By: Clive Longbottom, Head of Research, Quocirca
Published: 7th October 2009
Copyright Quocirca © 2009
IBM's new focus is on the "smarter planet" - using technology to make the planet a better place. While Quocirca has no problems with this at a high level, it does have some issues around the small print.
For a start, this "smarter planet" seems to be built around a number of "smart cities". IBM has presented figures showing that half the world's population lived in cities in 2007 - the first time more people had lived in cities than not. By 2020, predictions are that 70 per cent of the world's population will be huddled in these cities. IBM's view is that this is inevitable, and as such, technology can be used to ameliorate any urban issues and make life as good for citizens as possible.
OK - problem number one. In 2007, there was a 50/50 split of inhabitants, with half of the world's population living away from cities, carrying out crucial activities such as agriculture to feed the 3.3 billion citizens (as well as the non-agricultural "others"). In 2020, there will only be a possible pool of 3.3 billion people outside the cities to provide agricultural support for around seven billion people in cities - more than the total population of the planet now. And how many of these 3.3 billion will want to work in agriculture - or will they want to go for the promises of the entrepreneurial lifestyle espoused by politicians, by Western incomers and by role models in their own countries?
In today's major cities in emerging countries, population growth is not being matched by infrastructure growth - and although technology can help by speeding up progress in some of these areas, it is unlikely to meet needs adequately, and shanty towns and ghettos will continue to stress the infrastructures of these cities. Second, if you live in the surrounding country, and hear about how your nearest conurbation has suddenly become "smart", what do you want to do? Stay in the "dumb" countryside, or move to the bright lights and gold pavements of the city?
Creating smart cities without a more holistic view of how this needs smart villages, smart communities and smart communications linking all of these together leads to the acceleration of large issues for large cities - the external perception is that the city is the place to be, more people arrive, the infrastructure can't deal with it, the surrounding area becomes denuded, there is less food available from the surrounding areas to meet the needs of the citizens, less available water, less total capability. Poverty, followed by disease and even unrest can easily follow.
Technology, rather than solving the problem, has become a major cause of the problem through making the city an attraction to too many people, without enabling the major changes in the same timescales in the surrounding environment. Even if there is an associated agricultural revolution running alongside the smart city revolution, the speed of expansion of these cities and the manner in which they then decrease available agricultural land through building will make the search for new agricultural land a geopolitical, as well as a sustainability and green, issue.
Take some of these high-growth cities, with growth rates of between 20-50 per cent per annum in citizens, whether legal migrants or less legal/illegal people. Look at Mumbai - a city of 12 million official inhabitants, probably closer to 18 million in reality. Imagine this growing by 20 per cent per annum - an increase of more than three million people per year. Even if these people only need three square metres each to live in, there is a need for an extra nine million square metres of living space - space that cannot be farmed or used for any useful output. Each person will also require a bare minimum of five litres of drinking/cooking water per day, so there is a need for 15 million extra litres of potable water. If these people want to use electricity for lighting and cooling (either a small air conditioning unit or refrigerator), then even if minimised to the need for each person averaging out at 100W total drain, or 2.4kWh per day, there is a need for 7.2GWh extra power provision.
Is this leading to a "smart city"? Or is this really more of being traduced by technology into massive folly that just makes the problem worse? Quocirca has written before on how a more all-embracing approach is needed - keep people away from the cities: if they want to be better farmers within their own existing communities, then help them to do this. If they need help to form co-operatives to maximise the capabilities of food, service and requirement exchanges across communities, then use technology to better facilitate this.
Jeff Jonas, an IBM Fellow and the most insane, sane man Quocirca has ever come across, states that due to our incapability to effectively deal with the explosion of data we are now facing, a data-driven world is actually becoming less smart. He proposes that new approaches need to be taken, using "sense-making" techniques to deal with data before it is stored. Other IBM technology is also looking at this - InfoSphere Streams is a great approach to filtering and managing mass data during creation.
But, a city full of sensors, actuators and other technologies will not become a smart city just because of the amount of data it churns out, nor even with the way the data is dealt with. It will only be a smart city if it helps in creating smart communities, smart countries, smart geographies and so to a smart planet.
The biggest "but", though, has to be the major block to a smart planet - you, me and the other 6.6 billion people on this planet. Population growth is out of control, and those who have any chance of dealing with it are far too interested in looking at how much tax can be taken from the future population and how many goods can be created by them for export to bother about small facts such as the human race moving beyond the tipping point and starting the route to oblivion (which, of course, we may already have done). Technology can help here - but this is an area where the likes of IBM have to play second fiddle. From Quocirca's point of view, the best the likes of IBM, Microsoft, Cisco and other vendors can do is to attempt to move towards a more sustainable future - keeping communities together, moving more people towards self- or communal-sufficiency, providing infrastructure and technology that supports people where they already are.
To the governments, political activists, commercial concerns and religious ideologues, now is the time to see the writing on the wall and mandate change. Short termism, vested interests and age-old superstitions will not save the human race - only wholesale change of mindset and approach to the issues will - helped by technology (of course).
By Clive Longbottom, service director, business process analysis, Quocirca
Posted: 8th October 2009 | By Philip Howard :
Absolutely agree - nice one, Clive.
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