Way back in 1995, I had a close look at IBM. At the time, by the company’s own description, it was in danger of becoming irrelevant. As part of a first step towards major change, it dumped every one of its advertising agencies worldwide, and switched to Ogilvy & Mather.
At Ogilvy, I was a small part of the team that helped IBM shift its brand from arrogant to what we called internally, “Magic you can trust.” Think: TV commercials with nuns walking down the street in Paris with their ThinkPads, and you get the idea.
But it’s what happened next that really matters. IBM didn’t just change its image; the whole company changed. it shifted from a hardware company to a services firm. It not only started acting smarter, in 2008 it started selling the idea of building a smarter planet.
IBM has boiled smart down to three words: instrumented interconnected intelligence.
Let’s get back to the camp. It took these three words and used them as the standard for a series of worldwide entrepreneurial competitions called IBM SmartCamp.
Drew Clark, of IBM’s Venture Capital team, says that at first he was a bit nervous at the prospect of going into a diverse assortment of cities and putting out a call for entries around “instrumented interconnected intelligence.” Could they find enough qualified entrants in — say — Barcelona, Istanbul or Copenhagen? Yep.
“We were overwhelmed with interest,” he reports. “Everywhere we go, we are discovering new companies that have stunningly good ideas, capable teams, and are on a path to scale.”
Streetline won the first overall award, in 2010. Recognizing that cars waste immense amounts of energy circling in a search for parking spaces, the company helps cities implement smart parking solutions. Its new Parker app lets drivers find empty spaces in congested city neighborhoods.
In 2011, Profitero — from “Ireland, by way of Ukraine and Belarus” — won for its solution that helps businesses track their competitors’ prices and adjust their own prices either up or down in response. Think of them as natural competitive response by companies to a world in which smart customers are nearly always comparing prices.
This year, IBM SmartCamps are taking place in Miami, New York, Copenhagen, Boston, Munich, Bangalore, Beijing, Paris, Sydney, Istanbul, London, Mexico City, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Cape Town, Dublin, Moscow, Barcelona, Berlin and São Paulo.
Drew Clark explains that the “winners get the opportunity to get plugged into one of our solutions. For example, we took Streetline’s sensor technology and wireless app, and then added analytics to make it enterprise ready.”
IBM liked that Streetline “helps a city organize their scarce parking inventory. It was not just about taking the cost out of collecting parking revenues,” says Clark, “It was about getting better data about parking.”
Stop and think about this for a second. A few years ago, there was no data about parking. None. Zip. This is a whole new market where none existed before.
Bitcarrier, winner of the 2011 Barcelona SmartCamp, “audits the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi public frequencies of mobile devices” to track traffic flows.
Faced with the difficult challenge of how to track cars moving through congested cities, the company came up with an intuitive leap. Instead of trying to track the cars, they could track the mobile devices inside those cars. After all, if a phone is going 40 miles per hour, it’s a pretty good bet that the phone is in a car. The firm is currently running pilot tests in Europe and South America.
The most recent winner, crowned in Paris, is Captain Dash. The firm modestly claims to “give superpowers to marketers,” by collecting all their data in one place, with cool graphics and no software to install. The whole website looks like one big infographic.
By temperament, I’m drawn to entrepreneurs. And I love that IBM is helping many of them gain international attention. But I also want to give credit to IBM for being one of the first — and the clearest — to enunciate what’s happening to our world. IBM says it wants intelligence “to be infused into the systems and processes that make the world work — into things no one would recognize as computers: cars, appliances, roadways, power grids, clothes, even natural systems such as agriculture and waterways.”
Sure, IBM has a vested interest in getting hired to help design and build these massive new projects. But then again, so do you.
Bruce Kasanoff is a speaker, author and innovation strategist who tracks sensor-driven innovation at Sense of the Future. Kasanoff and co-author Michael Hinshaw teamed up to explore more of the opportunities unearthed by disruptive forces in Smart Customers, Stupid Companies.
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