A few days ago James Governor linked to Tim O’Reilly’s earlier comments about the things startups should work on:

“Tim mentioned earlier this week during tough times it’s important to work on things that matter.”

A few minutes before reading the post, I had finished reading Sam Palmisano’s email to IBMers about “A Smarter Planet” vision.  Sam’s vision isn’t a roadmap for IBM’s business.  Rather, it’s a roadmap for every company, government and individual.  It is unequivocally about “working on things that matter”.  Sam asks us to consider:

Energy waste: Losses of electrical energy because grid systems are not “smart” range as high as 40 to 70 percent around the world.

Impact of gridlocked cities: Congested roadways in the U.S. cost $78 billion annually, in the form of 4.2 billion lost hours and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted gas – and that’s not even counting the impact on our air quality.

Antiquated healthcare systems: In truth, it isn’t a “system” at all. It doesn’t link from diagnosis, to drug discovery, to healthcare deliverers, to insurers, to employers. Meanwhile, personal expenditures on health now push more than 100 million people worldwide below the poverty line each year.Inefficient supply chains: Consumer product and retail industries lose about $40 billion annually, or 3.5 percent of their sales, due to supply chain inefficiencies.

How our planet’s water supply is drying up: Global water usage has increased six-fold since the 1900s, twice the rate of human population growth. 1 in 5 people lack access to safe drinking water, and half the world’s population does not have adequate sanitation.

These are wicked problems to tackle to be sure.  But these are problems that each of us in the IT industry can help address.  Sam explains why we can attack these problems now:

First, our world is becoming instrumented: The transistor, invented 60 years ago, is the basic building block of the digital age. Now, consider a world in which there are a billion transistors per human, each one costing one ten-millionth of a cent. We’ll have that by 2010. There will likely be 4 billion mobile phone subscribers by the end of this year… and 30 billion Radio Frequency Identification tags produced globally within two years. Sensors are being embedded across entire ecosystems – supply-chains, healthcare networks, cities… even natural systems like rivers.

Second, our world is becoming interconnected: Very soon there will be 2 billion people on the Internet. But in an instrumented world, systems and objects can now “speak” to one another, too. Think about the prospect of a trillion connected and intelligent things – cars, appliances, cameras, roadways, pipelines… even pharmaceuticals and livestock. The amount of information produced by the interaction of all those things will be unprecedented.

Third, all things are becoming intelligent: New computing models can handle the proliferation of end-user devices, sensors and actuators and connect them with back-end systems. Combined with advanced analytics, those supercomputers can turn mountains of data into intelligence that can be translated into action, making our systems, processes and infrastructures more efficient, more productive and responsive – in a word, smarter.

Some early examples of success:

Stockholm’s smart traffic system has resulted in 20 percent less traffic, a 12 percent drop in emissions

Smart food systems – such as one now running in the Nordics – can use RFID technology to trace meat and poultry from the farm through the supply chain to supermarket shelves.

Smart healthcare can lower the cost of therapy by as much as 90 percent – as ActiveCare Network is doing for more than 2 million patients in 38 states, whom it monitors for the proper delivery of their injections and vaccines.

James has a great post linking Sam’s initiatives to those from president elect Obama.  However, the linkage is fortunate, yet coincidental. Democrat or Republican, the problems we face need everyone’s efforts. My favorite quote from James’ post:

“Sometimes IBM’s obsessive desire to work on the toughest problems seems wrong-headed, and leads to complexity. But this time around I feel things could be different. Why? Because IBM is choosing to work on exactly the right problems”

I encourage you to listen to the speech here.

Most days I’m happy to be an IBMer.  Days like today, I’m proud to be an IBMer.