IBM's Smarter Planet: the roadshow

October 1, 2009: 7:03 AM ET

Live from New York, it's Sam Palmisano.

Palmisano is spending almost two days talking about smart stuff. Photo: IBM

Palmisano is spending almost two days talking about smart stuff. Photo: IBM

The business strategy made possible by $50 billion in acquisitions, hundreds of millions on marketing, and various forms of ecological disaster, is taking the show on the road–to Manhattan's Lincoln Center.

For the next day and a half, IBM's (IBM) Smarter Planet initiative will occupy New York City's Lincoln Center in the form of a conference on developing smarter cities. IBM CEO Sam Palmisano and Mayor Michael Bloomberg will kick off the event this afternoon with a discussion about the steps New York City has taken to employ a combination of data-gathering and analytics software to reduce crime, minimize risk for firefighters, and monitor water conditions.

The remainder of the sweeping agenda will cover everything form education, healthcare, energy, and transportation, to government services. Weighing in on such heady topics will be political heavyweights--including the governors of Vermont and Georgia as well as the mayors of Atlanta, Charlotte, Phoenix, and San Jose.  Business leaders, including the chairs and CEOs of ABB, Mayo Clinic, National Football League, and Verizon Communications (VZ), among many others, will offer their perspectives.

While IBM uses the "Smarter Planet" umbrella to cover everything from traffic mitigation to monitoring food supply, the conference will focus on the plight of cities by design. "A million people are moving from rural to urban environments every week. By 2050, we'll have twice as many people living in cities as we do now - about 70% of the population," says Mark Cleverley, director of global government solutions at IBM. "All the problems of the world come together most intensely at the city level. If we solve these issues at the city level, we're reasonably confident that we can solve them everywhere."

This is not to suggest IBM is going altruistic. Tackling such enormous issues is one of the most profitable services businesses that exists--and far less mind-numbing than the ERP (enterprise resource planning) implementation routine where many competitors make their livings--as evidenced by IBM's record earnings and profit margin last year. "There's a whole landscape of opportunity to help cities in particular on their journey to sustainable prosperity," Cleverley says.

Creating smart jobs in NYC

To make sure that IBM keeps rooting out all the problems that occur in a uber-city like Manhattan, IBM is also announcing as part of the event the opening of a new analytics center on Madison Avenue. The center will employ 450 IBMers, and potentially 100 more as demand grows, all of whom will collaborate with academics at City University of New York and New York University to uncover some of the biggest problems facing the city and brainstorm how the combination of sensors and software could be put to use as a solution.

The New York center marks IBM's third such venture. The company opened similar facilities earlier this year in Berlin, Beijing, and Tokyo, and plans two more in London and Washington, DC. "It's not just a think tank," says Cleverly. "It's going to be devoted to practical projects and working with clients to work on real problems."

The conference expects to draw upwards of 500 attendees. It's not open to the public, and the guest list is closed. But if you weren't invited, don't give up hope. There are more big-think brainstorms on the way. The next one is planned, tentatively, IBM says, "for somewhere in Asia," early next year.

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About This Author
Jeffery O'Brien
Jeffery O'Brien

Jeffrey O'Brien joined the San Francisco bureau of FORTUNE in June 2006 as a senior editor covering the intersection of science, technology, culture, and business. From 1999-2006, he was a senior editor at Wired magazine. As a writer, his work has been anthologized in The Best of Technology Writing 2007 and in The Best Science and Nature Writing 2005. As an editor, his features have been featured in The Best American Science Writing 2006, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2006, and The Best Technology Writing 2006. He is also the recipient of a Jesse H. Neal Award for editing best single issue, which he earned in 1998 as the editor of Marketing Computers (Adweek). O'Brien is a graduate of the SI Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and was a 2006 Templeton fellow in science & religion at the University of Cambridge (UK).

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