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Digital Shoreditch 2013: Tech must solve waste and want

Much of the talk at this week’s Digital Shoreditch festival has entertained how emerging tech can benefit specific industries and niche market segments, but IBM’s Kevin Farrar believes the collective focus can be considerably broader thanks to trends like big data.

Addressing London’s digital community beneath the high ceilings of Shoreditch Town Hall, the leader of IBM’s Global Entrepreneur initiative commented on the remarkable progress being made across the board in technology, and how its continued acceleration is presenting us with more capabilities than ever before.

“We’ve come a long way and made fantastic progress,” he said. “But do we live on a smarter planet? I don’t think we do.” Farrar (below, right) was referring to the huge levels of waste and lack of sustainability that still exist, citing statistics that claim nearly half of the food produced in the world does not even reach our mouths, that around 50 per cent of people will be living in areas of water scarcity by 2030, and that demand for energy will exceed supply in the next four to five years.

How can we start to be smarter with these resources? Farrar says harnessing big data and systems that effectively process it will enable far better management and distribution. Thanks to our ability to put sensors almost everywhere and track all kinds of objects, animals, people and locations, IBM reports that 90 per cent of the data in the world today has been generated in just the last two years. And with technologies being refined to handle this data more quickly than ever before, Farrar said opportunities are boundless.

“We’ve got the ability to take this mass of data and analyse it in real time – that’s a game-changer,” he said. “You can apply the same principles of big data and real time analysis to healthcare, public safety, retail, financial systems, all sorts of areas. In fact, what wouldn’t you do with this type of technology? That’s the opportunity that’s out there.”

Companies like IBM have the tech in place to start utilising the data in these areas, Farrar said, but the key was marrying these raw capabilities with creative ideas, and that collaboration with bright startups - like those filling the keynotes and workshops in Shoreditch Town Hall this week – was key to producing the solutions for progress and sustainability.

“It’s about working together, because together we can build a smarter planet,” Farrar concluded.

Yet the dark side of big data was also discussed in the keynote hall of Digital Shoreditch this week, as OgilvyOne's Matthew Bayfield admitted that tech behemoths like Google could do "unspeakably evil things" with the mass of information they have gathered.

But taking a more positive slant on emerging technology, on Monday local politician Guy Nicholson said East London's Tech City could provide the UK's "economy of tomorrow".