Smart Cities Come with Challenges

By Ramesh Raja
In Issue 9
June 3, 2015
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smart-city-juneIndia has a population of approximately 1.27 billion people, and is growing. According to an estimate, by the year 2050, the population in Indian cities will touch 843 million. To accommodate this extensive urbanisation, India needs to find smarter ways to manage complexities, reduce expenses, increase efficiency, and improve the quality of urban life. In this regard, Prime Minister NarendraModi’s quest to build 100 smart cities is said to be the most ambitious project launched for the development of the country, in a determined effort to upgrade the current landscape of Indian cities and make them liveable.

The smart cities program has received considerable support and widespread interest from countries and international organizations who are interested in exploring investment and collaborative opportunities with India. The government on its own has earmarked Rs 48,000 crore for this purpose. Under the government’s 100 smart cities program, approved by the Cabinet more recently, each selected city will receive a central assistance of Rs 100 crore annually for five years driving economic growth and taking progress forward. Special emphasis will be given to participation of citizens in prioritizing and planning urban interventions.

The mission of building 100 smart cities intends to promote adoption of smart technology based solutions for efficient use of available assets, resources and infrastructure to enhance quality of urban life and provide a clean and sustainable environment. According to a senior official in the know of the program, “There will be a special emphasis on participation of citizens in prioritising and planning urban interventions. The program will be implemented through area-based approach that includes retrofitting, redevelopment, pan-city initiatives and development of new cities.”

The attention will be on core infrastructure services such as adequate clean water supply, sanitation and sold waste management, efficient urban mobility and public transportation, affordable housing, power supply, robust IT connectivity, governance, particularly e-governance and citizen participation.

The Prime Minister has already got commitments from developed nations such as Japan, Germany, France, the US, the UK and Canada on helping the program with their experience and technology. Technology helps maximize utilization of resources by leveraging data collected from sensors, controls, and real time data analytics. For example, smart energy management can be used to improve key segments like buildings, which consume 40 per cent of all energy in India, as well as utilities, healthcare, governance, transportation and education. This move is expected to reverse decades of neglect.

As per industry body NASSCOM, the government’s smart cities program can create business opportunities to the tune of $30-40 billion for the IT sector over the next 5-10 years. The IT industry association has also prepared a report on the role of information and communications technology (ICT) in the smart cities programme which was unveiled recently during the Smart City Expo in New Delhi. The association has built a framework to highlight the role of ICT in developing smart cities, and categorize ways and means to make relevant ICT interventions that will enable sustainable and transparent management of future smart cities.

But while some corporate giants have come forward for the mission, public sector infrastructure financing companies are not too keen to support the projects financially. Tech giant IBM has chosen Surat, Allahabad and Visakhapatnam among 16 global locations for its smart cities program to help them address challenges like waste management and citizen services. Cisco, another tech giant, has prepared the ICT master plan for four smart cities which was proposed under the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor project. As part of the project, Cisco is preparing plans for Shendra Industrial Park in Maharashtra, Dholera Special Investment Region in Gujarat, ManesarBawal Investment Region in Haryana and KhushkheraBhiwadiNeemrana Investment Region in Rajasthan. “The objective is to dovetail physical planning with digital planning so as to ensure integrated control and governance. Cisco Smart City in Bangalore is a showcase of how the government can offer governance and essential services to citizens digitally, build broadband highways, enable digital inclusion and deliver information for all,” says PurushottamKaushik, managing director, sales, growth verticals, Cisco India & SAARC.

According to Babul Supriyo, minister of state for urban development, “Smart Cities is among the most vital initiatives of our Prime Minister, NarendraModi. To fulfil this dream of building self-sustainable and citizen friendly cities, we need an enlightened mind to make it a reality. It is time we think, plan and act fast. When we know we are walking in the right direction, the only option left for us is to just walk fast. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Development is working 24×7 and is open for innovative ideas to empower the dream of smart cities.”

Even though the government has allocated a huge sum of money for the mission and think tanks, corporate and various ministries are putting their heads together to make this initiative a success, the whole country waits to see this dream become a reality. The question is how close are we to see smart cities? How is this plan different from earlier attempts at providing better urban infrastructure or at creating new townships which have not been able to deal with the issue of liveability satisfactorily? Even successful special economic zones have had to contend with the issue of lack of social infrastructure, which usually means access to avenues of education, health, arts, sports, and so on. There are several definitions of a smart city but the Modi government’s idea of one usefully incorporates institutional infrastructure (governance), physical infrastructure, as also social infrastructure.

But there are numerous challenges and these challenges, in fact, start now. Creating a smart city isn’t just about creating the physical infrastructure — roads, clean water, power, transport and so on, things that India finds difficult to deliver to its citizens nearly seven decades after Independence. It is hoped that public private partnerships (PPP) will deliver but the mechanism seems to need a lot of tweaking in order to work, a fact acknowledged in the last Budget. The big challenge will be to create self-sustaining cities, which create jobs, use resources wisely and also train people. This also means more autonomy for these cities. Whether that can happen is a debateable question depending heavily on the maturity of the Indian political system.

Since technology is at the core of smart cities, accommodating those who are technologically illiterate will be a tedious task. Applications therefore, via technology literacy, need to be aligned to ensure that people of all educational and linguistic backgrounds are able to leverage the benefits of technology for social and economic progress. “Given that essential and core services run on these solutions, ring-based networks, redundant data centres, and back-up of end devices give operators the assurance of high availability in any scenario,” feels Kaushik.