Just about everyone agrees that we are living in an increasingly global, integrated, complex . . . and unpredictable world. What can you do about it? The only possible answer is to take the same information technologies that are making our planet so much smaller and flatter, and use them to make our planet smarter - all its processes, systems, institutions, economies and nations.
Last week, IBM Chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano addressed this topic at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York City, in a talk titled A Smarter Planet: The Next Leadership Agenda. Sam explained that when he talks about making the planet smarter, "This isn't just a metaphor. I mean infusing intelligence into the way the world literally works - the systems and processes that enable physical goods to be developed, manufactured, bought and sold… services to be delivered… everything from people and money to oil, water and electrons to move… and billions of people to work and live."
What makes it now possible to talk seriously about making the planet smarter? Sam mentioned three key factors. First, just about everything can now be instrumented - anything we care about can be measured, sensed and seen. We can now embed sensors in physical things, like cars, appliances, medical equipment, cameras, roadways, pipelines, pharmaceuticals or livestock. We can measure entire ecosystems - whole supply chains, business processes, cities, healthcare networks, even natural systems like forests and rivers. We will be able to gather huge amounts of real-time information about the state of the world.
Next, our world is becoming increasingly interconnected. These instrumented things can now interact with each other, much as they do in the physical world. Our instrumented processes can exchange information with each other so that together they can improve the operations of the larger systems of which they are parts. It is important that we break down the silos and begin to look at the world in a more holistic way, as an interconnected system where the various components collaborate with each other, so that together they get the job done.
Finally, all these various things and processes can be made much more intelligent by using the information we gather from all those instrumented components as well as from their interactions. Turning these mountains of information into real insights to guide our actions requires sophisticated analysis using powerful supercomputers. We can also use these powerful supercomputers to optimize the individual components, as well as the overall system. This kind of information-based intelligence will help us make companies, industries, organizations and economies more efficient, productive and responsive.
"What this means," said Sam in his talk, "is that, for the first time in history, the digital and physical infrastructures of the world are converging. Computational power is being put into things we wouldn't recognize as computers. Indeed, almost anything - any person, any object, any process or any service, for any organization, large or small - can become digitally aware and networked."
"With so much technology and networking abundantly available at such low cost, what wouldn't you enhance? What service wouldn't you provide a customer, citizen, student or patient? What wouldn't you connect? What information wouldn't you mine for insight?"
To help in the quest to make the world smarter, we need to develop some fundamental models of the way the world works. Are there any basic patterns, principles and flows that apply to both man-made and natural systems, which will enable us to better leverage the new insights obtained from all that information and sophisticated analysis?
For example, any system that has evolved over the years -- whether a small business, global enterprise, government agency, electric power grid or urban environment -- will naturally have lots of inefficiencies. If we can identify those inefficiencies, through extensive information gathering and analysis, as well as attention to the workings of individual processes, we can then begin to reduce those inefficiencies. Over time we will have significantly optimized the functioning of the total system. This is particularly important to help us make the most of what we have and conserve our most critical resources, be it the effective use of our own personal time or a sustainable strategy for energy use in cities.
How can we make better decisions given the increasingly complex problems all around us? Often, the reason these decisions are so difficult to make is because we just do not know what is going on. We may have a hunch, but hunches are not enough when treating a very sick patient or managing a financial system seemingly in free fall. Once we being to identify patterns in the volumes of data now at our disposal, we can make more informed decisions. We can also model the consequences of different options, so we can better understand which ones are likely to work best.
The effective movement of physical goods, ideas, money and people is a very important capability in our increasingly interconnected world. RFID tags and other sensors enable us to keep track of the goods flowing through a supply chain, making it possible to anticipate problems and reduce inventory costs. Mobile devices enable people to stay in touch with each other while on the move, as well as making it possible to access whatever information and services they need to better perform their jobs. Social networks and collaborative platforms help people all over the world to share their ideas and work together on tough problems.
As we know, such smart planet capabilities are only possible because of the huge advances in information technologies over the last several decades, and in particular, because of the explosive growth of the Internet and World Wide Web. For example, new initiatives like Cloud Computing are laying the foundations for integrating, managing and providing services to billions of people via their mobile devices, and trillions of sensors embedded all over the physical world.
The Smart Planet call to arms is particularly timely given the crisis in the global economy. After a recent interview with Sam, New York Times reporter Steve Lohr wrote
"... Mr. Palmisano compared today's economic challenge, in broad strokes, with that faced by theUnited States as it struggled to emerge from the Depression or after World War II. In the 1930s, he said, the New Deal programs, among other things, brought electrical service to much of country - not only to rural homes, but also to factories, which no longer needed to build their own power plants, as many had previously."
"After World War II, Mr. Palmisano said, the government's construction of a national highway system helped create larger markets for goods."
"'We're at a similar stage now in that these are difficult economic times,' he said. ‘The right way through it is not to hunker down, but to step up and invest and improve our competitiveness.'"
Sam concluded his remarks by talking about the kind of leadership needed to help make our planet smarter. It will demand a different kind of leadership, he said: "Think about the way the world today actually works: Very few of our systems are the responsibility of a single entity or decision-maker. So leaders will need to hone their collaboration skills, because we will need leadership that pulls across systems. We will need to bring together stakeholders and experts from across business, government and academia, and all of them will need to move outside their traditional comfort zones."
We also need leaders that are optimistic, that believe that we can make the world a better place through hard work, technology, education and knowledge.
"The world now beckoning us is one of enormous promise. And I believe it is one that we can build – if we open our minds and let ourselves think about all that a smart planet could be."