Posted by: Chris | 02/12/2009

Smarter Planet Down Under

The week before last I had the pleasure to spend a few days visiting NICTA, the premier Information and Communications Technology research agency in Australia. It was my first time “down under” and I didn’t quite know what to expect. Up until this trip I’ve only met a handful of Australians, who seemed nice and just had a funny accent. : )

In fact, the people I met were extremely nice, welcoming and above all uncomplicated. Frankly, I’ve never meet a people as relaxed, calm, and unpretentious. They make you feel welcome. I guess that must be because Australia is so far away (I spent more than 22 hours on a plane getting there from Zurich) and they want to show their appreciation. : )

Anyway, working at a Nobel prize winning lab, I see amazing innovation on a regular basis, so the bar is high.  But I have to say,  NICTA certainly made an impression on me by showing off a number of very interesting projects, some of which fit very well into IBM’s vision of a smarter planet.

For example, in Sydney, I saw first hand the work they’re doing with the local roads and traffic authority to make traffic flow smoother and to get higher throughput on roads.  To do so they are observing moving traffic, which is different than current state-of-the-art sensing technology which studies cars stopped in front of a traffic light. They’re working with the Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS) which – surprising to me – had been developed by the New South Wales (NSW) Road and Traffic Authority and is marketed world-wide to cities.

In Canberra, they showed me work they’re doing on optimizing vehicle routing, where multiple constraints are factored in, such as time to destinations, driver availability and time driven. They solve these optimization problems using the G12 Constraint Programming Platform.

In Melbourne, I saw an extremely interesting project where NICTA is collaborating with various Australian research partners in creating a bionic eye. The bionic eye will be made up of  three parts including an implant that stimulates the retina, thus enabling high resolution vision, a high-speed externally powered wireless transmission system and a video camera using video processing to place the relevant pixels onto the retinal implant.

Another project of particular interest to me is a wireless sensor network application the Melbourne team has developed for smart water management, called Water Information Networks (WIN).  The innovative approach taken here, is to use the canals as additional reservoirs allowing farmers on-demand-access to water for irrigation. By managing the whole system from the farmer, via the canals, back to the reservoirs, a lot of wastage can be avoided and the already scarce resource  is used optimally.

This last project is also a good example for my theory that technological innovations often need the right environment to happen. What do I mean by that? Well, agriculture makes up the largest part of Australia’s exports.  Fresh water on the other hand has become a scarce resource in Australia because it rains less and less frequently. So being able to reduce wastage by, say 50% means that the agricultural output of the economy can be sustained even under these adverse circumstances. Such a problem we would likely not tackle in Switzerland as we still have plenty of fresh water and rain.

All in all, Australia is a great place to visit, but even more importantly a great place for innovation.

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