IBM Offers Cash-Strapped Mayors A Smarter City-In-A-Box

A plug-and-play system for cities that want the benefits of real-time data crunching, without the big bills required to become a true city of the future.

city traffic

For the last two-and-a-half years, IBM has aggressively pursued its Smarter Planet strategy, producing more than 2,000 consulting engagements in cities around the world that want to improve their performance by tapping the data their citizens generate—including a public safety control center for the NYPD, water management for Dubuque, Iowa, and a weather prediction and emergency response system for Rio de Janeiro. Now the company will use those lessons to offer a smarter city-in-a-box to cash-strapped municipalities that want to reap at least some of the benefits of real-time urban analytics.

The Intelligent Operations Center, which IBM will announce today at the Intelligent Cities Forum in Washington, D.C., is a streamlined suite of real-time dashboard, analysis, and data integration tools designed to mimic the more expensive civic control centers it has built in New York and Rio. Over the next 12 months, IBM intends to offer specific modules for public safety, water, and transportation that combine tools to make it easier to connect IBM’s analytical engines with embedded systems.

Although the Intelligent Operations Center is a step toward making the benefits of a smart city cheaper and easier to implement (thus driving down development costs and accelerating adoption), it will still be held back by a relative lack of sensors, standards, and data in these cities. That makes it impossible for anyone to build a truly plug-and-play smart city system. Karen Parrish, vice president of industry solutions in IBM’s Software Group, argues this less of a hindrance than the lack of analytical firepower Big Blue will be bringing to the table.

"Most cities share some at least some data," she says, "and one thing they cannot do is manage that data in real time. They can’t analyze it, and they have no way to synthesize it."

The Intelligent Operations Center is notable in that it will be the first smarter city solution IBM intends to (eventually) deliver through the cloud, rather than deploying small armies of consultants on-site to build one-off systems for each client. This coincides with a shift in IBM’s Smarter Planet strategy and sales pitch. At the time Sam Palmisano announced the campaign in November 2008, the global economy was in free fall and governments were racing to inject trillions of dollars in stimulus. While corporate spending on IT went dormant, technology companies expected government sales to pick up some of the slack.

Today, the opposite is happening. IBM is pitching the Intelligent Operations Center as the perfect solution for mayors facing budget crises and cities wracked by layoffs of firefighters, police, and teachers—along with a shrinking tax base. If the rationale for building a smarter city started with sustainability (i.e. eliminate waste and save both money and the planet), the conversation is shifting to the traditional topics of ROI and total-cost-of-ownership. For cities losing money hand over fist, that’s a smart idea.

[Image: Flicker user Neil Armstrong2]

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