Smarten up and show some Earth love

Smarten up and show some Earth love
Daddy, what’s a smart city?’ my seven-year-old asked. I’d just got off the phone discussing a talk I was to give on it, and she’d also heard that ‘Modi uncle’ wanted to build smart cities. If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it, Einstein had said quite crisply. Okay, I confess: I don’t understand the term ‘smart city’. Even Wikipedia, that fount of knowledge, gives up on smart cities, calling them- after a rambling explanation- ‘quite a fuzzy concept’. ‘It’s a city that’s really well planned and uses a lot of tech stuff to make life easier,’ I said. ‘Is Gurgaon a smart city?’ she asked. ‘No, it’s a totally dumb city,’ I said. They say that when a child asks difficult questions, invention is the necessity for the mother and father too. Just as I thought of a nice way to wriggle out of this one, she got distracted by a moth, and moved on.

There was already the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor plan, with smart townships beginning with Greater Noida and Vikram Udyogpuri in Madhya Pradesh in March next year. Japan is lending $4.5 billion for the first phase of these projects. These are big plans, but there’s a lot of ‘smart’ that can be brought into the big problems that face our existing cities and our country.

Cleaning the Ganga
The mammoth project of cleaning the 2,500-km river Ganga, for instance, is starting with a practical, smart solution: sensors. The government plans to install sensors at key points along the river to monitor industrial pollutants from about 700 industrial units, as the first step towards this huge task.

By early 2015, the sensors will monitor pollutant type and levels, and real-time data on discharges from factories to a central server, with red flags raised when preset levels are exceeded. Violator industries will ‘face action’. This is a plan on paper, but there’s no reason why it can’t be implemented quickly, and practically, and there’s a clear benefit: accountability.

It’s also a nice example of how sensors, and connected systems, can help break down a big problem into manageable chunks with technology. Sensors, and early forms of the ‘internet of things’, are all around us. They’re in vending machines and ATMs, so that the companies running them know when they’re running out of soda, or cash. They’re in elevators and escalators, so that the people maintaining them know when there’s trouble brewing, or when they’ve stopped working. They are, of course, in motion-sensors to save power, switching on lights only when a room or staircase is being used.

Fixing a dumb city
Sensors, networks and connected systems can also help smarten a dumb city a bit, though it’s always a challenge to compensate for lack of initial planning. Consider the overwhelming traffic in a city like Delhi. Sensors could use real-time traffic data- such as the buildup of cars before a traffic light- to adapt traffic light cycles continuously and in real time.

They could record traffic data for months before and after a big project like the much-maligned BRT (bus rapid transit) corridor, to demonstrate whether it was a success- or the disaster that the public and media said it was. Sensors in cars can report an accident when an airbag has deployed. Sensors and connected systems can track vehicles, trains, aircraft, so they don’t get lost. Systems in the engines of the missing Malaysian flight MH-370 ‘pinged’ back to the engine manufacturers Rolls Royce a health report every half hour, for five hours.

And high-density mass transit is completely dependent on connected systems and sensors. Delhi Metro’s high frequency- a train every two minutes and peak time- is dependent on an expensive collision avoidance system. Try depending on manual signaling for running a train system, and you’ll have accidents, of the sort that happen on Indian Railways, with its massive, hybrid, piecemeal signaling system. On the other hand, using a consistent, automated, sensor-based system, Japan’s high-speed Shinkansen ‘bullet train’ system, which touches 300 kph, has had no collisions and no fatalities in its half-century history.

So what do all these sensors have to do with making cities smarter? A lot, actually. That smart city isn’t as much about the digital tech thrown at it later, as it is about planning. Planning, and technology- especially connected networks- can make that happen.


Prasanto K Roy

Prasanto K Roy

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