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Guru Banavar explains why future cities need to get smarter

Guruduth Banavar

The future, it seems, is urban. Today, cities are home to 3.3 billion people--more than half of the world’s population. Cities consume 75 percent of global energy and emit 70 percent of greenhouse gases. By 2030, the urban population is projected to reach almost 5 billion.

Guru Banavar wants to make those future cities smarter. As IBM vice president and chief technology officer for the Global Public Sector, Banavar often meets with city officials, academics and other urban influencers. “I spend a lot of my time with city-oriented clients and partners. I use that experience to understand the needs of the market, what is relevant, and what is urgent,” he says.

“Cities are where the action is. That's where innovation is happening. That's where the opportunities are. The important cities almost ignore national borders. They become their own ecosystems and connect with other cities seamlessly. But as more people move to cities, their supporting infrastructure is often overloaded.

The world adds a city equivalent in size to Miami every month.

Every hour the world population increases by 7,500.

Data leads the future city
“The other side of the story is what's changed in cities in the last 10 years or so. The biggest new thing is that there's a lot of data about everything. Lots of sensors are already deployed everywhere, in buildings, roads, and utility grids; and lots of new information-based processes are in place. Everything is more information-rich, so you have to think about information as another significant resource you use to manage city life. Not just for governments, but citizens now have access to more information to make day-to-day decisions as well.”

The basic recipe for smarter cities is to collect that data, analyze it and use it to improve quality of city life – to make traffic flow more smoothly, to help police be more efficient, to ensure that water supply meets demand, and more. Needs and approaches differ among cities, countries and regions, says Banavar. India, for example, desperately needs to upgrade and expand its water, sanitation and energy systems. “If we use technology the right way, we can help meet those demands,” he says.

Getting to sustainable development
Cities in more developed parts of the world need to squeeze more efficiency out of their existing infrastructure. Especially in the current economy, additional roads, water systems or public transportation face fiscal challenges. “How can we use information to better manage existing infrastructure?” Banavar asks rhetorically. “Well, for example, we could reconfigure highway lanes based on traffic flow and control the flow better with traffic signals. We could anticipate congestion and encourage people to take alternate routes, providing them with the information they need to make that decision.”

And, of course, public transportation offers an alternative. “If we make it safer, more convenient and more efficient, more people will use it,” says Banavar. And the smarter cities approach can help manage schedules and fares, as well as provide better public safety.

''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.'' - Wellington E. Webb, Former mayor of Denver, Colorado

Smarter law enforcement makes cities safer

China will need to build the equivalent of 81 new cities by 2025 just to keep up with population growth.

Are there real impacts for these future cities? Banavar points to Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro IBM designed an operations center, a citywide system that links to 30 different agencies. (Watch the video (00:02:38).) The center integrates information from many sources – weather, traffic, utilities, hospitals, schools, critical assets of the city like fire trucks, and incidents of all kinds. City workers can add to the data and call up historical information that can provide context. With the center, officials can foresee, plan for and respond to a variety of events ranging from flooding to the challenges brought by hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics. Another Brazilian city, Porto Alegre, is using smarter technology to improve its management of public assets and services. Banavar reports that the mayors of both municipalities were re-elected by large margins, perhaps due to the public trust they’ve built up through their innovative leadership.

Safety continues to be an issue for many cities and is likely to be so for future urban areas as well.

“Safety is one of the big problems in cities,” says Banavar. “We can help law enforcement to be more effective with existing resources. Based on what's happened in the past and what's going on right now, we have the ability to look ahead and see the nature of incidents that are likely to happen and therefore plan how to handle them.”

This is not the prediction of who will commit a crime when, as portrayed in “Minority Report” and other science fiction. Rather it's scientific analysis of where and when crimes have been committed in the past combined with data on current conditions. Instead of spreading police evenly throughout a city, smarter policing means concentrating them more in areas where crime is likely to occur. (See how this future city approach is being used in Memphis and New York City (PDF, 285KB).)

IBM's operations center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil links 30 different city-wide agencies. Watch the video.

Expert on this topic

Guruduth Banavar

Guruduth Banavar
VP and CTO, Global Public Sector
Technology Business Development Executive: New Business Dev Function