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Michael Dixon, General Manager, IBM Smarter Cities
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Infrastructure and exchange of information

When you think about cities, "things haven’t really changed in 5,000 years,” says Michael Dixon, Vice President for IBM Watson Asia Pacific. “They’re still a collection of buildings and people. People gather in buildings to sleep, others gather in buildings to produce, children gather around adults to learn, sick people get care in the same place and so on.”

But, largely unseen, something has changed profoundly in cities. Cities now face challenges armed with an electronic infrastructure that is only a couple of decades old. And that infrastructure allows smarter cities to focus on a particular problem: transport; water; energy; public safety; unemployment; crime. But perhaps even more important, smarter municipalities are starting to exchange information within themselves and to work together in new ways.

The evolution begins

“I think we’re just starting to see the beginning of a major evolution in cities. They’re just beginning to understand the potential,” Dixon says. Miami, for example, has taken new, smarter approaches to issues such as public safety and water management (both ensuring its supply and managing the surplus during storms). But when officials looked at the insights they’d discovered, they asked themselves if they could apply the same approach to their public transport infrastructure. The answer was “yes,” and the results were dramatic improvements in services and asset management.

In the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is opening up its data for everyone’s benefit. Already planning for Expo 2020, the city has started to base all its city and municipal services in the cloud. That means eventually everybody in Dubai, residents and visitors alike, will have access.

“But they’re not stopping there,” says Dixon. “Dubai has identified almost 500 services which it intends to open up through its cloud capability with real-time analytics that provide information to anybody, from anywhere it is requested. The most exciting aspect of the initiative is its ambition, which is not focused on technology, but the way in which large amounts of data and analytics, including social media, can be accessed from mobile devices securely from the cloud to provide real value, on the spot.”

Disparate fronts offer challenges

For a city to tackle a challenge from multiple, often disparate, fronts can be a successful strategy in a variety of situations. But mapping out the plan requires careful analysis of data.

“I spoke to the head of a police force recently who wanted to do something about the demands on the force brought by domestic violence. He called it ‘a scourge’ in his city, but it wasn’t something that the police had the resources or the skills to deal with,” says Dixon. “It is a chronic problem, in numerous cities, involving a relatively small number of people, consuming an outsized portion of police resources. Each weekend police are being confronted with the same people, struggling with the same issues.”

The solution lies in broadening the city’s response. “It is important to get social services involved, because these are families at risk. But the social services agency needs support from the health department, as alcohol and depression are commonly seen to be associated problems, with many now agreeing that unemployment and appropriate education are the underlying problems.”

This multifaceted approach requires government to rethink its usual structure. As Dixon puts it, “Agencies and functions within government are bridging to each other in unprecedented ways. Challenging for some, it suggests a very different operating model for city governments of the future.”

“In this example, we are on the cusp of police exchanging information with social services and healthcare providers: sharing information in ways that can better help individuals who need the help most. Over time, we’re going to see a level of integration which truly will provide much better service, within increasingly different models of government delivering significantly better value for money.”

I think we’re just staring to see the beginning of a major evolution in cities.

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Three characteristics of a successful project

Expanding a smarter city project or even undertaking an initial one is not a decision to be taken lightly. Dixon identifies three characteristics he considers typical of a successful project.

First, he says, “there is a compelling need to do something. You’ve got to do something because you’re out of money, the water system is not coping with demand, traffic congestion is strangling growth. You must do something— the shed is on fire.”

Second, the project must generate financial benefit. “I’ve been in hundreds of meetings with clients around the world,” says Dixon, “and I haven’t had one where someone said, ‘We’ve got too much money. Can you help me spend it?’ Cities want financial return, and we can deliver it.”

Finally, there must be strong leadership. “Clear, decisive leaders who say, ‘This is important. I’m responsible for getting it done. I’m accountable for the results.’” Such leadership is not always at the top, Dixon finds. He says it varies from city to city. It could be an elected leader in one, a department or agency head or rising star in another, even someone in an outside agency or industry involved in delivering service to government. “It doesn’t really matter, but without such an individual, the most promising projects can really struggle to get off the ground or achieve their potential.”

Social media steps in

More and more, cities recognize the role of social media and the effect it has on society. Traditionally focused on one-way communication, governments are schooling themselves in the risks and opportunities associated with two-way communication. With a plethora of instruments now providing vast quantities of data, “it’s now very obvious that the most effective data-gathering sensor in a city is people themselves,” says Dixon. “People are prepared—partly through social media—to comment on anything at any time. And increasingly cities are using data gathered from social media to respond to sentiment and make decisions accordingly. That’s why IBM’s relationship with Apple is so exciting, because it gives us unprecedented opportunity to bring together our personal views and interactions with the enterprises on which many important functions of our lives depend.”

And what does the future hold for smarter cities? “The most exciting thing around the world is that cities focus on various issues. Different sheds are on fire in different cities. Transport here, water there, a natural disaster somewhere else. However, over time, we’re going to see cities increasingly integrate their capabilities as they tackle, and make significant progress, on one challenge after another. A true ‘system of systems’ will emerge, and cities will reap associated rewards in both quality of life and GDP (gross domestic product). Cities are not ‘smarter cities” or not. We are at the beginning of a long period in the evolution of our cities, and people are excited by the prospect. That’s a powerful motivation for cities to get smarter.”

We are at the beginning of a long period in the evolution of our cities.