Yesterday I attended the first day of the Smarter Cities event that IBM organized in Berlin. This looks like a well run event with about 500 people attending, including senior executives and officials from several countries.
The first day was mostly devoted to introducing the very concept of smarter city, to stress how important cities are in the future, what are their common challenges and how technology can help face those challenges.
I particularly liked the concept of city as a “system of systems”, which Sam Palmisano (IBM’s CEO) put forward in his speech, as well as his remark that most of the key issues for cities, such as health and well-being, have no political color, and therefore can be pursued irrespective of the political situation.
In the “conversations” on stage (this was a term that IBMers used many times) similarities between cities and companies were probably pushed a bit too far. Indeed cities compete to attract talent and business, but the set of objectives they need to pursue transcend pure competitive issues: social services, inclusiveness, rational use of resources are usually higher priorities than just becoming a cool place for businesses, although they clearly have a positive impact on making cities interesting places for businesses too.
Two politicians on stage, the Mayor of the city of Almere in the Netherlands and the former President of Germany, delivered particularly good performances.
The latter closed the first day giving a historical perspective about the events that affected Berlin over the last 140 years and gave some excellent highlights about the need for inclusiveness (with reference to immigration) that sounded like a lesson for those European politicians who are dangerously leaning toward creating barriers to immigration.
The former shared her experience as a mayor of a newly built city (hence in a quite favorable situation when it comes to become smarter, due to the lack of legacy). I was just puzzled later yesterday when a former colleague of mine commented my tweets about her by saying that she has allegedly violated some environmental regulation when building her home: nothing too serious, I guess, but in my eyes this brought her closer to the politicians I’m used to in my country.
I would argue that the bottom line of the first day was in the “Why Now?” question that another IBM executive, Ginni Rometty, addressed in her speech about a roadmap to smarter cities. It is a combination of drivers that have been there for quite some time (such as inefficient processes and infrastructure) and economic stimulus.
This is it. It is not really because we suddenly care about making our cities better places to live. Actually, in the current economic climate, many cities cannot afford any long term planning, as they are struggling with simply keeping the lights on. But there is money available in different places, and all at once combining stimulus money for a more efficient grid, for greener buildings, for greener vehicles, for better health care and so forth morphs into a smarter city vision.
There is nothing wrong with that. Even the best of visions needs sufficient resources and momentum to be executed. Let’s just hope that politicians, senior government executives as well as their private sector advisors build a vision that matches the uniqueness of their cities and use available resources as they see fit to realize that vision, as opposed to scanning for economic stimulus opportunities and build a vision just to justify how to spend that money.