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Rashik Parmar: Governments must be more enterprising and businesses need to give smarter cities a brand

ITProPortal caught up with Rashik Parmar, the president of IBM's Academy of Technology, ahead of the NextGen 13 conference he is speaking at in Wembley. We talked about what he believes a smarter city is, how London is performing on a global scale and why businesses and the government should use their own expertise and also learn from each other in order to boost the value of a place.

What do you do in your role as president of IBM's Academy of Technology?

The academy was created in 1989 and has three purposes. One is to drive insight from the technical community and effectively counterbalance corporate strategy. Secondly, we wanted to try and bind together our technical communities so that when it comes to responding to challenges that clients come to us with, we can then draw insights from the whole technical community rather than just an individual. And the third part is to help drive the external eminence of our technical leaders. We do a lot of the work through the academy around a number of things – presenting a conference, for example – so we start to share our insight and expertise in that way. As president I oversee the agenda and help drive these sorts of programmes.

What is IBM's view of a smarter city?

It's interesting when you start to look at this. You firstly have to see the city for what it is - a place. But it's also an environment that creates a brand or reputation. So our view of a smarter city is one that leverages its own capabilities and core assets to create global value. By drawing all the information from the city itself, it can use that insight to keep itself ahead and stay valuable to the needs of its citizens and mankind on a global landscape.

Is there any one technology in particular that can drive smarter cities?

I don't think there's one technology but a range of things. Firstly it's access to new data that you need to turn into information, which of course requires analytics and new algorithms and so on. But ultimately it's about being able to bring what information we already have together with new information and then being able to make use of that. It may be simple things like traffic or energy management, or it may be buildings. It could be a whole range of things. We see this as the next era of innovation in how technology is used in connecting to the built world. You can look towards intelligent systems like Watson, and how Watson provides the next step towards what we call cognitive computing. We've launched a number of initiatives trying to push forward this agenda of intelligent systems. So overall it's about a range of information capture, analytics, intelligence, information application, visualisation, and then converting that back into the built world.

What can businesses do to help make smart cities a reality?

I think it's two-fold. I was actually on a commission called the Commission on the Future of Local Government. There we coined the term 'civic enterprise'. We think that the civic leadership – the administration of a city - has got to be more enterprising, becoming the custodian of new value and creating and managing the value that a place has. But at the same time, the enterprises have got to be able to give back to the city.

So if you look at some of the work we do around philanthropy and our Smarter Cities Challenges, we think enterprises need to be able to help the city develop and contribute to the wellbeing and the value of the place. At the same time, I think enterprises can also help in being the core value creation engines. For example, if you take somewhere like Detroit, you know that the car manufacturers are the core value creation engine. You go to Milan and you think of the fashion industry. So the enterprises, when they're commercialising, need to think holistically about the value they provide to a place and how their own reputation can become its brand.

As we go through austerity measures, are there any experiences from business that are relevant to city leaders?

Yes there are, and I'll go back to look at what happened to IBM in 1995, when we were really at the lowest point of value creation, and it was questionable whether IBM could produce value beyond the '95 timescale. We had to go through very significant austerity measures, being the organisation that invented the PC and then ultimately selling off the PC company to Lenovo. Those are the kinds of experiences where you have to let go to grow. Austerity measures allow people to think about where the value is and how they need to let go of some of the things they may have done in the past which aren't so valuable and be able to step forward and think about where their new value is and how to capture it.

Austerity also inspires people to innovate. If you look at what's happening in the growth markets you'll find tremendous amounts of innovation happening in all kinds of businesses. Limited budgets and environments really inspires the creativity of humanity to try and drive innovation and create new capabilities.

Does the government have much of a role in making countries smarter?

I think governments have a huge role, especially when it comes to trying to define what a place's brand is. Some governments are of the view that everything in a city should be made fantastic, but in such cases you can get a sort of blandness about a place. To try to help cities and places understand their value in a global landscape and how they connect to what the government is doing, the government may be be able to drive a strategy at a country level. How that connects back to the city in terms of the policies and strategies that they drive is fundamental to helping us build smarter places.

At the same time though, I think there could also be a creator of competitive pressure or competitive value. The competition that TSB (Technology Strategy Board) ran for future cities I think is a good example, because it forces us to think about how we can create value and use our place to become smarter. And whether we get the funding or not, that process helps us learn and develop in ways we wouldn't have done otherwise.

Which project are you most excited about at the moment?

I was involved in the Smarter City Challenge in Kyoto. That's a really interesting project from my personal perspective because I spent a lot of time with the city leadership and I got an understanding of the place and the challenges faced there - protecting the heritage as well as becoming smarter. It is a very unique and challenging set of programmes, and I'll be going back over there to continue it. I'm really excited for what we might do there because there it's not just about technology, it's about protecting the history and the heritage but infusing technology in a way that's almost transparent to the citizens, and yet still allows them to create some of the value of the smarter city.

How does London rank as a smart city? Are you pleased with its progress?

Like everywhere, there are things that are really great and things that could be better, and it's very easy for someone who is far away to throw rocks at something. I would say that London is doing very well. I've looked at some of the investments, Tech City creations and similar work around there in terms of transportation, and London is very much punching its weight, if not punching above it. There are other areas it could do more in – some of the work in regeneration could be faster, some of the work around creating new business structures could also be moving quicker. But overall I think it's doing well and is a globally competitive space. I think the work done around for example creating the Digital London board and some other things demonstrate the leadership the city has been giving to the world.

Rashik Parmar is speaking at this year's two-day NextGen 13 conference at Wembley. The second day of the event takes place today and ITProPortal is in attendance.

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