Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

IBM’s Newest Research Lab Is in Africa

As technology companies go, IBM has long had a peculiar affection for Africa. Usually when economists talk about emerging markets, the conversation is dominated by talk of the so-called BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India and China.

To IBM, those countries are great, but being more than 100 years old, it is accustomed to taking a longer view in its planning. Big Blue has been engaged in Africa for a long time, and already has a business presence in 20 African countries. Today, it kicked that up a notch by announcing the creation of a full-fledged research lab in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

Recently, a lot of IBM’s conversations about emerging markets have focused on Africa. Much of it has to do with the fact that so many countries on that continent are getting on their feet and wanting to modernize their economies. Last year, the International Monetary Fund forecast that the combined GDP of the sub-Saharan African countries would grow by nearly 6 percent this year, nearly three times the rate it sees in the U.S. And Kenya has been an example: Its economy, while still relatively small, has been growing like crazy. The size of its economy has nearly tripled since 2000. (See the graph, courtesy of Google Public Data, below.)

So, what exactly will IBM be doing there? What it does best: Solving complicated problems. You can’t have a conversation with anyone from IBM without soon hearing about its Smarter Cities initiative, which focuses on things like throwing powerful analytics at big infrastructure problems like transportation, and tracking problems in water systems. These are not trivial problems in the first place, and even less so when you think about the numbers involved. There are about a billion people in Africa, and right now about a third of them live in cities. By 2025, about half the African population will be living in cities, and some cities — Nairobi included — will see their numbers swell by 70 percent or more. That kind of growth can’t help but put a strain on traffic, water and other infrastructure, which are the kind of problems that IBM has proven itself pretty good at solving here in the U.S.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik