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Concept of smart cities must be seen in Indian context

Rajarshi Rakesh Sahai     December 18, 2014

Building 100 new smart cities is high on the agenda of the new government. However, the concept of smart cities must be seen in the Indian context and without the biases of techno-centrism and one-size-fit-all solutions.

The 2012 Smart Cities and Communities agenda of the European Union followed the wider agenda 21 of the United Nations and yet brought much clarity to the approach by seeing the task as a partnership of energy, transport and information and communication technologies (ICT) in urban areas. The solutions conceptually include applied innovation, better planning, a more participatory approach, higher energy efficiency, better transport solutions, intelligent use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), etc.

After analysing the initiatives globally, certain common themes do emerge for formation of smarter cities and communities, namely:

- Integration: Energy, transport and information and communication technologies (ICT) seen as parallel and interdependent factors for smartness in urban areas.

- Smart Governance: This aspect is the backbone of smart solutions. Smarter governance is enabled through more informed decision making and participation of disparate opinions and agendas towards overall betterment of cities and communities.

- Innovation and Technologies:
World over, technologies are enabling smarter solutions. Technology innovation is helping better collection, processing and analysis of data through conventional and crowd/social media methods.
Interpreting 'Smart Cities' in the Indian context, following prima-facie impressions emerge:

- Energy: Although not within the urban local jurisdiction, energy is very much an urban concern. While fossil fuel fed mechanized transport remains the biggest head in energy consumption in cities. Increasing and inefficient electricity usage is also a cause of concern. Moreover, the fast growing cities of India also consume tremendous amounts of energy through real estate construction and infrastructure expansion activities.

Cities, globally, use more energy than the industrial and rural hinterlands, implying that energy efficiency is not just a regional but also an urban responsibility. Particularly in India we all suffer from scheduled and unscheduled power cuts.

Contributing to peaking of grid loads and fossil fuel needs is our erratic usage pattern where a few hours of use trumps the overall consumption across a day. This impacts the overall urban economy, having direct impacts on the revenues of any city and its potential for growth.

Better energy management can not only help with the national level Jawaharlal Nehru Solar Mission goals on efficiency, but can also contribute towards better management of distribution and as a result more plentiful availability of energy, across the 24 hours, for growth and development.

-  Traffic and Transport: As discussed above, transport is a major concern from energy and carbon perspectives. Moreover, mobility is the basic need for any urban economy. Time lost due to traffic congestion has a direct impact on the overall efficiency of any city, including that of the businesses and economic activities. Congestion management is also critical for provision of essential and emergency services. Good quality public transport system not only helps curb the use of personal vehicles and the resulting pollution but also has benefits in terms of safety and accessibility.

-  Internet and Communication Technologies: ICTs help cities connect better to their citizens, enabling better feedback and cross fertilization of ideas. Technological solutions help model and analyse urban issues, incorporating multiple factors and generating solutions that have multiples co-benefits. However, pursuing technilogies for the sake of technology introduction is never fruitful. Technology is merely the means towards the desired ends and not the other way round.

Smarter Urban Management for Smarter Cities and Communities: The key link in enabling smarter solution of cities and communities is smarter governance. With the advances made in the last decade, most cities have a combination of the following:

-  Public Transport and Traffic Information and Management Solutions:

While mass transport solutions come with a back bone of information collection and management systems, they work in silos and are more or less limited to efficient running of such a system. This is particularly true for the BRTS systems being adapted in India where up to 5 vendors deal with data pertaining to ticketing, tracking, information display and maintenance of rapid transport systems.

Wider availability and use of mobility data can help in providing wider connectivity, safer and accessible corridors and efficient use of mobility stock across the city. An integrated real time database will enable the city to respond to changing settlement and usage patterns while maximizing resource use through management.

-  Municipal Administration and MIS Systems:

Such systems include to varying degrees the municipal services and internal administrative protocols. The MIS systems exist with varying levels of cross integration and data reliability. Geo-referenced maps exist in most cities, either at the municipal level or with several parastatal agencies.

Good quality spatial, socio-economic and service efficiecy data can help decision makers make better decisions. But for that the data is to be made widely available, deviod of legal bottlenecks and with the flexibility of constant improvements (e.g. Wikimapia enables users to customize maps, and add & edit information)

-  Better Energy Use:

There exist varying levels of detail on the energy use at city and municipal levels, energy and fuel bills and major consuming heads e.g. vehicle fleets, water and sewerage pumping etc. However, an overall energy management system with real time assessment of energy consumption across the city does not exist. This limits the ability of cities to react to energy trends and achieve efficiency. E.g. the Green Roofs initiative in New Delhi mitigates the peaking loads during day time by feeding in solar energy into the grid. Similarly, dynamic energy efficiency can be achieved in municipal service delivery by monitoring the energy trends.

The smart urban management solution:

It is not difficult to observe that the solution above are all locked in interdependencis and multitude of actors, institutions and specializations. Energy and resource efficiency is dependent on technology and innovation. While governance brings it all together through collective decision making.

The smart city solution remains an integrated database and decision making system that incorporates innovative ICT technologies to simultaneously generate, process and analyse spatial, transport, energy, municipal services and socio-economic data, the capability and resource base to enable holistic decision making and finally a governance system that encourages informed and prompt decisions.  

It is the urban managers' ability to interpret such data in all its complexity and holistic scope, monitor trends in the above mentioned sectors backed by experience and intuition, to run scenarios for energy efficiency, cost efficiency and financial feasibility and use them all for efficiencient economy, safer and well performing spaces, effective governance and responsive mobility that would truly drive us to smarter cities.  

About the Author: Rajarshi Rakesh Sahai, student of Post Graduate Programme (PGP) at the Indian School of Business - PGP Class of 2015. Rajarshi from Sahai Solutions is a multidisciplinary professional - Urban Planner (UCL) with qualifications in energy efficiency and architecture. After six years of consultancy in urban development projects, he is pursuing PGP at ISB. He has spoken at various national forums, including the National Conference on Smart Cities.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.


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