Smarter cities – cities of almost any size can now go digital, with all the efficiency gains that brings


I attended an IBM Smarter Cities analyst event last week, and it was, not surprisingly, very interesting.

What is the whole rationale behind making cities smarter?

Well, there are a number of factors. For one, the world’s population has doubled in the last 40 years (from 3.5 billion to almost 7 billion). And with the mushrooming population, there is also an increase in urbanisation (in 1800, 3% of the world’s population lived in cities, whereas in 2007 that figured went above 50% for the first time).

The surging numbers of people living in cities are increasing demands on municipalities for services like water, energy, transportation, housing, healthcare and public safety. This is happening at a time of constrained resources and ageing infrastructures for many existing cities.

At the IBM Smarter Cities event, IBM showcased both some of the technologies they are providing to cities and also case studies of some of the solutions they have rolled out.

Intelligent Operations Center

The core of IBM’s offerings is its Intelligent Operations Center (IOC) – this is a application capable of taking information from virtually any IT system a city may have (water management, video surveillance, first responder systems, traffic management, etc.), combining this data and using it to kick off workflows, to trigger alerts, to display on dashboards and/or for data export.

The fact that the system can take in inputs from such a wide variety of systems is, in large part due to its use of the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) – an XML-based protocol for exchanging alerts between systems. From the CAP Wikipedia entry:

Alerts from the United States Geological Survey, the Department of Homeland Security, NOAA and the California Office of Emergency Services can all be received in the same format, by the same application. That application can, for example, sound different alarms based on the information received.

The IOC’s flexibility when it comes to data inputs ensures it can take in information from almost any IT system – it can also output that same data to other systems or run data through rules engines to kick off workflows. This means the IOC has huge potential as a way to take in information from many disparate sources, have it acted on, and display results in realtime to the responsible city officials.

However, it is those same city officials who may be biggest barrier to the success of the IOC. To get the most from the IOC, it needs access to the relevant data, but that requires the buy-in of the data owners. Most city administrations are based around silos and the people responsible for managing those silos may be inclined to view the data as their own fiefdom. Data sharing cultures will need to be far more widely accepted in city government for the IOC to reach its full potential.

The Smarter Cities sales cycle must be fascinating and likely involves more change management skills than sales ones.

One of the initial customers for IBM’s Smarter Cities solutions was Rio de Janeiro but there was a burning platform there. Rio is hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics and the 2014 World Cup so it needed to ensure it had all its systems in tip-top shape. Other cities have signed up for partial roll-outs (Washington DC and the Sonoma County Water Authority for water management, Richmond Va., and New York for crime reduction and Bolzano Italy for management of the elderly, to name a few). In their cases, increasing sales will be very much a matter of up-selling additional efficiency services.

One of the intriguing aspects of the IBM Smarter Cities solution is that there is a cloud delivered version. This lack of a requirement for a hardware installation can drastically cut costs, the time to roll-out and the IT administrative burden (backups, disaster recovery and availability) making it an ideal solution for smaller urban areas which couldn’t previously have considered such an option.

For the first time, cities of almost any size can now go digital, with all the efficiency gains that brings.

Photo credit Nrbelex