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Five questions for Anne Altman

IBM's general manager for the public sector shares her thoughts about making cities smarter

What are the biggest challenges facing cities?
Today, the majority of the world's population is living in urban areas—cities and their surrounding areas. While this urban growth has largely been spawned by economic development initiatives and the promise of improved quality of life, the resulting success has put a tremendous strain on the infrastructure of our cities: the core systems that deliver vital services like transportation, energy, communications, water, and public safety.

Many cities are at a breaking point. Their aging infrastructures—designed to serve much smaller populations—are bursting at the seams.

When you think about it, the core systems that underpin a city are really a network of interconnected systems.

Share some examples of how IBM has helped make an aging infrastructure smarter.
Take transportation as an example. I live in the Washington Metro Area, which means I live with traffic congestion every work day. This has become a huge problem in cities around the world. Traffic congestion hurts the economy, affects productivity, causes air pollution, wastes fuel, and raises stress levels. Each year in US cities, the average commuter spends nearly a full work week—or vacation week—sitting in traffic.

IBM has been working with Stockholm, London, Singapore, Brisbane and other cities to develop smarter transportation systems. Stockholm's solution is a road charging system. Cameras, sensors and laser beams are used to identify and charge vehicles that pass through 18 roadside control points during peak hours of the day. Stockholm has been able to reduce the number of cars on the road by 20%, reduce traffic emissions by 12% and greenhouse gas emissions by 40%, and increase public transit usage by 40,000 users a day.

Let me give you another example: San Francisco, that beautiful old city by the bay, has a huge wastewater problem. The pipes that carry treated sewage also carry rainwater. The problem arises when there's a bad storm: the pipes can back up with an overflow of polluted storm water. We worked with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to create a smarter system to manage the city's 1,000-mile-long combined sewage system. This new smart system gathers information about potential problems, such as pumps that need replacing, leaky pipes and overflowing storm drains, so that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission can be proactive, rather than reactive, in managing its wastewater.

Anne Altman

Anne Altman

What can IBM do about it?
IBM has been working with government customers for nearly 100 years. During that time, we've developed deep industry knowledge and the skills and technologies necessary to serve this industry. Today, we are applying our experience and expertise to help cities address the challenges associated with aging or inadequate infrastructures.

When you think about it, the core systems that underpin a city are really a network of interconnected systems. Traffic congestion impacts the environment and wastes energy. Communications problems can affect public safety issues. Water pollution can cause health problems, and so forth.

As these interconnected systems modernized, they have added sensors, monitors, video surveillance, RFID...all enhancing their capability and capturing volumes and volumes of data. That's the good news! The bad news is, it's very hard to make sense of any of this data. Through analytics and other technologies, IBM is helping cities understand how their core systems are interconnected and how to make their infrastructures smarter.

IBM has been working with Stockholm, London, Singapore, Brisbane and other cities to develop smarter transportation systems.

When will we see these types of transformations in other cities?
I think we'll see extraordinary transformations in major cities throughout the world during the next three to five years. As I mentioned before, many of their infrastructures are at a breaking point.

Will economic stimulus funding help in the transformation?
Absolutely, economic stimulus spending has given cities an opportunity to accelerate projects to modernize their infrastructures. These investments will help drive economic growth, create jobs for the 21st century, and make systems smarter and more efficient.

I think we'll see extraordinary transformations in major cities throughout the world during the next 3 to 5 years.