Overcoming the sustainability challenge: an interview with Guruduth Banavar.

AuthorKordunsky, Anna

Guruduth Banavar is vice president and chief technology officer of the global-public-sector business at IBM. In this role, he oversees the company's global work to create smarter cities--urban areas with vastly improved data management and resource optimization--through the use of innovative technology. In a conversation with the Journal's Anna Kordunsky, Banavar discussed his vision of a smart city and some of its potential stumbling blocks and solutions. (1)

Journal of International Affairs: There has been much enthusiasm about smart cities, as well as much debate--not only about their feasibility, but also, on a more fundamental level, about what they are. How would you describe a smart city in your own words?

Guruduth Banavar: The question we must ask is how to develop urban areas in a more sustainable manner. Here, I use the term "sustainable" to refer not only to environmental sustainability but also to economic sustainability, sustainable infrastructure and all the diverse elements that could make cities better places to live and work.

IBM's Smarter Planet vision was born in 2006 when approximately 150,000 people, including employees and their clients and families, participated in two large-scale online brainstorming sessions over a three-day period. Through these jam sessions, we realized that the key to sustainability is information--namely, information about the behavior, activities and functions of our systems, our resources and our people.

In sum, a smart city is simply an urban area that can utilize information in a way that makes it more sustainable in the long term. Utilizing information implies not only collecting data; it implies understanding the data and analyzing various trends and patterns to inform decision making for the government, the private sector and ordinary citizens.

Journal: Most of the world's cities have infrastructures and ways of life that have been shaped by hundreds of years of organic growth. How can we reconfigure already complex cities like New York, London or Rio de Janeiro, and embed a whole new layer of technology in their organic urban environments?

Banavar: The purpose of smart systems is to embed technology into the way the world already functions. We can operate in large cities by using a number of different sensors to extract information about traffic flows and utility systems like water and energy, for example. Analyzing patterns and trends then allows us to make predictions. In the case of traffic, for example, we would not only look at where congestion is at the moment, but also at where it is likely to be in an hour, so that we can prevent it. Or, in the case of electricity, we could predict what the usage may be in the next day or two so that we can appropriately manage power production. Again, it is all about obtaining information through sensors and other devices and then integrating that information into these large, complex systems.

Journal: What are some of the challenges to that process? Are there unexpected vulnerabilities that newly equipped smarter cities may face?

Banavar: The first challenge is to have the appropriate level of technological infrastructure to capture the information even as cities grow and...

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