ABOUT: With the government kicking off its plan to build a hundred smart cities, its next priority is to identify how many of these will be built from scratch. More importantly, what all must a Smart City have? What should be prioritised and what must be avoided? Technology entrepreneur and investor Jack Hidary, who was CEO of Dice.com and now the Chairman of Samba Energy, suggests a template for a brand new Smart City and says India should avoid making the mistakes of the West. There is a big push for smart cities. The government has allocated significant capital both at the central and state levels to make these a reality. Smart cities promise to reinvigorate local economies and improve the quality of life. We must, however, be careful and implement these programmes to forge new pathways and not recreate the problems that the western cities are now facing. Smart city programmes encompass several components.
1. Smartphone penetration and fast bandwidth
Key to many smart city programmes is the need to connect citizens, businesses and the government on a fast network. In India, the pace of smartphone penetration is rising quickly. Now, we must encourage 4G to get the real benefit of these smartphones. 4G speeds across the country are spotty now. We will not achieve the main goals of smart cities until this is fixed.
For fast wi-fi in homes and offices, let's leapfrog the West and avoid installing costly in-ground fiber. Instead, India can go directly to wireless point-to-point connections linking to network access points (NAPs). Wireless point-to-point can now deliver fibre-like speeds at a fraction of the cost as it does not require digging of streets or overhead cables.
We must avoid the monopoly/duopoly structure of bandwidth providers in many Western cities. In the case of the US, this has limited average speeds to home and businesses to 15 megabits per second - compare that to South Korea, where average speeds are one gigabit per second - 100 times faster!
2. Power generation and storage
Every city needs power and India's cities need a lot of it to deliver reliable electricity, clean water, bandwidth and other services. Everything depends upon energy. Too many smart city programmes, however, follow the western model of centralised power plants and grids.
We recommend not making the same mistake that western cities have made and moving in a new direction. Instead of centralised power, we can go with distributed power generation and cross-connected microgrids. This will give us resilience and reliability. It will also lower costs. Electricity rates in Mumbai and Delhi are roughly the same as in New York and San Francisco. Furthermore, more than half the country has no reliable grid at all, and the rest has power plants that cannot meet demand at all times of day. This will inhibit smart city growth.
India can forge a new pathway and avoid the mistakes of Europe and the US. The West is saddled with an ageing, centralised power infrastructure that has no storage and backup. India today relies on up to 100 gigawatts of diesel back-up as a band-aid to a fragmented system. Instead, we can implement battery storage in each building, giving hours of back-up before they start gensets that pollute and harm the people.
We can tap solar, wind and other clean energy sources at a distributed level instead of building more thermal plants. The cost of installing solar power in India is $1/watt - a third of the US cost. Battery prices are also coming down quickly. We expect several Chinese, Japanese and American battery makers to invest in battery assembly plants in India in the next five years. Demand will outstrip supply.
Let's not make the mistake of the West and become even more dependent on fossil fuels and a centralised grid. Let's bring down the cost of electricity in our Tier-I cities and create a resilient microgrid architecture in vast swathes of the country with little to no grid.
Today, India has about 150 million vehicles and the roads are already choked. The western model of simply building more highways and lanes is bad. Instead, let's leapfrog the West and forge a new pathway. Let's recognise that the goal of transportation is to help people move around, not to provide everyone with several vehicles. The success of Ola Cabs and Uber in India is an encouraging sign. It means that Indian consumers want efficiency, not just a car for sitting in traffic, wasting time and money.
Key to a smart city is ability to move goods and people efficiently. We all know the challenges faced by many Indian cities in this regard. Again, let's not follow the western model. In the US, there are 250 million cars and trucks for a population of 310 million. The US has 4 per cent of the world's population and consumes 25 per cent of the world's oil production - most of that is burned in its cars and trucks.
Imagine India with this same car and truck penetration. This would translate into almost one billion vehicles! Today, India has about 150 million vehicles, and the roads are already choked. Imagine the amount of imported oil India will need to fuel 1 billion cars! Instead, let's leapfrog the West and forge a new pathway. Let's recognise that the goal of transportation is to help people move around, not to provide everyone with several vehicles. The success of Ola Cabs and Uber in India is an encouraging sign. It means Indian consumers want efficiency, not just a car for sitting in traffic, wasting time and money.
Let's encourage the use of dispatch cars by dedicating special lanes to these vehicles. As drivers realise that is it more efficient to use these services, they will stop using personal cars. It will be easier to modify these fleets of shared cars to electric and other efficient technologies.
The level of pollution in Tier-I cities now exceeds that of China. We must reverse this trend for providing a healthy life to our citizens and attracting foreign investment and executives. China is already suffering economically from its polluted environment with many foreign companies and investors reducing their business in the country due to intolerable working and living conditions.
Moving cargo accounts for about 40 per cent traffic on Indian roads. We can reduce this through several innovations. Believe it or not, there are several aviation solutions to moving cargo that are cost effective. Companies have developed blimps that are safe and can transport significant quantities of cargo from ports to distribution centres. This frees up the road for non-cargo traffic. Imagine taking a third of the traffic off the roads! This idea was developed recently in a moonshot design programme at Bangalore as part of the Nasscom Product Conclave.
Let's not follow the western model in transportation. While improving rail is another part of the solution, it is expensive and hard to develop new rights of way. If anything, we can wait until the hyperloop is commercially viable and adopt that across India rather than sticking to rail technology from 100 years ago.
Moving cargo represents about 40% of the traffic on Indian roads. We can reduce this through several innovations. There are several aviation solutions to moving cargo that are cost effective. Companies have developed blimps that are safe and can transport signifi cant quantities of cargo from ports to distribution centres.
4. Health Care
Any smart city must deliver excellent health care to its people. More than two-third people in India have no reliable access to quality health care. Is centralised hospitals and clinic system of the west the solution? Once again, this would be a mistake. While a certain number of hospitals are, of course, necessary, this western system cannot be scaled up for 1.3 billion people in a quick timeframe.
Instead, let's go with a distributed, digital approach. With the near universal penetration of smartphones in the next few years, we can distribute sensors and instruments throughout the community that can be used by people without medical training to gather key medical data in real time and transfer it to a core body of doctors and experts for analysis. 4G will allow for remote video connection, and combined with real time sensor data of blood analysis, iris scan, brain imaging, etc, can help experts quickly diagnose most ailments and prescribe solutions.
Digital technology is also key in disease prevention and increased safety. Cheap but accurate sensors tied to a mobile phone can detect pathogens and impurities in water. New sensors in the market can detect toxins in toys, paint and other household materials. Smartphone tech can encourage fitness and health habits and provide more security.
Once again, the western model of centralised health care will not work for the scale we need in India. We should not follow this model. We can deliver better health care for less cost to 1.3 billion people and get this done much more quickly than building lots of buildings that will never have specialised staff in every ward and city to help the people
In conclusion, India can forge a new pathway and free itself from the old models of the West. The smart city programme is a wonderful idea, but only if they can rapidly find appropriate solutions and not saddle Indian cities with outmoded programmes from the past. India has a bright future if it pioneers a new kind of smart city for all its people.