When IBM looks at the water industry, it sees an ailing supply chain in need of its algorithmic elixir. Over the past two years, the tech giant, which practices the largely unseen art of taming vast and complex information systems, has increased the flow of meaningful data to state and local governments, utilities, and manufacturers. "We're not going to create water where there is none," says Sharon Nunes, vice president of IBM's Big Green Innovations. "But where we know water is under stress, we need to monitor what's going on and better manage it." IBM also sees a geyser-like opportunity: The fast-growing water-management market is projected to reach $20 billion by 2015. Not surprisingly, IBM has made water one of the six pillars of its Smarter Cities initiative.
For local governments such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C., IBM is trying to reduce what's known as nonrevenue water. Though treated, it never reaches customers due to a vast network of old, leaky underground pipes that loses as much as 50% of what it carries. Using acoustics and other information about thousands of miles of pipes, IBM identifies the worst leaks to prioritize repairs.
1911 (as C-T-R, renamed IBM in 1924)
| NUMBER OF
total revenues for most recent fiscal year
what the company is most famous for
Being a computing and consulting powerhouse.
why it's innovative
For nabbing more patents (4,914 in 2009) than any other company for 17 consecutive years. It continues collecting and analyzing data to make huge, complex systems in everything from health care to city infrastructure more effective.
Elsewhere, IBM software monitors water quality in rivers and triggers warnings throughout a given watershed, so manufacturers downstream can adjust their use. In western Ireland's Galway Bay, the company is also synthesizing data on pollution, marine life, and waves, transmitted from sensors to keep commercial fishermen informed of hazardous conditions.
Despite Nunes's demurral, IBM actually is working to create more potable water. Based on technology from its semiconductor lab, it's creating a membrane to better filter out arsenic and make desalination, an economic strain in developing countries, less expensive. For the $104-billion-a-year Big Blue, water quenches its thirst for growth and ingenuity. Simultaneously.