International Business Machines (IBM) inter(net)connections to (Smart) Cities

An abstract representation of smart city concepts and the internet of things. Source: Jamesteohart, Shuttershock, All Rights Reserved

Critical essay. Arin 9 November 2018.

International Business Machines (IBM) has surfaced as a leader in Smart City technology.

In this entry, I will provide an outline and profile of the global conglomeration IBM, within the context of Smart Cities. I will hone in on the particular roles and connection the IBM company has within this idea of smart cities and the actors involved while keeping in mind this links directly into their global business model and ideas of capital accumulation and dominance.

The first section of this essay will provide an overview of the operations, key actors and partners of IBM within the smart city setting. The second section will further analyse these relations, introducing ideas such as sensor society; contextualising this in examples such as the city of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, further unpacking the business and internet ecology of IBM.

What is IBM?

Reading about the history of IBM, its beginnings sound quite similar to their functions today:

“To take advantage of the speed and accuracy of such equipment both customers and IBM employees had to understand information requirements, how they needed to be collected, analyzed, sorted, and used, and the economic/business benefits to be derived, since the equipment was complex and expensive.” (Cortada, 126, 2018).

This quote is from a historiographers article explaining IBM in its early days, just before world war 2.

IBM Timeline (Cortada, 2018, Paroutis, 2014):

1911 – IBM beginning (Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation)

1924 – Name change to International Business Machines Corporation (IBM)

1940-1960s – IBM becomes a computer company – Moving from middle size to giant international corporation.

1960-1980s – IBM dominates mainframe computing

1980-2000 – IBM ranks among the world’s largest information technology companies, providing a wide spectrum of hardware, software + services

2008 – Smarter Cities initiative in IBM started as part of Smarter Planet initiative

2010 – IBM recasts as a cognitive solution/cloud computing platform

From early times IBM focused on research and development, despite its extensive sales orientation (Cortada, 127, 2018). For a more detailed history and understanding of the broad-spectrum functions of IBM click here.

In the internet age, HUGE amounts of data are being produced. IBM demonstrates their functions of research and development through claiming (Andrejevic, 25, 2015) that every day, around 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated – a figure that coincides with the fact that 90% of the world’s stored data has been created in the past two years.

In the pursuit of cohesiveness, I will particularly refer to IBM in the context of its smart cities ventures, after they launched their smarter cities initiative in 2008-2011.

While focusing particularly on this notion of smart cities and IBM’s business and goals for the smarter cities, it must be noted that this relates to the wider goals of the company, and more broadly other companies, stakeholders, governments, cities and people.

IBM in some ways is a smart city policy consultant operating as a “non-state, private sector, profit-driven actor”. This can be traced back to around 2005, when the CEO at the time, Samuel Palmisano encouraged the vision of the company to look into “important problems of the world” (Wiig, 262, 2015). Which feeds into their goals in 2012:

“It is important to understand IBM’s long term model. We are an innovation company… In 2012, this model produced solid results. Your company continued to outperform our industry and the market at large… In the five years since its launch, the goal of building a Smarter Planet has had a transformational impact…[it] is not only driving growth, but also speaking to IBMers’ aspiration to be essential to each of our vital constituencies.”

This quote is from April 30, 2013, a statement directed at stakeholders by Ginni Rometty, the president and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of IBM at the time (Parouti, 2014).

To provide even more context, below is a quote from the smarter planet webpage, a branch of the IBM brand, that then pushes this smarter city idea; lobbying, selling products and even facilitating urban control centres (discussed in more detail later). IBM as a global company is always looking to expand their business, and was a pioneer of the idea of the “internet of things”:

“Amid the global economic crisis of 2008, IBM began a conversation with the world about the promise of a smarter planet and a new strategic agenda for progress and growth.

As the internet grew, so did technology-driven enterprise needs and a truly global workforce. Computational power was being infused into things no one had thought of as computers: phones, cars, roads, power lines, waterways and food crates. A trillion connected and intelligent things were becoming a system of systems — an “internet of things” — and producing oceans of raw data.” (IBM, 2018)

The internet of things is somewhat synonymous with the smart city concept, but is more broad-based and involves Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) connecting (Scuotto, 2015) as IBM puts it (above), a “system of systems”, integrating the virtual and physical worlds evermore ubiquitously.

