Big Blue's Big Green Plans

IBM is hooking up with The Nature Conservancy to launch software that will help business and government make smart environmental decisions

One of the timeliest ideas to emerge from the so-called innovation jam that IBM conducted last year was the notion of setting up a business unit focused on environmental matters. Chief Executive Samuel Palmisano last November designated it one of the 10 pilot projects to come out of the online brainstorm, which involved not just thousands of IBM (IBM) employees but partners and customers as well.

Now the business, formally named Big Green Innovation, is starting to put some flesh on its bones. On Apr. 24, IBM announced an alliance with The Nature Conservancy, in Arlington, Va., to provide technology and expertise for the organization's Great Rivers Partnership.

IBM plans to work with TNC to create software that will help government officials, land owners, and industry leaders put their heads together and make well-informed decisions about matters that affect rivers ranging from the Mississippi to the Amazon to the Yangtze. People using the system will be able to gather data about particular watersheds and crunch the numbers to see what the potential results would be of, say, damming the river at a certain spot, or clear-cutting a forest.

The Big Challenges

"We want to create a new model for conservation in the 21st century, based on partnerships," says TNC President Steve McCormick. "We want to show that it's not an all-or-nothing proposition."

This project won't be a moneymaker for IBM. It's donating time, software, and equipment via a grant from its office of Corporate Community Relations. But the company believes the expertise and technology it assembles for this project will be useful for paying customers—including industrial clients and public agencies.

The business unit will provide management systems and consulting to help companies deal with water management, alternative energy, and green operations. "We're helping to solve some of the grand environmental challenges," says Sharon Nunes, vice-president of Big Green Innovation.

But while the challenges are great, the business opportunity for IBM and other tech companies so far is quite limited. IBM is tiptoeing into the market: So far, Nunes has just five employees, though several hundred IBMers are helping out on a part-time basis.

No Degree Necessary

IBM will provide TNC ultra-fast supercomputers and software programs for crunching numbers; but, just as important, its goal is to create a decision-support system that doesn't require a person with a PhD to run it. That's a key element if technology is going to really make a difference in the environmental sphere.

"Our problem for years is that we scientists have had some of the tools for analysis, but we haven't had the expertise to make them user-friendly," says Mike Coe, an associate scientist at the nonprofit Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass., who's involved in the river project.

The Nature Conservancy started the Great Rivers Partnership in 2005 to help preserve the globe's fast-disappearing fresh water supply. The IBM project will be used first on the Paraguay-Parana river system in Brazil, but later is expected to be applied to the Yangtze River and the Mississippi.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.