IBM Newest Research Lab Is in Africa

IBM focust on Africa - century corporate history

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IBM's Newest Research Lab Is in Africa

August 13, 2012 at 6:13 am PT


As technology companies go, IBM has long had a peculiar affection for Africa. Usually when economists talk about emerging markets, the conversation is dominated by talk of the so-called BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India and China.

To IBM, those countries are great, but being more than 100 years old, it is accustomed to taking a longer view in its planning. Big Blue has been engaged in Africa for a long time, and already has a business presence in 20 African countries. Today, it kicked that up a notch by announcing the creation of a full-fledged research lab in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

Recently, a lot of IBM's conversations about emerging markets have focused on Africa. Much of it has to do with the fact that so many countries on that continent are getting on their feet and wanting to modernize their economies. Last year, the International Monetary Fund forecast that the combined GDP of the sub-Saharan African countries would grow by nearly 6 percent this year, nearly three times the rate it sees in the U.S. And Kenya has been an example: Its economy, while still relatively small, has been growing like crazy. The size of its economy has nearly tripled since 2000. (See the graph, courtesy of Google Public Data, below.)

So, what exactly will IBM be doing there? What it does best: Solving complicated problems. You can't have a conversation with anyone from IBM without soon hearing about its Smarter Cities initiative, which focuses on things like throwing powerful analytics at big infrastructure problems like transportation, and tracking problems in water systems. These are not trivial problems in the first place, and even less so when you think about the numbers involved. There are about a billion people in Africa, and right now about a third of them live in cities. By 2025, about half the African population will be living in cities, and some cities Nairobi included will see their numbers swell by 70 percent or more. That kind of growth can't help but put a strain on traffic, water and other infrastructure, which are the kind of problems that IBM has proven itself pretty good at solving here in the U.S.

Tagged with: Africa, analytics, basic research, Big Blue, IBM, IBM Research, infrastructure, Kenya, Nairobi, research, Smarter Cities




Video: An IBM Film About Chocolate and Babies and Ducks

As part of its 100th anniversary observance, IBM has produced a handful of videos meant to bring to life the usually complicated message that results from explaining the work it does. The first was this fascinating clip it released in February, encapsulating its century of corporate history in 13 minutes.

The film below lasts about 15 minutes and tells some of the stories that IBM Fellow Bernie Meyerson discussed in my conversation with him from earlier today. For one, you'll meet Dr. Carolyn McGregor, who led IBM's efforts to bring to bear the field data analytics to help treat premature infants in Toronto. This is, of course, a story that IBM has been telling for the better part of three years, but it's one that for me never gets old. Who doesn't like heart-warming stories about babies saved from preventable infections?

And who doesn; t like chocolate? Did you know that IBM saved the world's chocolate supply? Well, I exaggerate there, but only a little. And while it's another story that IBM has been telling for a few years, it only gets more interesting with time, especially after you meet Howard-Yana Shapiro, the global director of plant science for chocolate giant Mars, who a few years back committed that company to buying cocoa beans from suppliers who grow their crop sustainably. But first there was the problem of fighting off a virus that was destroying the world's cocoa supplies, which first required sequencing the genome of the cacao tree from which cocoa comes. That's where IBM came in.

Also there's some stuff on Sunil Mitall, the Indian billionaire whose Bharti Group sells mobile phones in India, the growth of Dubai and a wild duck who got too fat to fly. That last item is linked to a saying of founding President Thomas J. Watson that goes like this: You can make wild ducks tame, but you can never make a tame duck wild again. What does that have to do with computing? Watch and find out.


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