IBM Smarter City Classes Seek Solutions For Emergency Rooms, Public Transit, And “The Crotch”

IBM has announced the 50 recipients of its “Smarter Planet Faculty Innovation Awards” and $10,000 grants for designing classes geared toward the technologies, markets, and applications in which IBM has a vested interest. Including one particularly gnarly Chicago transit hub.

Smarter City IBM


On Thursday, technology giant IBM announced the 50 recipients of its inaugural “Smarter Planet Faculty Innovation Awards,” in essence a $10,000 grant for designing classes geared toward the technologies, markets, and applications in which IBM has a vested interest–urban transportation and health care apps, for example.

Pace University associate professor Christelle Scharff, an associate professor of computer science, won for “Across Cities for Cities,” which would connect students in New York with teams in Delhi, Dakar, and Phnom Penh to develop mobile apps for each city, such as one locating the nearest public transit or emergency room. San Jose State’s Chris Tseng will set his students to work designing health care informatics apps. And students at Australia’s RMIT University will learn how to deploy sensors across cities and generate new streams of data. Grants will be distributed to researchers at 40 universities in 14 countries, with the classes in question beginning next fall.

The program is a no-brainer for IBM, mobilizing university resources and training the next generation of programmers to grapple with the complexities of urban computing. But what if the smartest solutions to urban problems don’t necessarily lie in computer science departments? Shouldn’t they be teaching this stuff in architecture and planning departments as well?

They are–at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago this semester. The class is the brainchild of George Aye, a professor of design at SAIC, a former IDEO consultant, and the founder of his own Greater Good Studio.

“The premise was: all of these corporations–IBM, Apple, Facebook, GE–are saying, ‘We have data, we’ll get the data, look how awesome the data is,’” Aye said. “It’s an information land grab. It’s like gold dust. But no one is asking what happens once you get it,” or realizing just how incomplete it is. So he and his 18 graduate students (only one of which had studied programming) would figure out what to do with the data at hand.

For help, Aye turned to Urbanscale founder and Everyware author Adam Greenfield, and to John Tolva, the former IBM executive appointed last month to be the new CTO of Chicago. After a series of boot camps to bring both the teacher and students up to speed, they set out to tackle the infamous six-way intersection in Wicker Park known as “the Crotch.” Aye, who himself served time at the Chicago Transit Authority, chose the Crotch after a former Chicago Department of Transportation employee-turned-bicycling advocate named Steve Vance published a Google Map mash-up of bike crashes across the city–the Crotch was one of the worst. Dividing his students into teams, Aye asked them to imagine “smarter” traffic incidents–how to prevent them, and how to resolve the tangle of victims, witnesses, bystanders, and police more quickly when they do happen.


What the prevention team came up with had less to do with technological smarts than good-old-fashioned traffic engineering. Their solutions to lessen pressure on the intersection were to close Milwaukee Avenue–a major bike corridor–to non-commercial traffic during non-peak hours, create special loading areas for taxis and trucks (to reduce double-parking), and institute a “scramble cross walk” at the intersection to stop pedestrians from darting through traffic. “You’re encouraged to do the right thing,” which is wait for the walk signal, said Aye. “But you’re incentivized to get across the intersection as fast as you can.”

The reaction team was quick to deploy software, imagining a system of networked traffic signals (which doesn’t currently exist), and an algorithm capable of real-time traffic rerouting to an ever-widening series of lights. A new “traffic TiVo” would digitally record a 30-minute HD video loop of the intersection, and cops would carry handheld devices integrating police records, the TiVo feed, and perhaps even the cell phone records of the driver(s) in question–to determine whether they’d been tweeting or texting in the moments before a crash.

These proposals–crafted by a group of early twentysomethings–belie a number of assumptions about the smarter cities we can look forward to the students of today building tomorrow. One is that they have no meaningful expectations of privacy, perhaps to a fault. When I pointed out to the students that perhaps the Chicago Police shouldn’t have real-time access to our phone records, they just shrugged it off.

“It’s a generational thing,” said Karl Williamson.

“As we go down the rabbit hole, the hesitations are being erased,” added Josiah Ball.

“You have to convince people of the benefits,” suggested Kristen Campbell Hansen, pointing out that a smart, secure bus stop was worth the trade-off of constant surveillance.


Another implicit assumption was, in the words of Ball: “If it can be imagined, it can be engineered.” They refused to get hung up on the fact that traffic signals aren’t, in fact, networked, but rather operate independently. The (probably correct) assumption is that they will be. They also didn’t get hung up on the paucity of data that exists today. That won’t be the bottleneck in the future. Or as Aye put it: “Step one is data, data, data. Data is great, but it’s still missing context. Next is: what would we do with the data if we had it? And finally: what should we do with it? No one is thinking of that.”

The next step for the class is to pitch Aye’s former employers at the CTA on piloting the concept. “The chance to put design into public policy is still an enormous opportunity for designers,” he said, explaining why someone with absolutely no computing background decided to cobble together a course on smart cities.

In the meantime, the students appear to have grasped the twin truths of the smarter city movement. They’re not really designing smarter streets, “we’re actually designing new behaviors,” Williamson said.

And second, “it’s also going to be incredibly lucrative,” Ball said. “This is going to be hot for the next 10 or 15 years.”


Read More: Most Innovative Companies: IBM

About the author

He is the author, with John D. Kasarda, of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, which examines how and where we choose to live in an interconnected world