We welcome Dr Rick Robinson, Executive Architect for Smarter Cities at IBM, to our regular series of interviews with leading figures in the business community.
Hello Rick, tell us about Smarter Cities and your role as Executive Architect:
Smarter Cities is a concept about gathering vast amounts of information, such as social, demographic and economic data, and indentifying trends or links that improve decision making or help providers operate their services more efficiently. Given the breadth and scope of these types of projects, IBM usually works with a large number of partners to help deliver city-wide initiatives.
The Smarter Cities initiative enables organisations to provide a technological response to solve crises. It provides a complete picture of what is happening within a city, which is important because certain events can have an unexpected effect in areas previously thought of as unrelated. For example, during the 2008 petrol strike, along with the obvious effects, many supermarkets were only days away from running out of food.
There is an extraordinary amount of data being gathered nowadays, but we need it to be accessible and useful. You may have seen the IBM computer ‘Watson’ winning the US game show ‘Jeopardy’. What Watson represented was the ability of computers to absorb massive amounts of data, then process and present it in a meaningful way. There are around 50,000 academic papers on Diabetes produced each year. It would be impossible for medical professionals to read all of them, but modern technology can gather and analyse the data so that decision makers have the necessary facts. The Smarter Cities concept is being used by local government in Medway to identify vulnerable children in the education system and by San Francisco to manage their traffic problems.
My role as executive architect is to help cities address their challenges by considering the latest advances in technology and working with them to find innovative new solutions.
What challenges are you and your team facing over the next 12 months?
The main challenge is the lack of economic growth and how to secure investment and funding for innovative projects. The money is out there, but investors are understandably risk averse in the current climate. Investment proposals need to be very high quality with a clear explanation of the likely returns to stand a chance of success.
What kind of benefits does Smarter Cities present for local businesses?
Both privately generated and publicly available data is collected and at our disposal. The real advantage for local businesses is they can use this data to access larger markets and opportunities for growth. Good data enables businesses to accurately assess their own operational capabilities and identify other markets where they can apply this capability. Another benefit of smart technology is interconnectivity: advances such as the smart phone, 3D printing and new medical interfaces all lead to advances in areas that could directly affect your business.
What do you think Smarter Cities could do for Bristol?
I have not had direct involvement with the Bristol Future Cities bid, but Bristol is clearly a very capable city. It has a thriving high tech and creative sector, industries that effect change elsewhere in the economy.
Do you think that the government is doing enough to support innovation?
The Government is doing a lot to promote innovation. The TSB future cities project is a good exam-ple. It provoked a lot of creative thinking from cities across the country about how to tackle their issues. While only one city can win the grant, everyone has benefitted from the competition and the ideas it generated. Anyone can find and read the proposals online. On a national level, there is still a lot of work to be done on finding ways to stimulate the economy and a broad investigation into the national financial models in this country and whether they are the best way forward.
Do you have any Non-Executive Directorships or advisory roles? If so, what have you learned from the experience?
I am on the advisory boards of several companies and independent bodies. I have a personal interest in giving something back to our communities and I have learnt a vast amount by working in a variety of environments. There are a number of organisations doing great work that I would love to see do well.
Do you have any advice that you’d pass on to a company director?
Do not underestimate innovation and technology and how this can change the economy and the world. I have a four year old that is capable of using the video touch screen interface of my iPad. The interface between the technological world and the physical world is advancing all the time. Technology is always moving forward and you have to move with it if you want to make the most of the opportunities it offers.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I don’t have much time for hobbies, but I do enjoy cooking. I am currently experimenting with Charcuterie by curing my own meats. I used to play in a band, but my guitar sits rather neglected nowadays. I also like to spend time with my son, especially playing with Lego.
Who is your hero/personal inspiration?
I have several people that I admire from various walks of life. One that comes to mind is scientist James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia Theory. This was a very novel and challenging idea at the time and continues to be divisive. I admire his independence and constant search for new causes and approaches to world issues.
What is on your I-Pod and what are you reading right now?
I am currently listening to a Swiss Heavy Metal band called ‘Celtic Frost’. They were three youngsters in the early 80’s playing very niche music, so how they managed to gain widespread appeal in the days before the internet and social networking is very impressive.
Working with Moon Consulting
Rick Robinson will be our keynote speaker for our upcoming Board 2020 Conference on Smart Tech-nology. For further details and to book your place, click here