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The digital city: IBM’s Guru Banavar on traffic, politics and Toronto Add to ...

He travels the world helping cities use information to their advantage, and on Wednesday, Guru Banavar, IBM’s chief technology officer, global public sector, was in Toronto.

“The physical infrastructure of a city has suddenly come alive with information,” he told a crowd at Innovation City, a two-day conference at the MaRS Discovery District.

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Afterward, Mr. Banavar, spoke with urban affairs reporter Siri Agrell about traffic, politics, and Doug Ford.

Have you been to Toronto before?

I was here with my family, not for business.

What do you think?

I really like it. There’s a lot of culture. My last experience we went up to Blue Mountain to ski and on the way back I got stuck on the highway in a big snowstorm and missed my flight. But we had a great time. It’s a great city and I like it very much.

When you get stuck in traffic like that do you instantly put on your IBM hat and think “I could fix this”?

Yes, absolutely. There’s so many things we can do in cities. The traffic in Ho Chi Minh City and the traffic in Toronto are different in a lot of ways, but similar ideas can be applied.

Like what?

So managing congestion is a core idea. It’s not enough to see what’s going on right now in your city. Real time is too late. You want to see what’s likely to be happening in the future and plan for that. We’ve tried that in Singapore, in California. We proposed that for Ho Chi Minh City and they’re taking it seriously. That idea of looking ahead based on the current state of traffic and historical patterns. That requires these data models I talk about. You can run the model forward and see what’s going to happen.

Have you ever tackled regional transportation system before, which brings together various municipalities into one integrated system?

We have done an integrated fare system in Dublin and in Singapore as well. From a convenience and a transaction point of view, you can get a single system to work anywhere. And you can use it for paying tolls if you want. You could move it to private transportation, too, or retail business. That we’ve done. The next level is when you start looking at the effectiveness of the travel.

When you go into cities around the world, where are they generally at with their data management? Have they already got their information digitally, or is it all still on paper or spreadsheets that no one can search or share?

Most of the time it’s the latter. Cities are not run like enterprises. There are many cities where I go in where I have to say let’s turn your paper records into electronic data. Many cities just have spreadsheets. Most cities even when they have sensor data – videos and traffic sensors – they get the data and they throw it away. They forget it, they don’t store it or integrate it. The majority of what we do is Step 1 integration of the data.

How time consuming is that? Who does it?

Take the example of Minneapolis. We just did a project with them. It was 12 or 15 different departments. So I went to the team and said “how long did it take you to get all the data in a data warehouse?” And their view was that in about six months you can actually get that data to that level.

Is that with existing employees or do IBM people do it?

That’s a choice a city can make. They can do an RFP and say look, we want out traffic information to be integrated: who can do it? We, of course, would like them to work with us. But cities do it in their own ways. Sometimes we give them the idea and they open an RFP and we lose.

In the future, are there going to be IBM cities and Cisco cities?

I don’t think so. They’re actually really complementary. If you look at the players, there’s the physical infrastructure piece of it and then there’s companies that can put in the sensors and the networks, and then IBM that can use the data to create these models.

Do cities tend to have a specific project for you or do they just say “Help us with anything”?

I’ve seen all sorts. The focus I usually hear is: “We need to do more with less.” Toronto is a good example of that.

How do you convince municipal governments that they have to invest in data management systems to save money down the line?

The leadership and the vision of a particular city is absolutely crucial. You have to have somebody who wants to modernize, to be competitive. Once you have that, we have to build a business case. Look, if you invest a million dollars, you’re going to recover that in this much time and then after that it’s going to be all savings for you. Albuquerque, for example, they did a performance-management system and they published a business case that said they recovered their investment in three months.

Since you’ve been in Toronto, has every single person you’ve met asked you to save us?

Yeah! Your politics are an interesting factor. There are many councillors here and many votes that have to happen in order for anything to get done. But I also see a lot of great leaders here. They say we need to do better garbage collection, better fiscal management. They’re saying, “Tell us what you can do to help us.”

So are you going to help us?

Yes. Absolutely, we’d love to. We’ve started some conversations. I really like Toronto.

We’ve been having a lot of conversations. At some point do people just have to commit to a plan?

This is what I mean about the vision and leadership thing. Make a decision and move forward. You’re never going to get the absolute perfect answer, but you can work on it as you go forward. I’m hoping they will do some new RFPs to say, “Let’s manage the congestion and the transit system.” Hopefully based on some of our conversations they will.

Who have you spoken to here?

I spoke to Doug Ford yesterday.

Did you? How did that go?

We sat down for more than an hour. Doug, to me, came across as a great leader. He’s looking at it as a public management issue that needs to happen. I think he has the view of a private-sector leader. You have to run a city in an effective way with performance indicators. His view is that it’s a complex system, but they want to improve a number of systems in the city, and they’ve asked us to give them some ideas. Transit was one of them. Fiscal management was one of them. And traffic lights and street lights. And garbage collection. A whole list of things that we’re going to start discussing.

Do you think all cities need a centralized operating centre like the one you built in Rio?

I want all city’s to have an integrated management system. Whether it’s one centre or a couple of centres that are tightly integrated, it doesn’t matter. Complex cities need that kind of co-ordination.

Why do people in the Rio ops centre wear white suits?

The guys in Rio are very creative. They want to break down the barriers between departments. They have 30 departments. The traffic department never talked to the civil defence department two years ago. Now that they have an operation centre all of them are talking to each other every day. So I think the fact that they all wear a uniform makes them part of the same team. They did that themselves.

What do you think holds cities back?

There are some people who think that architecture and urban planning are going to solve all of a city’s problems. I don’t believe that many cities have entered the 21st century. You have to use information, you have to break down the barriers between the planners and the operations people. You have to break down all the silos that have naturally developed in cities over a long period of time. Changing that mindset it the biggest prohibition to making progress. People have to think differently.

Follow on Twitter: @SiriAgrell

 

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