Today is Earth Day, when the world recognizes ways to make our planet greener and more environmentally sustainable. Unfortunately, the way the world works isn’t smart enough to be sustainable.
However, signs of a smarter planet have been popping up everywhere. Organizations around the world are turning too much data into better decisions. The walls between companies and customers are diminishing. So are the walls between technologies, industries and fields of expertise.
While computers are thinking and acting more like people, it is people – along with homes, waterways and other systems – who are being enriched with new levels of computing capability. Physical and digital infrastructures are becoming integrated while social media is forging new systems of engagement.
We see evidence of companies, governments and societies using data to detect patterns, gather insights and make faster decisions to reduce their environmental footprints and extend the use of precious natural resources.
In a world that is becoming more instrumented and interconnected, we are witnessing the extraordinary growth of big data. The challenge is to transform data through analytics into useful knowledge to make better decisions and drive environmentally helpful innovation. New advances in cognitive computing – like IBM’s Watson technology – are also sure to help.
This can’t happen fast enough. The world’s population is more than seven billion and growing, estimated to increase another one billion over the next 12 years. Our climate is changing. For these reasons and more, it is vital that organizations optimize interdependent and competing needs across the globe’s economic, environmental and social spheres.
There are plenty of challenges. Three fundamental ones involve cities, water, and food.
By 2015, The United Nations estimates that 22 cities will be considered megacities, or cities that consist of more than 10 million people. Many megacities, such as Nairobi, Kenya, are working with IBM to leverage their data with analytics to improve the quality of life of its citizens. IBM’s new Africa Research Lab in Nairobi (our first on the continent) is collaborating with governments and others to develop better ways to manage critical city services like transportation.
Water is another critical area where we are seeing progress. Water impacts food, health care, energy, transportation and business. At the same time, much of the world’s water infrastructure is in poor condition and insufficient. Smarter water management, based on data, analytics and social systems of engagement (like citizen reports based on crowdsourcing), lead to better management of water resources. The use of real-time data analysis, visualization and prediction generates insight on water across consumption, supply, distribution and need for maintenance or rehabilitation.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of our global food supply. Yet with a growing population, a changing climate, and people still without enough food, the challenges are acute. So-called precision agriculture, which uses innovative technology to improve food science, safety, sustainability, production and distribution, can help. Knowing when and where to fertilize, irrigate, and harvest based on sensors for soil moisture and true micro-level weather forecasting (such as IBM’s Deep Thunder technology) makes food production more successful and uses resources far more efficiently.
Track and trace technologies lend strength, credibility, and efficiency to distribution. For example, produce grower Sun World works with wholesalers, producers and distributors. With the help of IBM, Sun World is using data to analyze its water usage to produce more crops for the growing demand for food. The system helps them predict weather conditions so they can make better and faster decisions on when it is right to farm in order to yield a larger profit.
Earth Day 2014 reminds us that environmental sustainability remains paramount. It also reminds us that every day needs to be Earth Day. If we leverage today’s era of data, analytics, cognitive computing, and social systems of engagement to innovate the way the world works, we will have taken essential steps towards a more sustainable world for our present generations and those yet to come.
Wayne Balta is IBM’s Vice President of Corporate Environmental Affairs
and Product Safety.