Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Implementing smart cities

Smart city is the latest buzz-word in urban development. Conferences and seminars on smart cities abound. The Government of India (GoI) have committed to the development of 100 smart cities across the country as satellite towns of large cities and by modernizing the existing mid-size cities. The government have also allocated over Rs 7000 Cr in the last Union Budget for kick-starting smart cities.

Stripped off all jargon, a smart city is one which uses the latest technologies, progressive urban planning, and proactive civic engagement to create a highly liveable urban environment. It deploys citizen-centric and sustainable policies and the latest information and communication technologies to improve the quality of life of its citizens and public service delivery. Its immediate attraction comes from certain technology interventions that have the potential to dramatically improve urban governance capabilities. 

Intelligent traffic management systems, which integrate the feeds from all existing hardware - cameras, signal lights, GPS devices in various vehicles, wireless and other police communication systems etc - can be a powerful force multiplier in traffic and law and order management. Real-time monitoring of electricity feeders and reservoir fillings can help improve the reliability of electricity and water supply besides lowering leakages. Geo-tagged dumper bins and location tracking devices on vehicles can improve solid waste management. Ambient light sensors can help optimize on energy consumption in streetlights. Street parking slots can be sold using parking meters and status of parking locations made available on smart phone applications.

Lidar and biometric technologies can help improve the monitoring of engineering works and attendance respectively. Finally, smart data analytics coupled with cognitively striking visualization, like that in many developed country cities, can help city governments use the vast amounts of information accumulated by its departments as decision-support to more effectively manage civic services, reduce wastage and increase revenues, and limit accidents and crime.

All these have the potential to both improve operational efficiency and enhance consumer satisfaction. In fact, the biggest contribution of such applications would be to improve the capability of municipal governments to deliver public services.

But implementing these technology applications raises three challenges – identifying interventions, standardizing protocols, and scaling up interventions. The first requires demand-side engagement. Cities need to elicit this information through focused engagement with its citizens and utility managers. Given scarce available resources, we need applications that are likely to yield the greatest bang for the buck in a particular city or its part.  

Even after the intervention is identified, there is nothing available in the market to be purchased and deployed with minimal customization to meet some or all of the aforementioned applications. Further, where available, those applications are made for developed country environments, with vastly different challenges, and most unlikely to succeed in India even with significant modifications. 

In the circumstances, we have a classic co-ordination failure. The market needs the platform of a city to develop and refine a smart city applications suite. Businesses, especially the larger ones, rarely have the appetite to risk huge money upfront to develop a new product with several risks and uncertain commercial prospects, and that too in a market where governments are the biggest customers. On the other side, governments are naturally unwilling to embrace a completely new and untested product and have limited patience to wait out the time required to realize its benefits.

Such co-ordination failures are most likely to be mitigated through concerted public policies. Traditional procurement strategies are off the table. A few pilot projects in certain geographically distinct pockets within cities, involving close collaboration of governments with technology providers and system integrators, preferably smaller and emerging entrepreneurial firms, looks the best bet forward.  

As a first step, a Detailed Project Report (DPR) of the aforementioned applications will have to be prepared, outlining the specifications of the devices, connectivity, and software solution. The DPR will emerge after pilot field-testing of various alternative hardware and network technologies for each application. It will study existing process and outline how these smart city devices and applications can be seamlessly plugged into the municipal government systems. It will also undertake a cost-benefits analysis, duly arriving at the financial and economic rate of returns for the project. The specifications should help define inter-operability standards and mandate open-standards based software solutions. This would help create an eco-system where app developers can plug their software and enrich the smart city project.

This pilot project would require atleast 6-9 months to develop a robust, versatile, and user-friendly solutions suite. It will have to emerge through a process of continuous iteration, involving tight feedback loops managed by the selected implementing agency, working in close collaboration with the municipal government and citizens. Once the solutions suite and DPR is developed, it can be scaled up elsewhere.

As a note of caution, we need to avoid the temptation to implement glamorous first-best solutions involving latest sensor technologies and devices designed for vastly different environments. Atleast in the first phase, solutions have to be decidedly second-best, designed with the objective of realizing the low-hanging fruits from improvements in administrative efficiency and citizen satisfaction. We should also learn from the experience of some of these applications which have been implemented, with varying success, in cities across the country.

More important than the devices themselves, the software suite that integrates all these devices have to be robust, versatile, and extremely user-friendly. A software suite that integrates all these different applications into a single platform and renders information in a cognitively striking visualization dashboard can be a force multiplier for public officials. If made available on different devices including smart phones, this can be powerful decision-support for municipal field functionaries and help dramatically improve their execution and supervision bandwidths.

Such technology interventions have to be complemented with more fundamental policy initiatives. Policies that permit higher Floor Area Ratios (FAR) along important transit corridors and near transit stations promote transit-oriented growth which reduces traffic congestion. Densified mixed-use developments with adequate public spaces, especially in larger plots and green-field locations, promote walkable work-life environments. Higher FAR and property tax concessions, complemented with affordable housing mandates, encourage urban renewal through re-development of blighted areas. 

As with all buzz-words, there is the danger of hype overtaking substance. Amidst all the hype, we would do well to bear in mind that India’s urban development imperative is not so much smart cities as decently governed cities. Numerous studies have highlighted that the governance systems that drive the engines of India’s economic growth are woeful, even dysfunctional. 

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