Smart cities, a long way to go in India

Cities have emerged as massive consumption centers of materials and energy, and, therefore, they have become large producers of waste and emitters of greenhouse gases. Proper functioning of cities requires good planning and execution. Today, technology can help in proper planning and efficient functioning of cities.

What augurs well for the country’s future is the recent vision statement by the government to develop and build 100 smart cities in the country that would leverage the latest technological advancements. In his 2014 budget speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has stated “…the Prime Minister has a vision of developing ‘one hundred Smart Cities’, as satellite towns of larger cities and by modernising the existing mid-sized cities.”
According to the reference note document issued by the Lok Sabha secretariat, smart cities are those that have smart (intelligent) physical, social, institutional and economic infrastructure. Smart cities effectively leverage information and communication technologies to achieve digital governance, minimise energy consumption, and improve sustainability, quality of life and sanitation, delivery of services, and the efficient use of resources.

According to the Minister of Urban Development Venkaiah Naidu, nearly 50 per cent of India’s population would dwell in urban areas by 2050. The ‘Urban India 2011: Evidence’ report prepared by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements says that India’s top 10 cities account for country’s eight per cent population, 15  per cent of the GDP, and just 0.1 per cent of the land area. These figures show how cities can be more efficient in using the land, and more productive in generating wealth.

Technology comes to the rescue

The cities of the future should not only effectively and efficiently meet the needs such as sanitation, water, health services, transportation, communication, and similar others, but also be environment-friendly and empowered to maximise economic contribution. The convergent information and communication technologies, which are already profoundly influencing our lives, are integral to the idea of building smart cities. ICT is a powerful tool that empowers networking, data gathering and storing, and analysis, extraction of actionable information, effective collaboration, visualisation of appropriate information on real-time basis, among others.

For instance, sensors, devices and actuators, called the Internet of Things (IoT), embedded in homes, power grids, transportation systems, and such others, can be connected to monitoring and control systems to initiate and track various actions, such as controlling the traffic movement autonomously and automatically, switching on or off the power supply depending on power availability and demand, initiating alert messages, and similar others.

Practically there are no limitations to the inputs to the monitoring and control systems or to the nature of outputs. Cyber-physical systems, along with IoT devices, act as data and information sources. IoT includes a wide range of devices that have internet connectivity such as sensors embedded in cars, transportation vehicles, ambulances, heart monitoring implants, building automation controller devices, among others. All devices that can sense, collect data and information, and transmit and receive details to other internet connected devices and systems can be considered as Internet of Things. 
Smart city preview

Technology empowered smart city can monitor, operate, and control a variety of infrastructure facilities and systems; manage the sourcing and distribution of electric power depending on the need, availability, tariff; the traffic management and transportation system, and such other facilities at optimal levels of efficiency and costs. The deployment of control systems to automate the temperature and lightening controls in large buildings, such as offices and shopping complexes (building automation) is spreading to private houses (smart homes) with ever-increasing applications.

Smart Home concepts include making the living place friendly to the elderly and disabled persons, and thereby improve the quality of life of persons who might otherwise require caregivers or institutional care. The building automation’s ambit has expanded to include access and security control, public address facility, fire protection and alarm, and to emerge as integrated automation systems to building-complexes. Smart city’s network connectivity would help better manage and administer common civic facilities with greater efficiency.

Security concerns remain

Building of smart cities can immensely benefit the country economically. It can create robust demand for steel, cement, hi-tech IoT devices, and various others, provide impetus for the growth of not only the manufacturing, infrastructure and construction industries, but also for services industries. This would spur massive job creation. All these benefits cannot be at the expense of security and privacy.

Recently, former Vice Chairman of Tata Consulting services and present Chairman of National Skill Development Council S Ramadorai said at a seminar, “Cyber security is a critical aspect in the planning and development of smart cities.” 

According to reports, he emphasised that citizens need to be trained to use the system effectively. What is more important is for the technology industry to offer solutions that are inherently built on the foundation of cyber security. Presently, the technology industry has not been able to seriously address the cyber security challenges. Extreme connectedness also means more end points for launching a cyber-attack. Let us hope that by the time  India can boast of smart cities in reality, the industry is ready to offer secure solutions. 

(The writer is an independent industry analyst, columnist, and business consultant.)

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