Wellington E Webb, the former mayor of Denver, Colorado, once said: “The 19th century was a century of empires, the 20th century was a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities.”
Just look at what’s happening in India. The rising middle class is driving growth toward cities. Guru Banavar knows this first hand -- he spent the last five years in India developing IBM’s smarter city initiatives.
“In fact, every minute during the next 20 years, 30 Indians will leave rural India for urban areas. At this rate, India will need some 500 new cities in the next two decades. If there were ever a time to focus on developing solutions for sustainable cities, that time is now,” said Banavar, the vice president and chief technology officer of the Global Public Sector at IBM.
Today, there are 2.8 billion people living in cities. By 2030, 5.8 billion will live in cities.
“The demands on city infrastructure are greater than ever before. Civic leaders face an unprecedented series of challenges, including massive urbanization, stressed infrastructure, budget shortfalls, global economic crisis, and global warming,” Banavar said.
That’s why the cities need to be smarter. And to do this, each part of the infrastructure needs to be more intelligent. This means the cities need to start collecting data on everything, including streets, bridges, parks, buildings, fire hydrants, water mains and storm water ditches.
The city of Corpus Christi wants to be smarter. Mayor Joe Adame said, "In today's world, we expect a quick response and more accountability. With the technology that is available to us, we now have the resources to do that."
The cost of an inefficient city is more than just dealing with the occasional pot hole, wasting time in traffic and drinking from an unreliable water supply. A poorly performing city can lose between 1 percent and 3 percent of its GDP.
“While cities are hubs of innovation and cultural and economic growth, they are also responsible for stressing the world's resources. In fact, they consume an estimated 75 percent of the world's energy, emit more than 80 percent of greenhouse gases and lose as much as 20 percent of their water supply due to infrastructure leaks,” Banavar said.
While moderately-sized Corpus Christi might not be as big as New York or Tokyo, it is taking big strides in serving its 280,000 residents by becoming a smarter city. The Texas community is using IBM’s software to measure, monitor and improve the water, airport, park, utilities and water infrastructure.
Banavar said starting with cities is a good way to get started on the smarter planet campaign. “Cities are going to be the center of consumption and efficiency issues, water, waste generation, environmental problems because of the population and density,” he said.
Using IBM’s software, the Corpus Christi initiative will track the life-cycle of the city's assets. “Every time they buy a pipe or erect a street light, it is recorded in the database. Every time a citizen calls in with a problem [e.g., a broken pipe or street that is badly damaged], it is recorded electronically,” Banavar said.
This will help optimize the workforce, Banavar explained. If you have a hundred people working for you, then you probably already know the best way to send them from point A to point B to point C. You can also take the assets and put them on a physical map and start seeing where most of the problems are occurring. If 4-inch pipes tend to cause a problem, then next time you’d replace them with 6-inch pipes to avoid the problems.
There’s a city call center that has been set up, so all calls are routed there. “One thing I see that is fairly common is that these departments don’t talk to each other and share information that much. They become less efficient, spend money on things that are redundant and end up regenerating the same information,” Banavar, who is now based in New York, added. Having a centralized system will definitely help open up communication between the departments.
“Corpus Christi is a good example of how cities can do a lot of good for their citizens if they make strategic decisions. The municipality is responsible or running plumbing, grids, roads and vehicles. Those are the kinds of foundational assets they have to manage. They have to repair them and replace them or throw them away and retire them,” said Banavar.
Gus Gonzalez, director of water operations for the City of Corpus Christi, said, “The initial thrust of our effort to make Corpus Christi a smarter city was the possibility of utility privatization back in 2000. At that time, we took a serious look at ourselves and started asking how Corpus Christi could operate more like a business. We realized we did not have the necessary management tools. Looking back, competition from the private sector was a wake-up call, which forced us to look critically at ourselves. It is not just a matter of having the right tools; it also depends on whether we are using them properly.”
Here’s one way being smarter has helped the Texas city so far: the wastewater staff found that 33 percent of the department’s time was spent on 1.4 percent of customer sites. Knowing this information helped the staff develop a better plan.
Smarter cities will help citizens have better services, help government employees make better decisions, and allow businesses to get better connectivity in the city. Smarter cities will improve the lives of the people who live there. That’s how IBM sees it, anyway.
“Here in the United States, there are other cities like Corpus Christi that are innovating,” Banavar said. Around the world, IBM is working with 300 cities on their intelligence plan.
More data, fewer problems? Let’s hope so.