Behind IBM's Quest for a 'Smarter Planet'

Over the past few weeks, a series of fascinating full-page ads from IBM Corp. got the better of me. The company launched a series of "Smarter Planet" ads in November, running Mondays in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other publications. They portrayed an image of IBM as a purveyor of solutions to the planet's environmental ills. I wanted to find out what was behind them.

I've long been fascinated with corporate image ads. In a post more than four years ago, I pondered what was behind the surge, as I saw it then, of ads portraying a company's green image. "Are such ads the best way to effect one's image?" I wrote at the time, answering my own question:

It's debatable at best. With consumer trust of big business remaining at cynical levels (though rising in recent months to near pre-Enron scandal levels), it's unlikely that company-sponsored environmental claims are likely to sway many purchases.

The ads kept coming over the years, from oil companies (Chevron, BP, Shell, and Exxon all seem to have some campaign going at any given moment), chemical companies (Dow, for example), and from entire industries: forestry, mining, plastics, coal, nuclear, and others.

IBM's recent campaign goes well beyond mere image — and beyond green — to envision a "smarter" world in which problems as wide-ranging as health care costs, energy and resource shortages, government inefficiency, threatened waterways, climate change, and traffic congestion can be addressed by a blend of systems thinking, technological innovation, and computing power. It's an intriguing campaign aimed at helping redefine IBM from its roots as a computer maker to its more recent incarnation as a self-described "global services company."

"Smarter Planet" isn't IBM's first foray into the green scene. In 2007, the company launched a program called Big Green Innovations to mine the company's vast wealth of expertise and technology to create products and services to help address customers' and society's environmental challenges. Big Green, a play on the company's longtime nickname, Big Blue, takes aim at everything from creating carbon dashboards to help lower companies' carbon emissions, to designing energy efficient data centers and more powerful solar cells. But it seemed more of an inward-looking effort, an attempt to collaborate with existing clients, and not a means of communicating with the marketplace. (You can listen to a 2007 interview I did on the topic with Sharon Nunes, who heads the Big Green Innovations program, and Wayne Balta, IBM's VP of Corporate Environmental Affairs.)

Recently, I talked to Rich Lechner, IBM's VP of Energy & Environment, and John Kennedy, its VP of Integrated Marketing Communications, to learn more about the "Smarter Planet" series — what was behind the ads and what the company hopes to accomplish from them. (Click here for a transcript of the full interview.) Kennedy began the explanation:

"Globalization has many benefits, but also some tradeoffs because many of the systems that the world operates in today  — and by systems, we mean systems in every sense of the word, from systems in companies, to manmade systems and natural systems — needed to become smarter, to handle and take advantage of the greater connectedness in the world.

"So it started off with those observations. And the more we worked on this, we began to realize that not only was this a dynamic that was very compelling, but as well, we felt that it was a good opportunity for IBM. This is a company that covers multiple industries, has a depth of research — has through our entire history taken on some of the toughest problems in the world in a way to help the world work better, to help our clients' companies work better, and help governments and universities work better. So we felt like it was a very natural platform for us."

Lechner described the many environmental challenges that, he says, could be solved by "smarter" systems:

"In a world in which water, energy, power are severely constrained, you don't have to look far to see, for example, that only 30 percent of the potential electricity that's available at the energy source actually reaches the doorstep of the consumer. Or that significant amounts of traffic congestion are caused just by people circling, looking for empty parking spaces, wasting fuel. You can look at our distribution systems around the world and see that more than 20 percent of all the shipping containers and more than 25 percent of the trucks moving around on a global basis are empty. You look at the way that food is distributed and understand that the average carrot in the United States — the lowly carrot — has traveled 1,600 miles to get to your dinner table, and you say clearly something could be done to improve the efficiency of our food distribution system. And water: We're projecting that over a billion people won't have access to safe drinking water in just ten years time, and yet today, just five food and beverage companies consume enough water on an annual basis to serve the daily needs of everyone on the planet.

