Skip to content

Will Braamfontein change IBM?

August 30, 2016

On Friday (the 26th September) I was excited to be invited to tour IBMs new research facilities in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, part of the Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct. IBM has partnered with the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and has located its newest research centre here as part of that partnership. The facility had opened the day before.

It is incongruous to see IBM, with its quintessentially corporate ways, in the inner city. The tour provided some insights into how the negotiated settlement between the two cultures is progressing.

The research facility is a lovely, light space. It’s trendy, with a living wall of plants and furniture and fittings contributed by local designers. There are lampshades above the staircase made of corrugated cardboard and a roller door from the original building has been repurposed as art. Natural textures of wood and concrete prevail, with the artful use of steel partitions that look like giant punch cards. Just off the reception area is a space for relaxation with a table tennis table (that is used for lunch and meetings) and foosball, as well as a library designed to look like a “tree of knowledge”.

lights and plants

The living wall and cardboard lampshades. Photo: IBM Research

We were shown a “partner space”, for use by students and research collaborators. This open plan office included four smaller meeting alcoves with flexible partitions, each decorated to a different theme with interesting furniture. All cool enough for me to wonder how I could become a partner. We also got to see the “maker space” where wearable electronic components were being prototyped to support research into the transmission of disease. The space is well appointed, sporting a 3D printer with a unique articulated arm design.

cool alcoves

Stylish alcoves in the partner space. Photo: IBM Research

Upstairs were the researchers behind glass doors in a restricted area, in more traditional IBM fashion. Here the integrity of the architect’s vision had been brutally destroyed by a giant black three-panelled electronic screen which blocked all natural light from the office. In the gloom we got to hear the researchers talk about their research with flashy tech effects. Shapes twirled around on the monstrous screen. A discussion of how data analysis gives insight into cancer metastasis was illustrated with the outline of a body and when the screen was tapped, up popped a block of text and a different part of the body was highlighted. Wow.

Not a week before, I had visited the Joburg Smart City Day as part of the Fak’ugezi Africal Digital Innovation Festival, held at the Tshimologong Precinct and as I walked the two or three blocks to have lunch at Post my companion, a less frequent visitor to Braamfontein, commented that it was just like Maboneng, but more gritty. That is what Braamies is about. The phrase “keep it real” was invented here. No fancy décor can hide the fact that this is where real people live, on the street and in cheap flats, not in classy lofts.

IBM will have to learn to keep it real. That giant screen looks flash, but does not add to the understanding of the research and it really spoils the space. The research was interesting, but the bogus tech effects made one suspect that the results were not substantial enough to stand by themselves and needed to be made more impressive by the addition of smoke and mirrors. The heavy hand of a marketing magician detracted from what the researchers were doing. Keep it real.

In another area we were treated to a collection of displays showing a range of projects under development. There was an interactive table that simulated traffic and a drag and drop traffic controller that could be deployed to deal with problems. Cool tech, but here again, the neat rows of cars, one behind the other, had an air of unreality. When I left at 4:30pm, it was in crazy traffic with cars straddling lanes, trucks parked in the road, taxis overtaking in the face of oncoming traffic and randomly turning in front of me. Every intersection was gridlocked and every vehicle was nosing in regardless of the traffic lights and the yellow paint that plaintively suggested keeping the intersection free. If IBM is going to come up with solutions to Africa’s traffic congestion a good place to start would be with simulations that reflect the state of real traffic outside their windows. There is hope. We also saw models of traffic congestion in Johannesburg based on real-time data. That was more exciting.

There was a lot of justified pride in the openness of the new research facility and I can imagine that this is a departure from other IBM research facilities. But the openness is limited. We were told that the outdoor seating upstairs was designed so that employees could go out and connect with Braamfontein. Not much of a connection. Go out and look down, through a steel screen, but without actually mingling. When I asked whether I could make use of the maker space I was referred to public maker spaces and told that this space was reserved for partners with identified “synergy” with IBM’s research areas. Although, to be fair, I bagged a business card and was invited to talk further to establish whether there was any synergy between my research and theirs.

One IBM employee, asked how they felt about working in Braamfontein, said: “While I am in the office I am happy, but when I step outside, well, it’s Braamfontein, not Sandton.” To get to the cafes and restaurants requires a walk. There is a natural fear of change and I guess to those who don’t frequent Braamfontein, some trepidation is natural. On the tour we heard a lot about the security features of the new building including bullet proof glass on the downstairs windows and steel grids surrounding the outdoor seating upstairs.

I am genuinely excited about having IBM in a partnership with Wits. The research being done is interesting and does not need marketing hype to make it so. There is much still to learn about the potential for data and data analytics, particularly applied to addressing city problems, and I look forward to following up on that invitation to engage.

I think that IBM’s decision to locate their new research facility at Tshimologong should be applauded. I think that the moves, however tentative, towards openness are also a giant step forward for an organisation that has always struck me as unapproachable.

But I hope that the city dirt blows in and messes up the offices a little; that the IBM researchers are brave enough to get out and explore their new surroundings and find out how intriguing and complex a real city is.

Welcome to Braamfontein, IBM. I hope it changes you for the better.

Think

Steel screens reminiscent of punch cards surround the building. Photo: IBM Research

 

Advertisements
3 Comments
  1. Hi, thanks for joining the opening.

    Regarding your comment, “Here the integrity of the architect’s vision had been brutally destroyed by a giant black three-panelled electronic screen which blocked all natural light from the office” this is just temporary and in fact has already been removed. We only installed it for the opening.

    The demos were simply to give an introduction to our research for a general audience — computer science research is challenging to explain without nice visuals. Plus, we had everyone from government officials to 12 year old children visit, so we wanted the science to be assessable to everyone. But rest assured there are real results under those demonstrations. For example, here is a scientific poster on the cancer metastasis research the team was invited to present a few weeks ago https://ibm.box.com/s/pktqcu2hdo1lkg0mb28y2n2nh1bcirgs

  2. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the news that the screen has gone and that the space is beautiful once again. It really offended my aesthetic sensibilities 🙂

    I understand the challenges of communicating science and that technology has a role to play in that communication. However as an educator, I think that when technology is used to aid communication, it has to contribute to understanding. There are many ways that this can be done, but I felt that the graphics we were shown were made to impress, rather than to elucidate. I feel strongly about interesting the general public in science. To do that well we have to make them interested in science because the knowledge matters and because the methods of science produce good knowledge, not because the graphics are cool. I have a lot of respect for both twelve-year-olds and government officials and I think that they can understand if the messages are well communicated. Would IBM be interested in collaborating in some research into how best to communicate the complexities of data science?

    Thanks for the link too. I never actually doubted the research 🙂

  3. Good feedback, which I will pass along to the team. I’d be happy to speak about what “research into how best to communicate the complexities of data science” would entail. With IBM Watson we seem to be doing a pretty good job, since everyone is talking about machine learning these days, but happy to hear other ideas.

    Feel free to email me at cia at zurich.ibm.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: