By 13 May 2009 | Categories: feature articles



Interconnections and instruments

Much of his writing concerns the idea of an information society. Wikipedia defines an information society as “a society in which the creation, distribution, diffusion, use, integration and manipulation of information is a significant economic, political, and cultural activity.” The world in which we currently exist exhibits large pockets of this knowledge economy- with the world’s wealthiest states dominating it.

For the development of a knowledge economy we not only need to live in an interconnected world, but also an instrumented world. A world in which every object is a platform for collecting data, from cellphones, to microchipped household appliances and anything else into which we can embed a transistor and from which we can mine data.

To many an instrumented and interconnected world equals an information society.


Last year a number of companies such as Microsoft, Cisco Systems and IBM recognised the fact that it is not enough to live in a world that is just instrumented and interconnected.

IBM’s chief executive, Samuel J. Palmisano, put all the pieces together in a speech delivered on 6 November 2008 that highlighted the need for a more “intelligent” society, what IBM has coined a “Smarter Planet”. Without intelligence, interconnection and instrumentation could actually lead to poor decision making or even indecision- the current global recession being a potential example.

Thus Friedman’s metaphor of a Flat World exhibits some of the same shortcomings the myth of a flat earth displayed when it was debunked around the 3rd century BC (although still a powerful means of conceiving interconnectedness in isolation ). In a world of “1 billion transistors”, “a trillion networked things” and data that is intelligently mined and analysed the world is conspicuously three-dimensional. Thus competitiveness is the sum of interconnectedness, instrumentation and intelligent decision making based on sound data.

South Africa

Clifford Foster, Chief Technology Officer at IBM SA, expressed in an interview with TechSmart the belief that “Africa has an opportunity to leap frog the development process Europe and the developed world had to follow.” The reason for this is that countries with developed infrastructures will have to retrench or re-develop existing infrastructure- at huge costs- while we are currently still developing our infrastructure. He went on to say, “If we act quickly insuring our country and continent is instrumented, that our water supplies have cheap $1 dollar sensors in place, that we develop smart grids etc.- then we are implementing for the future and will become more competitive.”

A demonstrable solution

A demonstrable smart solution in SA is Guateng’s Open Road Tolling System under the auspices of SANRAL. The ORTS seeks to alleviate congestion and to an extent the emission of CO2 (bidding is still underway for the project). By charging drivers rates based on the time of day and area in which they are travelling according to information garnered from RFID tags embedded in vehicles or video captured from gantries and connected to a monitoring system, SANRAL can intelligently manage and monitor traffic.

Thought leadership

While a number of companies seek to offer such solutions IBM believes that it can offer a total solution based on its expertise in hardware, software and sophisticated analytical tools. For the time being however Big Blue sees itself as a thought leader on the issue of an intelligent society by opening up a conversation on smart grids, transportation, health and more issues. While the benefits of an intelligent society speak for themselves for the potential citizens of such a society- resource and maintenance efficiency and cost benefits not the least of which- the benefits for the company that can provide the instruments, connections and ultimately the intelligence (in what may yet be the most unashamed move towards vertical integration in history) are no less obvious.


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