"We looked around and we said there's plenty of room for improvement and our expertise in IT [information technology] coupled with our deep industry knowledge and our ability to look at and re-engineer processes gave us a unique vantage point to comment on the need to exploit this growing intelligence and where the first opportunities for exploitation might exist."

The vision for "Smarter Planet" was laid out in a November 17, 2008, speech by IBM chairman and CEO Samuel J. Palmisano. "The world will continue to become smaller, flatter ... and smarter," he said. "We are moving into the age of the globally integrated and intelligent economy, society and planet. The question is, what will we do with that?"

The "Smarter Planet" ads — what Kennedy calls an "op-ad" campaign — are Palmisano's answer. They are designed "to get a reader to think about the world from a systems point of view, and along the way, describe these opportunities for systems," says Kennedy. Each week's ads cover a different topic: energy, traffic, food, infrastructure, retail, banking, and more. The schedule posted on the IBM website has ads slated weekly through early March.

The ads aren't intended to be overtly commercial, says Kennedy. "They are more agenda-setting, educating the reader about the world becoming smarter, and then in the end we talk a little bit about what IBM is doing today to help make a difference in these areas. So that is sort of an intentional phase we're in now and we're trying to do this in a thoughtful way. It's more of a short essay, and we try to convey this in that kind of a tone."

I asked Kennedy and Lechner how the ads work — that is, how they are supposed to create new business opportunities for IBM. Kennedy explained:

"There are two ways. First of all, in practical terms, over time we will talk about how 'smarter' is a way to think about transformation, and a way that industries can be transformed, and the way that companies in those industries can be transformed. So there are opportunities for banks to become smarter, retail firms to become smarter, healthcare to become smarter, government to become smarter. What you've seen initially are about larger issues because they resonate well. They are ones that the general population are familiar with.

"The reason why this is so timely, we believe, from a business standpoint, is we're in a time of great change in the world and we're in a time in our history where change is being discussed everywhere from the kitchen table all the way to the boardroom table. As a result, the leaders of many of our clients and leaders around the world are focused on transformation and see this as an opportunity to drive a great amount of transformation, and therefore it's a great opportunity to address ways that they can make their companies become more competitive as we come through this time of great change. That's the way we see the commercial opportunity."

So, the ads are all about starting a conversation with current and would-be customers about transforming themselves and the systems in which they operate during an opportune moment in history. I'll admit, I'm unclear how all this works at the ground level — that is, how readers will connect the dots between a series of "op-ads" and a big, fat contract with IBM. But Kennedy assured me that there's a method to their messaging:

"We think this is a business-building platform. We know our clients are looking at this time as a time to drive transformation and change, and the prospect of making their industry smarter, we believe, couldn't come at a better time. That's for our current clients and as well for future clients, to see us as a company that can help them in these areas. So absolutely we wouldn't be doing it if we didn't think it were a way to drive business and client engagement."

Adds Lechner:

"This is really a significant initiative, as significant as when we launched e-business a decade ago. And when the rest of the world was talking about the Internet, browser wars, and spinning logos, we came out and said, 'You know what? There's something more here. This is going to fundamentally change the way the world of business works, the ways that societies interact.' And it turns out we were right."

"It really is an agenda," says Kennedy. "It is a view of how the world works. It's a view of how the world can be improved and the systems that could be improved. We do talk about the role that we believe IBM can play, but one of the important points is that making the world smarter is not something IBM can do alone. This will require partnerships with many different types of companies, companies we have a partnership with, an ecosystem of partners you might not naturally associate with IT per se."

Can a series of ads really start a conversation with customers that will lead to profitable engagements, unprecedented partnerships, and systemic transformations that improve all of our lives? I'll reserve the right to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism. But you've got to like IBM's bold, clear vision, and its recognition that this is a moment in time where the need for dramatic societal change transcends political campaigns and corporate slogans to demand new tools and fresh thinking on the part of leading businesses.

Here's hoping it works.