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IBM's enigmatic "smarter cities" advertising campaign was illuminated by Colin Harrison, director of corporate strategy for the company at Wednesday afternoon's keynote address at this year's Architectural Record/GreenSource Innovation Conference. The two day event brings together a number of speakers from architectural and less-than-architectural outfits to discuss an emerging theme. This year's, "net-zero energy buildings," repeats last year's emphasis on sustainable architecture and planning.

Harrison spoke for about 40 minutes, first covering a bit of IBM's corporate history. What was once a hardware company has in recent years shifted toward the more ghostly realms of software and service. Indeed, Harrison mentioned a few times that IT was at its best when its presence is "completely invisible." A somewhat harrowing idea, but, as Harrison pointed out, each of us is in contact with IBM's products in myriad ways each day, whether we know it or not.

This still begs the question, what does IBM have to do with cities? Apparently cities like New York and Stockholm have been turning to the company, and others like it, to begin making their cities more efficient and well-understood. In short, to turn the city from a collection of incomprehensible patterns into a collection of comprehensible ones.

Harrison came back several times to the problem of automobile traffic as a central example of this engagement. Not only can analysis lead to solutions like congestion pricing (now used in cities like London and Stockholm. New York's proposal was famously defeated last year), but the data from congestion pricing's toll booths can be exploited in exciting ways. When patterns emerge that foretell a traffic jam, the city can decide to change traffic light patterns, or even raise toll prices in certain areas, in order to preemptively combat the problem. Another traffic problem Harrison mentioned was that congestion is often caused by cars slowly ambling around, looking for a parking spot. An integrated system might prevent such listless driving by directing cars to open parking spaces. This all might sound pretty Minority Report-y (it did to me), but, well, welcome to the future.

It turns out that the analysis of auto traffic can be applied to any number of problems of resource-use in a city. Water and electricity use are two clear examples where a system that currently exists as fundamentally unregulated and uni-directional—the power plant allows you to use as much power as you (perhaps foolishly) want. A "smart grid" means that houses within a system talk back to the control panel, adjusting for peak loads and other spikes in usage in order to increase efficiency throughout the system. It was in this vein that Harrison asked about the theme of the conference, "net-zero energy buildings." The building, he suggested, was too small and too localized to effect substantive change in our global energy use. Problems that were created through vast infrastructures must be solved on that scale, too. Architecture, as in other concerns, is a somewhat limited actor in the conversation, if only because it is destined to be contingent and specific. IBM, if their advertising campaigns are to be trusted, will take care of the bigger issues for us.