco-system.

Where is the initiative in the Middle East?
We are in the process of launching in the Middle East, we are bringing it to market now. We have some activities in Egypt, in Bahrain and we have presented some of the smarter banking offerings in the region.

In terms of response in markets where its rolling what has that been?
Very good, we have seen a very positive response in the timeliness of the message, in the relevance of the message, we have seen great interest from our customers, and we are seeing some movement in the way people are seeing IBM. It is a commercial strategy, but as well we believe there is a positive impact to the IBM brand.

Especially in hard economic times, can companies afford to make this radical change, and do they have the will to take the risk?
There’s two ways of looking at it. What we are doing is building out the examples - companies will be interested in those that show the highest pay back, that is universal. The second is that in many places, the times we are living in have provided a mandate for change, and a chance for leaders to take actions that they wouldn’t have been able to take ordinarily. In the areas like healthcare, utilities, these are areas where we see more near term interest, but clearly, the emphasis is we are here to help our clients out perform in this new world, so where we can provide the most near-term payback, for any industry is the focus.

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