By Michael Dixon, General Manager of Smarter Cities, IBM

Cities around the world face a growing number of challenges, giving them all the wrong headaches for all the right reasons. Many are dealing with the inevitable consequences of rapid growth and associated demand. A seemingly insatiable desire for better roads and public transport, better use of resources and the requirement to maintain and repair existing infrastructure, while integrating the new electronic infrastructure, is bringing 21st Century cities to life.

At the same time, people around the world are demanding more of their cities. At a personal level they are seeking the quality of life that comes from better health, education and social services throughout their lives, from youth to old age. They are seeking the reassurance of public safety, especially when threatened by natural or man-made emergencies.

Amidst this powerfully transforming landscape, information has emerged unchallenged as the pervasive currency. Analysis of popularly named“big data” has enabled professionals throughout cities to analyze data, explain behaviors, or use modeling to predict the future. The application of these techniques had enabled cities to discover that they can meet new challenges and solve existing thorny problems faster and cheaper than ever before. Three underlying technologies are really making the difference:

  • Sensors are becoming ubiquitousfrom low-cost digital instruments to everyday smartphonesmaking it easier to capture everything from blood pressure readings to pothole locations.
  • Wireless networks and intelligent traffic systems form the circulatory system of cities, providing real-time status of the health of a city’s transportation system.
  • Intelligent software tools and advanced computing technologies are, for the first timer, able to sort through these gargantuan streams of data faster than ever and deliver actionable findings and even predictive insight when and where they’re needed most.

These solutions arrive at a time when we need more efficient urban services. For the first time in history, just a few years ago, a majority of the world’s population lived in cities. By mid-century that percentage is expected to hit 75 percent, according to the Brookings Institute. As the populations of cities grow, there’s a need to provide better services more efficiently. As cities innovate, successful practices spread quickly across city agencies, from city to city, and from country to country. Here are examples of advances taking shape:

Miami-Dade County, with more than 2.5 million residents, is the most populous county in the southeastern United States and the seventh most populous county in the nation. The county has more than 25,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $6 billion. The county is using big data and analyticsmanaging large datasets from multiple sourcesand cloud computing to help leaders make better decisions and help agencies share information among the 35 municipalities within its borders.

The focus is on cutting across organizational boundaries to provide better services to residents. My company is helping Miami-Dade County modernize and improve the predictive management capabilities of systems tied to law enforcement, transportation and water. Through the use of an intelligent dashboard, which provides visibility into operations, city and county leaders will soon be able to harvest massive amounts of information from one department and immediately share it with multiple departments to improve access to valuable and often time-sensitive information.

Using big data and analytics has helped Miami-Dade County crack cold cases, reduce water waste and design better public transportation systems. City residents can also see how their tax money is spent and participate more in their governance.

Much like a “city within the city,” Sun Life Stadium is home of the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins and has hosted 10 Super Bowls. NFL games and other “big-ticket” events add up to about 65 hours a year in events. With millions of visitors, Sun Life Stadium has more than 1.5 million square feet of space, 24,000 parking spaces and more than 75,000 seats.

In the past, Sun Life Stadium relied on complex systems to manage everything from parking to concession sales to weather forecasts. Then Sun Life Stadium chose a cloud-based system to consolidate its operations into a system that’s used to manage and view operations across a city. Sun Life Stadium now has a completely interconnected view of stadium activityfrom weather alerts, public safety activities, to traffic flow into the stadium.

The system also provides insights into whether visitors prefer a full dining experience or want to buy food at concession stands prior to a big game. Stadium staff members can now manage visitor traffic more effectively, monitor inclement weather and analyze visitor spending habits at concessions, merchandise and dining services to better target fans with premium products and services.

Fans can connect into the system via their mobile phones to get personalized advice on the best place to park at the stadium or the expected game-time temperature. By adding sensors and making the stadium “smarter,” Sun Life Stadium reacts to visitors’ needs, transforming the fan experience. Sun Life Stadium is an example of how by making a building “smarter,” the organization within the building can transform its operations dramatically.

But Miami-Dade County and Sun Life Stadium aren’t stopping. They’re constantly reinventing themselves, such installing as new HVAC systems at the stadium to conserve energy in the South Florida sun. By constantly making systems interconnected, organizations can make even more progress in providing better services to citizensor fans who have so much fun at a Miami Dolphins game that they want to return again and again.

While these are powerful examples, there are many more projects like them around the world where cities see opportunity. Growth underpins the need for dramatic change and the application of technology such as big data and analytics will increasingly help cities solve their most pressing problems.

Michael J Dixon is General Manager for IBM’s global smarter cities business. He leads IBM’s vision, strategy and operations for helping cities around the world achieve sustainable growth, while solving their most pressing problems.