Picture a billion transistors for every human, and a trillion networked objects worldwide, bleeping and blooping every time you flick a switch, make a left turn, or buy an apple. That's IBM's sci-fi "Smarter Planet" vision. Using sensors, high-speed networks and sophisticated supercomputer modeling, the venerable $100 billion IT company is pioneering applications of the same "just-in-time" insight that Wal-Mart has into its supply chain to major global challenges in energy, transportation, food, water, even health care and finance. Fast Company was the first to report on Smarter Planet before it was announced in November.
Here are five of the thousands of voices bringing it to life.
Colin Harrison, Corporate Director of Earth, Air, Fire, and Wind:
"I've been in the computing game for a long time. I think starting in the mid-90s, we realized, if we keep building these networks, one day everything will be connected. And finally here we are: 3 billion cell phones, wifi and fixed networks.
We saw what people were beginning to do from a research perspective, deploying large numbers of sensors out into the big wide world. Lo and behold you can start integrating with those things, do visualization and modeling, for a very wide number of things.
For example, there's a drought in Australia. You can build the instrumented methods for monitoring and controlling irrigation and soil humidity, and then using supply chain management you can actually optimally schedule the delivery of water."
Naveen Lamba, Intelligent Transportation Lead, IBM Global Business Services:
"We're not going to be able to build our way out of traffic congestion. We have to learn to get more productivity out of existing assets using technology.
What Stockholm did is to try and use pricing to get a certain number of people out of their cars and into public transportation. IBM designed the whole system, implements it and runs it.
You draw a ring around the city and every street that crosses that cordon has EZ-Pass style transponders. You can have a tag that charges you automatically, log online to pay with a credit card, or pay cash--all the 7-11s in Stockholm are connected to our tolling back office. The charge varies from $1.50 to $4 at the peak.
And it worked out very nicely: Traffic volume reduced 20-25%, there was a significant improvement in air quality, public transport use went up a lot, buses started to move faster and became a lot more reliable. In fact, there were stories of buses having to wait at the side of the road just to keep schedule till they updated the schedules!
Initially public opposition was very high -- you're asking a person to pay for using the highway, which has been free all this while. But within two months of a six-month trial, the majority was in support of it. We're redoing the entire system in London now -- in September 2009 the city will switch over."
Ron Ambrosio, Global Research Leader, Energy & Utilities at IBM:
"We're moving to a much more highly distributed, dynamic, and interactive electric grid. To take the analogy of the Internet, it's starting to switch from a centralized supply and management model -- the mainframe of the 60s and 70s--to a network model like we have today with peer to peer computing and lots of mobile devices and things coming and going. There's more automation, more types of supply, both smaller and larger.
Wind and solar generation, the two primary renewable sources, are very dependent on weather effects. When you start to feed a variable source of electricity into the electric grid it needs to be managed more actively. Static, deterministic models are going to have more difficulty in the future. We'll be using much more stochastic modeling to predict variability and assess the level of error in a particular prediction.
All the major utilities globally are working very rapidly to incorporate [smart grids]. It improves their quality of service, and it helps them to respond to a lot of the pressures being put on the utility industry in terms of carbon management and greenhouse gases."
Guy Blissett, IBM Global Business Services, Senior Managing Consultant - Institute for Business Value, Consumer Products Lead:
"In today's economy consumers are looking hard. If they are going to pay a little extra to get organic milk they want to know that they're paying for something different. Across the board, in industries like food, beverages, pharmaceuticals, and increasingly apparel and autos, transparency is becoming more and more important, and driving that is the consumer.
If we look at products and how they move through the supply chain, every single step they are generating info: what's happening, who's touching them, how are they stored, how are they processed, how hot, how cold, what humidity, a carbon footprint and a water footprint, and what was the impact of all these activities to the community at large. The information is adding a new layer of value around a physical product -- almost like adding a service to the product.
IBM has been doing work on supply chain visibility for 30 or 40 years. It's just now the technology is advancing to an extent that visibility can go from the fertilizer to the fork and everywhere in between. It's not just the RFID tag or the 2D barcode -- it's IT strategy, information architecture, information management, the nuts and bolts of storage."
Sharon Nunes, VP of Technology:
"Over the next 20 years the world will require 40% more water. It's the oil of the 21st century, except there's no simple alternative. There's a linkage between water and energy too -- the cost to move and treat water is about 3% of our energy usage in the US, and 20% in California. To manage an increasing demand and a constant supply, you need complex optimization.
We have a project under way with the Beacon Institute in New York. The ultimate plan is to put sensors the length of the Hudson, 315 miles from New York City up past Albany. For example, let's say you have some point source contamination: industrial, farm, or household runoff. If you're downstream, you may not detect it for several days if you don't have the sensing.
When we've got millions of data points from sensors, complex interactions might be indicating something very subtle. We're integrating the information and making it available in realtime to water managers so they can make better decisions about that limited resource."