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Samuel J. Palmisano Headshot

Shining Cities on a Smarter Planet

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If someone had been able to go into orbit around the Earth a century ago, he or she would have seen the light from 16 concentrations of a million or more people. Today, the crew of the space shuttle can see 450 such shining cities on the globe -- the economic, governmental, cultural and technological power plants of an increasingly urban age.

It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that "history" has been, at root, the story of our planet's urbanization. And it's a story that is now moving a lot faster. In 1900, only 13 percent of the world's population lived in cities. Two years ago, we crossed a threshold -- for the first time ever, more than half of us were urban dwellers. And by 2050, that number will rise to 70 percent. We are adding the equivalent of seven New Yorks to the planet every year.

This unprecedented urbanization is both an emblem of our economic and societal progress -- especially for the world's emerging nations -- and a huge strain on the planet's infrastructure. It's a challenge felt urgently by mayors, heads of economic development, school administrators, police chiefs and other civic leaders. The challenges these leaders face -- educating their young, keeping citizens safe and healthy, attracting and facilitating commerce and enabling the smooth flow of planes, trains, cars and pedestrians -- are only being compounded by the global downturn.

Thankfully, help is at hand, with intelligence being infused into the way cities work. It has tended to be been system-by-system so far, but it need not stop there. We now have the capacity to manage cities as the complex systems -- indeed, systems-of-systems -- that they are. And the current crisis in the world's economy offers an opportunity -- indeed, I believe, an imperative -- to do just that.

Look at the capabilities already being built into cities around the world. Transportation officials in Singapore, Brisbane and Stockholm are using smart systems to reduce both congestion and pollution. Public safety administrators in major cities like New York and Chicago are able not only to solve crimes and respond to emergencies, but to help prevent them. A large hospital organization in Paris is implementing an integrated patient-care management solution to facilitate seamless communication across its business applications -- enabling them to track every stage of a patient's stay in the hospital.

Miami-Dade County has built a transparent management system that helps identify and restructure low-performing schools and increase academic achievement for students. Smart water management in the Paraguay-Paraná River Basin of Brazil is helping to improve water quality for São Paulo's 17 million residents. In Malta, the government is implementing the first countrywide, integrated smart water and electricity system to monitor and manage natural resources more intelligently, and at the same time enable its citizens to make energy choices that are more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly. In Denmark, Dong Energy is deploying smart power grids -- and on the island of Bornholm, with 40,000 inhabitants, it is building a new plug-in network to understand the smart-grid implications of broad electric car adoption.

The lessons from these and many other solutions that are already being deployed around the world are our best textbook for building a smarter planet. And that's why IBM is convening a "smarter cities" summit this June in Berlin -- to be followed by similar gatherings in New York and Asia in the months ahead.

We've invited hundreds of leaders from the world's most innovative cities to share ideas and learn how we can make our cities smarter. The enthusiastic response we've received is very encouraging, and it reinforces my feeling that this moment presents us with a unique opportunity to achieve fundamental change through new kinds of collaborative innovation. Change is what the people of the world want. Now it's up to their leaders -- in business, in government and across civil society -- to deliver it.

Cities are the arena in which to do so. All the ways in which the world works come together in our cities. They are the proverbial melting pot -- not only for immigrants, but for systems, blending them together to engender new forms of commerce, of culture, of science, of life and of society. Which is why cities -- more than states, provinces or even nations -- are likely to be the crucible for human progress and evolution in the coming century.

The urbanization of our planet is one of those developments -- arguably, the single one -- big enough to "see from space." And the bright lights, shining back at the stars, signal more than the simple movement of electrons. The world's cities can be seen as, collectively, the Earth's higher brain functions. Therefore, it's in our cities, I believe, that we can see the most promising opportunity for an intelligence upgrade in how the world works and how we live.