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April 24, 2009

Virtual Insight

When it comes to gathering insights on what cities of the future will look like, it helps to use collaboration tools that are, well, futuristic. That’s why this week IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook, in partnership with the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, conducted the very first GIO deep dive meeting in Second Life.

For those of you not familiar, Second Life is a free 3D virtual world in which residents create “inworld” identities, or avatars, to interact, explore, create, and connect. It has more than 15 million accounts, and at any given time as many as 38,000 residents are logged in.

We asked students and faculty from USC’s business school to join us in an exploration of smarter cities at a location designed and built by IBM called the IBM System EduCenter Island. We posed a series of questions to them on what they thought a smart city was, how it could be measured, and which urban systems they thought were the most critically in need of innovation.

There were many thoughtful insights on how cities can be improved. For example, what if neighboring cities were connected by high-speed public transportation systems, like magnetic levitation trains? Then each city would not need to be all things to all people. Los Angeles could focus on industry, while San Diego became a healthcare center, and San Francisco an education center.

There was also a good amount of discussion about the role mobile technology could play in not only speeding transactions, but in engaging citizens more tightly into the urban fabric. But perhaps the most interesting exercise was something we called the “Opinionator.”

This virtual device allowed participants to “vote with their feet,” by walking into rooms labeled with various facets of urban life: Education; Transportation; Public Safety; Energy and Utilities; and Health Care. We asked people to imagine they were the mayor of their city, and walk into the room they felt was in most dire need of innovation. The results? Transportation – 30 percent; Energy – 30 percent; Education – 30 percent; Safety – 10 percent; and Health Care – 0 percent.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from the results, but remember that our sample set consisted of relatively young students (hence more concerns about education than health care?) that live in Los Angeles (road rage?).

Overall the virtual dive was an ambitious experiment and a great success. It really felt like we were all sitting in a room together, exchanging ideas and forming relationships. And it got me thinking: if we can accomplish all this after a few short hours in Second Life, what else could we accomplish in virtual worlds that would lead to better, more efficient, and more sustainable cities? Your thoughts welcome.

April 24, 2009 in Cities | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

April 06, 2009

Cities: The Next Big Thing

The Global Innovation Outlook’s six-month study of water is complete and already beginning to yield some new partnerships and exciting opportunities. But, like a shark, the GIO must continually move forward. So yet again the time has come for IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook to radically shift gears and begin the exploration of a new topic: Cities.

Civilizations have long been measured by the greatness of their cities; Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople, to name a few. For thousands of years our cities have brought together people of all social strata and businesses of every industry. They are the platforms upon which commerce gets done. And they represent the human capacity for culture, community, and progress.

The popularity of cities continues to grow today. By 2010, there will be 59 metropolitan areas with populations greater than five million. The number of inhabitants in urban environments is expected to swell to more than 6 billion by 2050, more than 60 percent of the world population.

Of course, more people means greater demand for energy, water, food, housing, and capital. It means that older cities will need to update critical infrastructure, and new cities will need to build adaptable, flexible systems to accommodate shifting demographics. In both the developed and developing world, cities are being rethought. 

So the GIO is embarking on this exploration with one goal in mind: to make the systems that facilitate life in the world’s cities smarter. There are many complex systems common to all cities, including transportation, utilities and sanitation, public safety, health care, commerce, education, and social services. Each one is in need of innovation and greater efficiency if we are to accommodate the urban masses in the years to come.

Needless to say this is a huge topic, with many moving parts. As a result, the GIO will be using a variety of methods to test theories and gather insight, including our usual deep dive brainstorming sessions, smaller roundtable discussions, phone interviews, and online surveys. In fact, you’re welcome to take the survey right now and add contribute your innovative thoughts on how we can make our cities smarter.

Check back frequently to see how our study is progressing. And never stop thinking about how we can build smarter cities.

April 6, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (31) | TrackBack