‘The world is now our lab,’ IBM research director says

27 Oct 2011

IBM new Smarter Cities Technology Centre features ceilings that harvest natural light

IBM made history yet again yesterday, as it heads into its second century of innovation. IBM chose Ireland – Dublin, specifically – for its new Research and Development Lab, a first for the European Union, and a centre that will house the Smarter Cities Technology Centre, with up to 200 jobs on the way.

The Smarter Cities Technology Centre at the IBM Technology Campus in Dublin represents an IDA Ireland-supported investment of up to €66m.

Think of how IBM has evolved, from when it first invented the meat cleaver, to the supercomputer, to how it challenged the US TV show Jeopardy this year. IBM won on the latter, of course, donating the proceeds to charity.

Via smart tech, specifically green tech, IBM is aiming to change the way we predict everything, from future natural disasters, to how we choose the ideal place to live to suit our personal needs – be it childcare, away from high-crime levels, to the towns with the best ethnic restaurants.

Smart tech by IBM

It has been a truly awful week for Ireland, one in which more rain fell on Monday in the north Leinster region (encompassing Dublin, parts of Kildare and Wicklow) than the average rainfall in October, and in which two people lost their lives due to the floods.

The smart tech IBM is pioneering, as part of its Smarter Cities portfolio, seems destined to help us predict natural disasters, such as extreme weather conditions, and help us prepare accordingly.

So, yesterday, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton, TD, visited the new IBM R&D centre, which was formerly a manufacturing building, but which has been converted into a smart-tech hub, deploying lots of green-building features, such as natural light harvesting and smart tech to control room temperatures and ambient lighting.

It seemed to be a special day for Bruton, as he was the Minister for Industry and Commerce back in 1996 when IBM first announced the site in the Mulhuddart campus, just off the N3 and poised near Dunboyne.

Speaking yesterday to a packed auditorium filled with a selection of the brightest IBM minds, some of whom had travelled from places such as Germany, New York and North Carolina for a two-day Science of Cities conference, you could just sense the special affiliation Bruton has with IBM.

Incidentally, the Smarter Cities conference is looking at areas such as energy, water, transport, health, crime and education systems, and how to make cities better, and ultimately safer places to live, by being open and sharing knowledge capital.

Earlier, Bruton had walked around the room, admiring the smart technologies IBM is pioneering.

He started off by saying: “I was actually here when you first announced the site for Ireland.” Then he directed his attention to Dr John Kelly III, head of Research at IBM globally, who was sitting in the audience.

“John says he has the best job in the world …  and he’s not far off!” Bruton then spoke about how IBM is really known for constantly reinventing itself.

He said that for Ireland, winning the IBM R&D Lab was a real coup, especially as Ireland is the first country in the European Union to get such an IBM lab.

Bruton then spoke about the way IBM has, over the years, played an instrumental role in transforming our lives, pointing to the “power” of its technologies.

He reflected on the tragedies that happened earlier this week due to the flooding, and said that he had evaluated how we now need to look at how we respond to such disasters, so as to prevent deaths and people losing their homes.

“How can we optimise the development of water, energy, power and transport?” asked Bruton.

He also said that R&D is all well and good but there has to be projects that can be commercialised so that people will experience the benefits.

In an interesting twist, he then spoke warmly about the late Dr Garret FitzGerald, a former Taoiseach, who Bruton said was so thorough in evaluating bus time tables, etc, being a statitician. He said FitzGerald would have gotten a measuring tape out to measure the turning point of the Luas to see if the axis was too tight … A lovely anecdote.

Role of IDA Ireland

IDA Ireland was also present at the event. The agency is working hard to attract FDI into Ireland, with companies such as Google, for instance, recently choosing to locate its new data centre in west Dublin. Twitter is also relocating its European headquarters in Dublin.

Bruton said he wanted to assure companies such as IBM (which first came to Ireland in 1954) how Ireland, and its new Government, really understands how we need to be at the forefront of technology and that the Government is committed to helping companies, such as IBM.

“It is sending a message to companies both here and abroad, that research and innovation are fundamental to our economic plan. If businesses have an innovative project that will build on our research strengths and create jobs, we’ll make it happen in Ireland.

“We want to be part of the re-invention that will take place at IBM over the next 100 years,” he said to applause.

Then Peter O’Neill, IBM in Ireland country manager, introduced us to Dr John Kelly III, who had travelled from the US specifically to visit the R&D lab during the Science of Cities Conference that concludes today.

Firstly, O’Neill said it was a long-held aspiration of the local IBM team in Ireland to establish such a centre in Dublin. And the global IBM team had listened to the Irish team …

He spoke about how Science Foundation Ireland, IDA Ireland and the universities are all helping to put Ireland to the forefront in terms of IT and knowledge capital.

O’Neill spoke about the Irish diaspora who were at the recent Global Irish Economic Forum, held in Dublin Castle, when thinkers pooled their minds to try come up with faster ways of pulling this country out of the recession faster via FDI and research, development and innovation (RDI).

‘The only R&D combined centre in the EU’

Kelly then took to the podium. As well as being head of Research at IBM, Kelly is senior vice-president and director of IBM Research.

“We’re opening a very special IBM centre,” he said. “It’s the only R&D combined centre in the EU. It’s very special.”

So why did IBM pick Dublin for this centre?

Kelly said it boils down to a couple of key factors:

1. Ireland has the very best in IT/tech talent

2. The City of Dublin management system is really opening up, with a desire to move the ball forward for smarter cities.

He also said IBM had, in November 2010, signed a five-year contract with Bank of Ireland to come up with new tech for the bank’s information of the future.

Kelly pointed to how IBM had acquired Q1 Labs, which has its analytics/intelligent development lab in Dublin.

“We are now acquiring companies that have a presence in Ireland.”

But, his most striking sentence had to be – “The world is now our lab.”

He elaborated: “We must collaborate and get out into the real cities of the world with problems. No single entity can solve these problems.”

Kelly spoke about how IBM is also advancing a new supercomputer that will be on the shelves by the end of this decade.

We need such computing power to predict these challenges (such as flooding).

100 years of IBM

Finally, he said IBM is unique as a tech company for having survived 100 years in business. “We carry out innovation and R&D. We reach out around the world. We find the best people and the best locations.”

The Smarter Cities Technology Centre has been operational since March 2010 and is continuing to recruit some of the top Irish and international research and development talent.

It has established world-class research programmes in transportation, sustainable energy, water management, and urban information management. The centre is playing a major role in the design and development of IBM’s first Smarter Cities Solutions product line.

“At IBM, R&D investment plays a critical role in the company’s strategy for growth,” said Kelly. ”Our new Ireland lab exemplifies IBM Research’s strategy of making the world our lab by focusing its mission on smarter cities and high-performance computing, working closely with leading scientists and engineers from academia, government, and commercial entities, and accelerating impact through the combination of research and development.”

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic