IBM chief: Smart cities need ‘holistic view’ of their activities


Stockholm, New York and other cities across the globe are increasingly relying on information and communication technologies (ICT) to manage low-emission traffic zones or improve their ability to fight crime. But privacy issues are never far away and will require political decisions, warns John Post, chief technology officer at IBM Benelux.

John Post is chief technology officer at IBM Benelux. 

He was speaking to EURACTIV’s editor Frédéric Simon.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

European cities are currently running separate tools to manage their waste, transport, energy, etc. but you say a more holistic view is needed. Can you please explain what is meant by this?

In most cities, you have distinct systems for managing water, energy, transportation, security, waste, emissions and ICT as separate components. And within those distinct columns you have separate data, separate infrastructure and separate responsibilities, tasks, projects, etc. and at the top, departmental responsibility.

But what you miss is the possibility to have a holistic view on a city level. In our integrated system, the distinct columns are coming together on the city level at the top where you see a small triangle: this is what I call the ‘system of systems’, which brings together the different data and infrastructures for the different city responsibilities like water, energy and so on. 

So that means that you can have interaction between the information contained in each and every one of those fields?

Exactly, yes. Elements in one column that influence other systems can now be used in other columns, which couldn’t be done before. 

Have you already installed such types of systems in some cities? 

Yes, but it very much depends if you work from a greenfield [site] or from an existing city. We are for example building such a system in Masdar City. Masdar is a completely carbon neutral city which is being built in Abu Dhabi. In order to achieve that, you need that city view, that ‘system of systems’ and we are currently building it there.

But as you can imagine, working in a greenfield to build an entirely new city is completely different from looking at an existing city and trying to enhance the current situation. Nevertheless, if you look at the relationship between transport emissions and public movements, we have created transport systems in Singapore, Brisbane and Stockholm. 

In New York, we are building this system of systems in relation to public safety to solve crime, to respond to emergencies and even to help prevent them from happening. In Malta, we are applying smart meter management and smart instrumentation to make the power grids more stable. So yes, there are lots of examples that we are really building this kind of infrastructure.

Are such systems also fed by people on the ground or is it just machines talking to machines?

It influences procedures, it influences the way people work. It influences, let’s say, the monitoring of daily life, the monitoring of traffic, the monitoring of emissions, the monitoring of water. So it is indeed a combination of different things. 

You said it is not the same thing building such a system from scratch or from a clean sheet. How difficult is it to implement such systems in existing cities? What are the specific challenges there?

Well it has to do with costs. But it also has to do with the fact that in existing cities, you have legacy infrastructure and the way the city is governed. It has to do with political will, the established powers within the distinct fields of responsibility. It has to do with the completely different infrastructures which are very difficult to interconnect. So there are technical reasons, there are cost reasons, but there are also human reasons.

Are there also cost-cutting opportunities for cities which decide to implement such expensive systems?

Yes, if you establish an interaction between systems which were distinct up until now, you make it possible to optimise the efficiency of a city. 

For example, if it is raining, you can take measurements to catch the water and to create a new grey water system in order to prevent costly water being used for flushing the toilets or cleaning cars or whatever. You can also anticipate better because if it is raining there will be more pressure on public transport and you can put in more trains and inform the community that there will be an improvement in public transport offer. 

Another example, if there are security problems in the city and you can expect more crime, you can send more policemen to that specific area. Or if there is too much pollution in the air, you can stop the traffic and enhance public transportation in order to improve the health of inhabitants. So you have there a lot of examples to illustrate what I just said.

You mentioned transport, which is a big source of pollution in cities. How much carbon dioxide reduction do you anticipate from putting traffic management systems in cities?

In Stockholm, what we achieved with the mobility system we implemented over there is 20% less traffic which resulted in a 12% decrease in emissions, 40,000 new users of public transport and an additional million euro income for the city and the shops in the city.

The system determines which cars enter the city and you have to pay a charge for entering the city. And the big story in this is that you know how to translate that money-related aspect to the city’s advantage. So it is not just taking people’s money, we are creating a mobility system which allows to get faster into the city and gives more possibility to go to the shops, reduce emissions, etc. So in that respect, you are contributing to the health and wealth of the city.

Are these systems Internet-based? Is this what we call cloud computing based on remote computers?

The Stockholm system is not a specific cloud solution, it is a dedicated IT solution for that city. But in theory, and we are working on this, you can implement this functionality using could computing. 

That is what we do at the moment and it is still in development. But if you talk about smart cities, this means putting sensors in your house, public buildings or infrastructure, dykes or whatever. And these are interconnected to the Internet and it gives you the possibility to read out signals and to take action. 

So what we offer is an infrastructure which is capable of reacting to these signals and taking appropriate action. And what IBM is offering indeed is a standard cloud infrastructure to adopt that requirement.

Are solutions of this type being implemented elsewhere?

Yes, they are implemented in the Netherlands. We have done a couple of projects with the municipality of Amsterdam and there we are using a cloud computing environment for smart houses in a specific project called West Holland.

But this is for private households. What about city systems working on cloud computing? Is that also in the pipeline?

Yes, that is absolutely the way we are looking. 

What are the advantages of that?

The advantages of cloud computing is mainly that you don’t have the need to invest or invent old IT infrastructure any more. Users such as municipalities, or building corporations can rely on a standard, proven, scalable infrastructure. And it is the responsibility of the provider of the cloud solution to update, to make changes, to upgrade to new requirements like security or scalability. 

From a user standpoint, it is much more flexible. It gives also a much higher speed of deployment because it is Internet-based.

How do you deal with potential privacy and data protection issues with these cloud-based systems?

That is always an issue when you talk about strategic outsourcing. Like with anything regarding data managed outside your own premises, you have to trust the capabilities of the provider. 

But you can also turn the question around: suppose you do it in your own premises. How sure are you of your own people? How sure are you of your own security or of the security of your Internet connection? And I think a company like IBM has a great track record to guarantee those requirements in terms of security.

Coming back on the cost issue, how do you convince local authorities to make such kinds of investments? How long will it take them to recoup those investments?

There are many different models to persuade them to do so. I think that we can build a business case for a return on investment on two to three years, that is, for the holistic system. 

West Holland, the Amsterdam example, shows we can reduce the energy consumption per house while at the same time securing privacy. If you want to go inside the energy consumption of all your people – supposing you are allowed to do so – you can warn them that they are using too much energy or you can cut supplies down if they haven’t paid the bill. You can monitor the energy uses of all the homes and then take measures which will save you money.

And the other thing is: what is the price of a disaster? Look at New Orleans. I don’t know how much money was paid in the problems that followed Hurricane Katrina but if you are capable of adding these up before the disaster strikes, you have a case to build an additional dyke and take precautions. And again, given the fact that the earth is warming, we can expect more disasters and in particular in countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands which are low-lying and where the sea is rising. How much does it cost to take precautions? 

The same is true about social troubles. Here in Holland, we have some areas that are hardly accessible anymore. How do you prevent that from expanding to other parts of the city? How can you put systems in place that will protect other people? How much does it cost if you don’t do it? I think that in many cases, business cases are to be created and are very visible.

Subscribe to our newsletters