‘Smuba' model for quickstarting progress

D. Murali | Updated on October 10, 2011


Mastering complex systems could lead to breakthroughs in technology.

Among the many photos in Making the World Work Better: The ideas that shaped a century and a company, by Kevin Maney, Steve Hamm, and Jeffrey M. O'Brien , is one of John Powell, superintendent and asset manager of San Francisco Public Utility Commission Wastewater Enterprise. The utility, which handles about 95 million gallons of wastewater on a dry day and close to 400 million gallons of wastewater and runoff during a storm, has “installed sensors along 1,000 miles of pipes and has mapped the entire system and deployed IBM's Maximo analytics software to monitor the conditions of pipelines, flow, volume, vibration, heat and performance.”

Wastewater is one of the most corrosive environments in the world, and if you build any system, wastewater will eat it alive, instructs a quote of Powell in the book. Twenty years ago, managing the effects of corrosion meant employing a staff of mechanics to perpetually repair broken parts and pipes, as typical in the era of reactive maintenance, one learns.

Now, Powell is in the preventive maintenance mode, replacing parts systematically based on their expected life spans; and he wants to move from replacement based on averages to predictive maintenance, the industrial equivalent of personalised medicine. “Predictive is really the way to go. I want my mechanics writing work orders when they know something's going to break.” Interestingly, the makeup of Powell's team has morphed, with mechanics skilled at fixing broken pipes taking a back seat to software engineers capable of monitoring, interpreting, and adjusting the system.

Crime control

Another story in the book is about the Memphis Police Department, which began in mid-2005 a partnership with the University of Memphis called Blue Crush (Crime Reduction Utilising Statistical History) to collate crime data and create maps of hot spots. “Memphis has real challenges. We've got 26 per cent of our population under the poverty line, 50 per cent considered low income, and a police department that had been fairly unstable… The mayor was firing police chiefs every time you blinked…” reads a quote of W. Richard Janikowski, director of the university's Centre for Community Criminology and Research.

By 2008, the Department was using the real-time crime centre citywide, with an SPSS analytics system that allowed cops in the field to file reports and retrieve information immediately on PDAs. “The system maps incidents in real time while also incorporating non-traditional data – allowing police to understand, for example, the links between car burglaries and rainfall, or foreclosures and drug-related criminal activity.” A critical takeaway is that, in the four years since the programme began, crime has decreased by almost 30 per cent, including a 15 per cent reduction in violent crime!

What does IBM do?

An apparently dumb question that leaps at you when you are well into the book is, ‘What does IBM do?' But it may be enlightening to know that the question is what many of the company's more than 4,25,000 employees have encountered. Chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano acknowledges that the question can be so difficult to answer. “We've never defined ourselves by a hit product. Taking up the common poser – of how different is IBM from, say, building a sexier smartphone, which in many people's eyes certainly contributes to a better world – the authors underline that the difference is in scale, in the complexity of systems involving the designing and improving of the sprawling architectures of our planet. “Complex systems comprise thousands or even millions of cooperating parts whose interactions are not linear, but emergent. Working together, they produce surprising outcomes.”

Making the world work better

Delving into the history of the company to find out when and how it has made the world work better (rather than find out how, when or whether IBM made money), the authors observe that the model for instigating progress is ‘smuba' – for seeing, mapping, understanding, believing, and acting. The discernible path in mastering complex systems, as depicted in the book vividly, gives the lunar mission as an example: Seeing (through more sophisticated telescopes to accurately measure the placement and movement of celestial bodies); mapping (by organising those measurements and creating detailed maps of our solar system); understanding (of the laws governing astrophysics, rocket propulsion, and space navigation); believing (that it would be possible to send three astronauts to the moon and to bring them home safely); and acting (through a team of thousands of scientists and engineers collaborating on the historic Apollo 11 mission).

In the elaborate discussion of each of these stages, the authors introduce us to the many journeys that the scientists are busy with. Such as, the ‘seeing' inward, by printing electrochemical biosensors on soldiers' clothing to allow doctors to remotely monitor blood pressure and heart rate (University of California); and using nano-particles in a sensor chip to detect cholesterol levels, diabetes, and lung cancer by ‘smelling' a patient's breath (Stony Brook University). Towards the close of the chapter on ‘making the world work better' is an example from IBM Research in Zurich: the lab-on-a-chip, which can test the blood of a heart attack victim in minutes, heralding a day when doctors perform such tests to quickly discern the best course of action. It can even test for pandemic flu, breast and prostate cancer, and the presence of various poisons and toxins, the chapter informs.

Then, there is the DNA transistor, which can thread DNA molecules through a pore the size of a nanometer in a silicon chip, opening the possibility for every human to have his or her genome sequenced cheaply and quickly; an idea that will ‘allow your grandchildren to have personalised medicine,' as the device's co-inventor, Gustavo Stolovitzky, manager of the IBM Functional Genomics and Systems Biology Group at the Watson Research Centre in New York, would postulate.

This is a reassuring read about the immense change potential of technology.


“We sold our ‘smart statement' software to the ruling party, and they now come up with press releases that are automatically triggered by news happenings...”

“And the spokesperson reads out the same in front of the media?”

“Yes, but the problem is that the opposition party, which uses a customised version of the software, may rush to the microphones faster!”


Published on October 10, 2011

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