Flow Chart of IBM Smart Cities Main Actors

Provided here is an infographic demonstrating the symbiotic, co-dependent nature of  IBM, listing some key competitors, service providers, clients, regulators, owners and users.

IBM: Competitors, regulators, users, goods and service providers

IBM has many competitors, both at the top level as a corporation and within the smart city context.

In monetary terms, Cisco, one of IBM’s main competitors (and partners); is growing faster. Considering the financial flow of these companies, we see they are mature tech stocks, owned as stable resources because of their ubiquitous functions. However, Cisco has seen their stocks surge 50%, while IBM only grew 1%.

Cisco is also in the business of smart cities, even building one from scratch (with help from the South Korean government).

Generally, there are two definitions of the smart city, though clearly it is a vague concept used to describe a complex arrangement of actors. The first way people explain a smart city is an urban area that pushes for a knowledge-based  (or smart) approach to the economy, people, transport and it’s both immediate and surrounding environment.

Companies such as IBM (amongst others – Cisco, Microsoft, Google, Philips), however, follow more closely to the (second) definition that a smart city is an urban environment that is connected and managed by computer and internet systems linking data analytics, sensors, communication and information technology (Kitchin, 2013, Albino 2015). While clearly, both definitions shed light on the functions of the smart city, and companies such as IBM and Cisco’s approach to the urban.

IBM’s ubiquitous reach and pervasiveness within society, facilitated by the internet, connects data points, utilising a range of companies and services to complete tasks. A simple analogy is that a smart city can’t work without cameras or personal mobile phones, IBM doesn’t make cameras or phones, but rather uses, connects and collects data from these sources.

This introduces the idea of the so-called “sensor society”, wrapped up in the aforementioned concept “Internet of Things”:

An article by Mark Andrejevic (2015) explains the “sensor society” that make up smart cities, particularly in relation to the individual, becoming a passive means of interactivity and data collection.

This image shows a honey bee unbeknownst to its tracking. Source: CSIRO, Wikimedia, All Rights Reserved

“One marketing company has installed a different type of “black box” in businesses throughout downtown Toronto that tracks mobile phones via the unique identification they send to Wi-Fi networks. The result is that, unbeknownst to the phones’ owners, their shopping patterns, dining preferences, and clubbing habits are collected, stored, and shared with participating businesses: “The company’s dense network of sensors can track any phone that has Wi-Fi turned on, enabling the company to build profiles of consumers’ lifestyles” (Andrejevic, 20, 2015)

This is an example of the way pervasive, passive, constantly switched on, technologies are collecting information, characterising digital devices and the broader business models that they are associated with (Andrejevic, 20, 2015).

This demonstrates one facet of the means by which IBM is able to facilitate a smart city, through the notion of the sensor society. Below is a discussion and example of an IBM smart city, which engages with this idea of a sensor society, internet of things and an intertwining of various actors in a local context.

What is so smart about a smart city?

Source: IBM, Youtube 'Smarter Cities -Rio' | IBM An inspirational? Video showing the basics of the IBM smart city project.

In this video the vision of a Smart City that IBM is trying to portray comes to light with a multitude of actors, all vocalising their visions. Cultural events; such as a soccer game are shown. The mayor of Rio is involved and interviewed in this video. This shows the physical and human connection these smart cities are trying to relate and the power dynamics that are at play.

Many of the different notions of the smart city are contained in this video. But, how much does this actually affect citizens day to day life?

Will this smart city stuff effect the people in the slums? What about the marginalised?

Source: IBM, YouTube 2017 IBM Smarter Cities Challenge

“This video shows how IBM Smarter Cities Challenge has used leading cognitive analytics and big data technology to help cities around the world improve the lives of their residents.”


An article by academic Tooran Alizadeh: An investigation of IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge: What do participating cities want?; critiques and challenges the underpinnings and validity of the smarter cities challenge. While these YouTube videos provide a site of inspiration and inclusiveness… and even utopia; the truth, of course, is much more complex.

One example is the partnership that has been formed in Rio De Janiero, Brazil: The local government in conjunction with IBM have created a control centre where all the data that they can find is collated and used to analyse the city in various ways.

