IBM is one of the leading proponents of smart cities. Bernie Meyerson, the company’s vice president of innovation, identified “the city that will help you live in it” as one of the top five technology trends that will happen in the next five years.

Predictions show that by 2030, towns and cities of the developing world will make up 80 percent of urban humanity. By 2050, seven out of every 10 people will live in cities. Smarter cities take feedback from the smartphones of citizens, gather data from sensors spread throughout the city, and analyze them with “big data” analytics in web-connected data centers. Then the cities can autonomously adjust and deliver better services in real time.

But the interesting question, posed by the creators of Ubisoft’s upcoming (fictional) video game Watch Dogs, is what happens when a hacker figures out how to break into the system and use it for his own dark purposes, like spying on citizens or taking revenge in personal vendettas? Watch Dogs will debut in 2014. We caught up with Meyerson this week to talk about the predictions IBM has made and asked him what he thought of the Watch Dogs nightmare scenario.

VentureBeat: I wonder what you thought about this video game called Watch Dogs. The premise is that cities have become smart, and then a hacker hacks into them and controls the city. He uses the ability to find out about everybody for his own sort of nefarious ends. At the same time, he’s fighting against some kind of NSA-like organization. It’s a very big game coming from Ubisoft in 2014. It’ll raise the awareness of smart cities in that respect. It’s all about what goes wrong in a smart city.

Bernie Meyerson: I hadn’t heard of that. But here’s the deal. Given that there’s a trillion dollars moving around on the web through online shopping — you’re already there, in so many aspects of your life. The diversity of the city is such that you’re already there. I’d much rather have the city linked and be one integrated entity. The reason being, then I can protect it.

Bernie Meyerson, vice president of innovation at IBM.

Above: Bernie Meyerson, vice president of innovation at IBM.

Image Credit: IBM

You already have your electronic controls in power plants. You have the pumps that move sewage for cities like New Orleans, below sea level. I’d much rather have them fully integrated, where I can maintain watch over them and do the same thing. You have an agent that watches the city — no different from the agent that watches you, but it’s vastly more powerful.

Again, it looks for the normative behavior. Some wise guy decides they’ll make the sewage pumps run backwards and make a mess. You’ll instantly pick up on that because it’s not the normal behavior. It instantly shuts down. We’re already in this mode. You can’t change the past. I would argue the best thing you could possibly do is integrate all of this and make sure you’re looking at everything.

VB: That one might seem a little far-fetched. But the fact that hackers exist, and that there’s this possibly Orwellian aspect to it — it could make people feel protected, but it could also make them feel vulnerable.

Meyerson: The bottom line is that hackers are a modern-day reality. In my own view, if you look at what the smart city is about to begin with, it’s much less about the physical infrastructure. That’s there already. It’s electronic. If you go into the subway, it tells you that the train is two minutes away, now here it comes. All of that is done.

What we’re talking about way beyond that is a city that becomes fully inclusive. Right now, the feedback mechanisms are awful. If you think about it, what is it? You hate the mayor, so you vote for his successor in a couple of years, at best. This sort of thing is very difficult. There are public meetings, but maybe you work odd hours and you can’t participate in city government by going somewhere remote and sitting down for two hours of folks yelling at each other.

Imagine if you had the ability to instantaneously get feedback from the city’s population on changes you’ve made, because you have a site people can access from anywhere. Or it might not even require the site. Maybe there’s an app – you’re standing on a bus, you bring up the comment app, and now you can make your contribution on the bus. It assumes, based on your position and what you’re doing – in this case, using public transit – that you have a comment. It could be positive, negative, ambivalent. The point is, instant feedback. The ability to make a change in city government and get feedback from the population in a matter of hours or days would be terrific for driving quality of life.

Watch Dogs

Above: Watch Dogs

Image Credit: Ubisoft

You can quantify quality of life issues like you could never do before. You could ask people for permission to use the microphone in their handset, let’s say, for 30 seconds every hour. It takes the microphone, turns it on, turns on the GPS, and picks up where you are in the city for 30 seconds every hour. By mapping the city’s noise levels through that microphone – just the noise levels alone – you get a quality of life measure.

If enough people participate, you get a sonic map of the city. That alerts you problem areas, where you can set noise thresholds above which you immediately send people to investigate. Similarly, you could follow patterns, where noise is evolving to louder levels every day. Again, it’s the same question. What am I doing wrong?

You can also query people on quality of life measurements. You could say, “What do you think about the quality of life in this city?” And then you correlate that commentary against the local issues in someone’s region. You can decide, from that, where you should make your investments to get the biggest bang for the buck. You may know the noise levels in a region are high, but you also may know that transportation there is very crowded. But by looking at what people themselves value as their biggest issue and getting that accurate feedback, you can make investments with the right priority.

You don’t just have to guess. You can quantify the benefit. That’s a great value, because quality of life attracts people. People, as they move into a city, drive value into the city. The U.S. has a consumer economy. You want to build a city, bring people in. You want to bring people in, improve their quality of life.

I have this old war cry from my days as a hardcore physicist. I always have to remind people. Data wins. A vast amount of time, we make decisions without data. We have a feeling, an opinion. Maybe we’ve gone out and probed some people. But we don’t have hard data. This is a way to get hard data in a time that’s almost unimaginable at present.

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