What should be the common strategy when it comes to creating Smart Cities and building Digital India, the two mega projects that are preoccupying our country currently?
Technology, of course, will be a building block. But the founding principles in these two ambitious projects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi should be a culture of openness, of shared resources and of co-creation. This is the takeaway from listening to two experts - one on Smart Cities, and the other on the Internet.
On Tuesday, even as Professor Solomon Darwin, Executive Director, Centre for Corporate Innovation at the Haas School of Business, University of Berkeley was shepherding a team of students researching smart cities across the Capital, in another corner of the city, Dr Vinton Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist, Google, and one of the founding fathers of the Internet, was holding forth at Ficci on "innovation, jobs and the Internet". Significantly, both Darwin, drawn to India by our smart cities project, and Cerf, excited by the vision of a digital India, dwelled a lot on the importance of open innovation.
Fresh from a visit to the upcoming smart city GIFT (Gujarat Inernational Finance Tec-city), and intense meetings with Cisco, Tyco, IBM, and Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, Professor Darwin, who teaches a course on building smart cities through open innovation, said, "My definition of a smart city is one that saves times, one that saves cost, and one that shares resources."
"We believe in Open Cities that give resources and take resources and provide benefits for citizens as they are cost effective." He gave the example of Oakland and San Francisco in California, two cities that are near each other. "We don't want two public libraries, we can share, we don't need two of everything, we can share water systems… when there is a deficit here, and a surplus there, they can be adjusted," he points out.
Is that happening? "No," says Darwin ruefully. "The problem with cities is that they are becoming isolated, working in silos. Silos create barriers and also create expenses." Instead, Darwin says, "We want to build smart cities through open innovation - where knowledge that is once created, cannot be hoarded, where knowledge flows from high to low and knowledge wants to be free. In the old days America achieved greatness because we held knowledge captive in a fortress. But the Internet has changed all that," says Darwin.
Indeed! As Dr Vinton Cerf explained at Ficci, "When in 1973, we designed the Internet, we debated - should we have intellectual property constraints on it? In the end we decided not to and said 'let's just give it away'. So people will have no excuse that it costs a licence and will use it and create further."
As a result, Cerf described how the Internet grew in an organic way. It thrived on the idea of openness, open source and open standards, and miraculously got distributed across the world cutting all barriers. "People anywhere in the world who had access to technology could build on it," he said.
And, now in the mobile phone era, a similar thing is happening, pointed out Cerf. "In mobiles, there is an application programming interface. But without knowing anything about how the mobile phone works, by hiding a lot of unnecessary details underneath, you allow hundreds of thousands, literally millions of people to build on top, and they create apps," he described.
Cerf, who met Union minister for Communications and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad and offered Google's expertise and technology in bringing the Internet to the entire country, said, "The notion of digital India is very appealing. But there are challenges and obstacles." But as his little lesson in the Internet's history showed - the path could well lie in openness and co-creation. Hopefully, the architects are listening.
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