An image showing the wealthy sea-side of Rio, where a lot of this smart city capability takes place. Source: Pixabay, All Rights Reserved

“A citywide instrumented system that draws together data streams from thirty agencies, including traffic and public transport, municipal and utility services, emergency services, weather feeds and information sent in by employees and the public via phone, internet and radio, into a single analytics centre.” (Kitchin, 7, 2013).

IBM oversaw the construction of the ““smart city” in Rio De Janeiro acting like a general contractor, with local companies handling the telecommunications and construction, while Cisco both a competitor and partner of IBM provided network infrastructure and a video link to the mayor’s house. While the screens used in the project were provided by Samsung, demonstrating a huge global commodity/value/supply chain with suppliers, citizens and local government agencies all working together (Nytimes, 2012).

Some say, this technocratic form of governance is narrow in scope, based on limited sets of particular kinds of data that do not take account of the wider contexts and effects of politics, culture, policy, government intervention and capital flows that intertwine to structure city life and the complex nature in which it unfolds (Kitchin, 9, 2013).

Security and privacy,  are pressing issues in the age of the “smart city” that explicitly recognise the politics of data.

This idea explicitly recognises the politics of data”

With the development of various forms of automated, networked digital technologies, a common theme of concern manifests over the rising level of surveillance in societies. This idea explicitly recognises the politics of data (Kitchin, 11, 2013). This is being played out in Rio De Janeiro and IBM is a main player within this movement. As of last month Brazil, voted in a new far right president, likened to Donald Trump. All of this data is now in his hands…….

“Big data and data control centres, such as the Centro De Operacoes Prefeitura Do Rio, that integrate and bind data streams together, work to move the various oligopticon systems into a single, panoptic vantage point and raise the spectre of a Big Brother society based on a combination of surveillance (gazing at the world) and dataveillance (trawling through and inter- connecting datasets), and a world in which all aspects of a citizen’s life are captured and potentially never forgotten” (Kitchin, 11, 2013)

Big data is often seen as objective and neutral, free from political ideology. However, there is clearly politics involved in what is done with the data and also politics involved in how and why the data is collected in the first place. Encouraging the notion that distinctive political, social, cultural contexts can change this data collection or the way the data is perceived.

Image showing Santa Marta Favela in Rio De Janeiro. Are smart sensors or smart city benefits being implemented in these areas Source: André Sampaio, Wikimedia Commons, All Rights Reserved

Furthermore in Rio De Janeiro…  is this smart city going to help the people in the slums?  It is estimated that 1.4 million people live in the slums of Rio, out of a population of 6.5 million. Would they use the data to first help the richer people living in gated communities in the event of a disaster?

Five main concerns about a real time city: (Kitchin, 8-12, 2013)

  1. Politics of big urban data
  2. Technocratic governance and city development
  3. The corporatisation of city governance and a technological lock in.
  4. Buggy, brittle and hackable cities
  5. The panoptic city.

IBM flips this discussion, encouraging the idea that they are empowering local governments to operate effectively, efficiently and sustainably (Kitchin, 11, 2013). And we must remember that some of this data is used to monitor flooding patterns, encouraging the idea of the resilient city, and a resilient city is a smart city (Harrison, 2012). With huge numbers of people moving to cities every day, it is clear we need to reconsider our assumptions about the supply of food, energy and water, and smart cities offer a viable vision of the city to produce better outcomes. However we must understand that there is politics involved in data, and this smart city vision is technocratic and influenced by big companies (such as IBM’s) motivations and notions of the world, which above all is profit driven.

To the future?

In cities where this smart city technology has been utilised it fundamentally reshapes the experience of a certain segment of society and provides urban planners, businesses and cities with datasets to monitor the city, and therefore influence and adjust processes. Planners use these technologies to reshape cities and put forth new visions of the city. This technology and concept of smart cities and the role IBM plays in this changes the way we live, work and play. IBM have their own goals which impact the way cities are planned, function and how smart city technology is rolled out.

