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