It is rare to hear “we can’t do that” in the world of information technology today. Given the scale of potential technology investments and the flood of resulting information the challenge today is more often answering the question “what would you like to do?”

Designing ways to help companies, institutions and cities answer that question has become the mission for big data experts at IBM, the company’s Smarter Cities General Manager Michael Dixon told Breaking Energy in a recent briefing. “The obstacles to progress are cultural and organizational, not financial or technological,” Dixon said. “Individual leaders are asking what to do with data and finding areas of resonance for their communities.”

Cities are a particular area of focus for IBM, in part because heavy infrastructure investment in the past by cities has often shown poor returns and municipalities are keen to adopt a more comprehensive economic analysis model when considering how to make new investments and maintain old ones. “There are decades of work ahead on this; there is no shortage of opportunity and demand in this area,” Dixon said.

Progress in helping cities manage projects like water and energy infrastructure upgrades has been aided by both an increased openness on the part of city managers to share the data they are collecting and partnerships like the recent agreement between IBM Research and Waterfund to develop a water cost index.

For more on how cities are managing data and sharing it, watch a video panel on the subject on Breaking Energy here.

Challenges are often strikingly similar and can inform each other across not only geographical location but across sectors like energy supply, water and even youth unemployment, Dixon said. “All of the efforts inform each other and often the challenges are quite similar, though IBM relies heavily on its local teams as well,” he said.

That kind of “universal” approach forms a departure from the traditional services model IBM has pursued of one-off or custom products, and allows for cities to leverage each others’ experience. IBM fits the Smarter Cities model into its business through instrumentation, interconnection and intelligently managed data, all of which rely on traditional strengths at “Big Blue.”