Maybe we can imagine what the: smart city equivalents might be of Robert Moses’ tangled, congested, and polluted freeways or the failures of the Pruitt Igoe housing complex and the role of IBM within this future. (Kitchin, 10, 2013) 















Academic References:

Andrejevic, M. and Burdon, M. (2015) Defining the Sensor Society. Television & New Media. 16(1): 19–36

Alizadeh, T. (2017) An investigation of IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge: What do participating cities want? Cities, 73, 70-80,

Albino, V., Berardi, U., Dangelico, R. (2015) Smart Cities: Definitions, Dimensions, Performance, and Initiatives, Journal of Urban Technology, 22:1, 3-21, DOI: 10.1080/10630732.2014.942092

Cortada, J. (2018). Change and Continuity at IBM: Key Themes in Histories of IBM. Business History Review, 92(1), 117-148. doi:10.1017/S0007680518000041

Elizabeth, W. (2016). A Smarter Smart City. MIT Technology Review. February 21 2018.

Grossi, G., Pianezzi, D. (2017) “Smart cities: Utopia or neoliberal ideology, Cities, 9, 79-85.

Harrison C. (2012) IBM: Smart Cities Are Resilient Cities. Environmental Forum, 29 (5), 49.

Kitchin (2013) The real-time city? Big data and Smart Urbanism,  Geojournal, 2014.

Looi, C.K. (2001) Enhancing learning ecology on the Internet, Journal of Computer Assisted

Learning, (17), 13–20. doi:

Paroutis, S., Bennett, M. & Heracleous, L. (2014) A strategic view on smart city technology: The case of IBM Smarter Cities during a recession, Technological Forecasting & Social Change, vol. 89, pp. 262-272.

Scuotto, V. (2016) Internet of Things Applications and challenges in smart cities: a case study of IBM smart city projects, Business process management journal (1463-7154), 22 (2), 357-367.

Wiig, A. (2015) IBM’s smart city as techno-utopian policy mobility, City, 19(2), 258-273, DOI: 10.1080/13604813.2015.1016275

Wiig, A. (2016) The empty rhetoric of the smart city: from digital inclusion to economic promotion in Philadelphia, Urban Geography, 37(4), 535-553, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2015.1065686

Multimedia Reference List

Website References:

BBC (2018) Jair Bolsonaro: Far-right candidate wins Brazil poll. BBC

BBC (2017) Tomorrow’s Cities: A day in the life of a smart slum. BBC

Bernard Marr (2018) How Much Data Do We Create Every Day? The Mind-Blowing Stats Everyone Should Read. Forbes

Chatelain, P. (2018) 5 Things in NYC We Can Blame on Robert Moses. Untapped cities.

Frey, C. (2014) Inside Rio Bond Villain Mission Control. The Guardian

Geromel, R. (2013) Eduardo Paes, Rio de Janeiro’s Mayor, Reveals Where The Money Is Heading To In Brazil: Favelas. Forbes. – 7a32586d7e1f

Guardian Cities (2018) The Mexican Town that Refused to Become a Smart City. The Guardian

IBM website (2018)

IBM (2018) IBM Smarter Planet Link

Margaret Rouse (2014) IBM (International Business Machines). Searchitchannel

Marshall, C. (2015) Pruitt-Igoe: the troubled high-rise that came to define urban America – a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 21. The Guardian

Mcmullan, T (2015) What does the panopticon mean in the age of digital surveillance? The Guardian


Prevost L. (2018) Building a Connected City From the Ground Up. New York Times.

Smart Cities World (2018) Five Cities Land IBM Smarter City Challenge Grants. Smart Cities World

Smith, A. (2018) Smart cities need thick data, not big data. The Guardian

Singer, N. (2012) Mission Control, Built for Cities. I.B.M. Takes ‘Smarter Cities’ Concept to Rio de Janeiro. New York Times. Retrieved From:

Image and Video References:

IBM (2013). IBM logo Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from

IBM (2014). IBM India. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from

Capankajsmilyo (2015). Smart City Illustration Wikimedia Commons.

Cisco (2008). Cisco Logo. Wikimedia Commons.

Google (2013). Wikimedia Commons. Google Logo

Microsoft (2012) Microsoft Logo. Wikimedia Commons.

No Author. Creative Commons. Pedestrians walking


Jamestohart (2016) Smart city Wireless Communication Network. Shutterstock

No author (2017) Rio de Janeiro Brazil. Pixabay.

André Sampaio (2012) Favela Rio. Wikimedia Commons





















About Jasper 2 Articles
3rd Year Art/Science Student with a keen interest in the urban environment.

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