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IBM’s Smarter Planet – More Than a Smart Marketing Campaign?

This post is part of a blogging series by marketing students at the Presidio Graduate School's MBA program. You can follow along here. By Hans Eberle IBM is building a Smarter Planet, GE is solving the world’s energy problems with Ecomagination, and Dow combines science with the Human Element. Is it no longer business as usual? Have these giants suddenly found their greater social cause or are they simply trying to use marketing and branding to silence those stakeholders that are demanding that companies become socially responsible global citizens? Let’s have a closer look at the Smarter Planet marketing campaign that IBM’s Chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano introduced in a speech to the Council on Foreign Affairs in November 2008. Palmisano noted that the world had become more instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent. At the same time, he saw wasted energy, gridlocked cities, inefficient supply chains, an antiquated healthcare system, and a dwindling water supply. Reflecting on IBM and its strength in building systems he then went on to outline a plan for IBM’s technology and services to be the solution to the planet’s most significant and complex problems. In a way, this sounds like true soul-searching: what are the problems, what are my organization’s strengths, and how do I turn my strengths into solutions. Still, is the Smarter Planet campaign just a smart move to deflect our attention from the fact that the information and communication technology industry accounts for 2% of global CO2 emissions, according to Gartner? Not only is the computing industry’s carbon footprint significant, comparable in size to the one of the airline industry, it will continue to grow at 6% per year, at a much faster pace than seen in other industries. By turning things around, IBM is telling us that we should look at the other 98% and that IBM has the smarts to reduce that number. But maybe IBM is indeed onto something bigger. Many sense that the communication revolution set in motion by the Internet is more than evolutionary but rather a quantum leap in the planet’s history. In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin calls it the third industrialized revolution. Rifkin also recognizes the increasing interconnectedness and, in his own words, describes a smarter planet enabled by information and communication technologies. He points to Europe where governing bodies have been embracing these new opportunities, for example, by putting in place a smart energy grid with an intelligent utility network that manages renewable energy that is locally produced and shared openly and seamlessly across a whole continent. At the very least, IBM has to be applauded for how serious it is about the Smarter Planet campaign. It’s much more than shiny logos and catchy tag lines. IBM is explaining its strategy in hundreds of customer examples and case studies. Smarter Planet has become a unifying theme and an effective way for IBM’s business units to explain their missions. And if the recently announced acquisition of Tririga Inc., a software maker for the green building industry, as part of IBM’s smarter building strategy is an indication, Smarter Planet has indeed morphed from a repackaging effort into a business transformation.

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