Surging ahead towards smart cities
By 2030, urban centers will house approximately 40 percent of the population, contributing to 75 percent of India’s GDP. This huge segment needs to be catered to well in all aspects. Smart cities mission is a likely answer to this growing demand. Smart cities, as envisaged by the government, is an initiative to make the urban centers more human-centric. The government has already declared its list of 100 cities which it plans to turn “smart” by introducing an improved and more efficient physical, social, institutional, and economic infrastructure. Also, urban centers have huge demographic density. A smart city facilitates smart behaviour and productive engagement of its inhabitants. In the face of the complexities of our urban infrastructure, there are some challenges, but those are not insurmountable. And with technological leaps it becomes more achievable a task but certainly requires a reasonable time frame to materialise. But then, well begun is half done. Here are the answers to some pertinent questions:
1.How will you define a smart city?
Defining a smart city may be a challenging task considering the specifics which vary with the location, but the inhabitants are at the centre-stage in this concept. The envisaged smart cities are new urban centres, involving extensive use of information and communication technologies (ICT) to ensure all modern facilities. Thus, promising the inhabitants a progressive and fulfilling life. Basic amenities like water, power, sanitation, sewage disposal, open spaces, effective, and affordable transport are diligently configured to make the city self-sufficient. Another very significant aspect includes convenient accessibility to healthcare, shopping spaces, educational institutes, and means of livelihood to provide effective and rewarding employment opportunities to the residents.
Technology propels this concept, with a significant role in security, communication, participation in governance, transport management, and thus making services seamless and optimising their effect. It will also help managing the cities better with enhanced security, streamlined traffic, customised services, and real-time responses to challenges. A smart city envisages active and interactive governance, contrary to the usual “transactional” relationship with its citizens.
Simply put, smart cities are modernised urban centers well provided with of facilities (infrastructure) and opportunities for a productive life.
2. How will smart cities bring order into the chaos that our cities are today? How will they improve the quality of life of its citizens?
Technology will be an enabling factor that will cut out chaos, wait, and wastage of efforts to some extent. Also, governance will be smoother and more streamlined with most of the information and services accessible online.
3. Do you think Indian cities are technologically ready / have a conducive infrastructure to turn smart? How?
No, they aren’t. And hence, all the more the need to work on the lines that national leadership is talking of in this reference. Someone has to focus on the actual state of most of our urban centers. The current efforts were much awaited and called for. Let’s diagnose the problem and then start working towards the solution. It is a hugely ambitious aspiration but then that is how huge makeovers and transitions start. Government efforts build traction. It won’t be achieved overnight but if we can set things in motion, that in itself would be a huge feat. Then gradually things will fall in place. Rome was not built in a day nor will be the smart cities. Yes, the concept will take shape first in few isolated centers and then slowly spread over to other areas. This will be a fund and effort-intensive initiative and will progress incrementally.
4.What are the main technologies used to develop smart cities?
Sanitation, waste disposal, renewables, water and power distribution, transport, water treatment, Information Technology are few significant technologies that the smart cities will hugely depend upon. The list runs long, though.
5. Can you give examples of how smart cities can make infrastructure more efficient and save energy/resources?
Renewable sources of energy via solar panels on the roof top, rainwater harvesting, biogas plant, recycling water wherever feasible can be done at smaller levels. Traffic snarls and fuel consumption can be slimmed with the walkability measure and a smooth public transport system will curb the menace of congestions on roads. But above all a significant attitudinal change in the mindsets is required. One’s accountability as a citizen demands him to pragmatically use the limited resources of the ecosystem and behave responsibly. Thought leaders can bring about this social change. We already see campaigns in media working on these lines.
6. Technology companies like Cisco, Infosys, Wipro, and Microsoft are queuing up to develop smart cities. What is in it for them, besides revenue?
Smart city as a concept is based on public infrastructure with emphasis on e-infrastructure - this is a great opportunity to create a large installed base and the resulting revenue which could be on a pay per use or a build-operate model - thus revenue is ongoing - more important, however, is that all digital tech is based on a concept of Platforms – hence, if Microsoft gets to install its platform, all other devices in the smart city would have to be compatible to the Microsoft platform - this also creates long-term dependence on the investors such as Microsoft. Finally, all these companies will find this a great opportunity to drive innovation and experiment with new ideas and new technologies giving them a competitive edge in other markets as well. Basically an expansion of consumer base.
7. How are these companies going about selling themselves as smart city shops? What are they doing?
These companies have a global presence, and can, therefore, quote references of other places like Barcelona where they have done such work - they also pitch at higher levels - for example, their founders/Chairmen/CEOs usually are invited as part of their country’s Presidents delegation which meets the top leadership at our end. They also are part of various think tanks created by industry bodies such as NASSCOM, CII etc. which while advising the government also tend to give impetus to government interest in these large projects. They along with and through their consulting arms, or in partnership with companies such as Mckinsey, guide the concept of smart cities and shape the requirements /deliverables/expectations. In the extreme, even specifications in the bidding process which benefit them, they also use scale advantages by giving extremely attractive offers directly for products and services or by way of CSR spends in related activities. There are several other ways to sell in B2B context including but not restricted to taking key influencing factor for a tour of other cities in the world where they have done work - this is not to appease them but to shape their thinking and vision which is bound to result in a policy which benefits them.
8. How successful do you think the government’s smart cities project will be in the future? Is it all hype, or will it change the way urban Indians live?
Creating buzz and traction itself is an achievement. It creates awareness. It is not that we are zero at the smart cities aspect. In pockets, the concept is alive. Navi Mumbai, a few pockets in Bengaluru, new townships in Mumbai and Chandigarh are living the concept. But as of now it is an elitist idea. Government endeavours have to make it a democratic phenomenon.
9. What challenges do you see and how do we overcome these?
Introducing changes in already densely populated areas is challenging but then retrofitting works best in such settings. It involves the introduction of new infrastructure or mechanism in the existing ones. Redevelopment and Greenfield approaches are two other strategic approaches.
Funds, integration of different numbers of government departments, altering behaviour patterns, mindsets, and attitudinal changes can be also challenging, but I am sure government, corporates, academics and other significant elements of the society can work around these. None of these is insurmountable. Many have been already been resolved.
10. What impact will it have?
It will have a socio-economic impact. Call it a virtuous circle. People will be engaged productively and participate in governance. It is easier for the state to set up public utilities at one place catering to a huge number of people. It will enhance and support economic activity and chances to grow.
The good life is not prerogative of a few. A smart city is a very inclusive concept. It plans to set up an ecosystem wherein all have access to basic public utilities and opportunities to grow.
On the other hand, as the idea takes shape, it will create phenomenal job opportunities at different levels.
(The author is Group Director, Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research. Views expressed are strictly personal.)