In An Era Of Digital Economy Smart Cities To Come Up As Additional Benefit

Technology and innovation have always gone hand in hand with human progress – from the industrial revolution to our current mobile, digital world. Yet, is the legacy of this progress actually hindering Western society from taking the next step forward? Should we look to more agile economies like India to drive the next wave of innovation?

Think about the established infrastructure of a busy Western city. Typically, its roads have been designed to support petrol-powered, people-driven cars. The engineers of the time (even those of 10 years ago) could not have predicted the rise of electric, autonomous vehicles. A huge upgrade job now awaits many road systems to support these sensor-dependent cars.

Think also about all the analogue systems that we encounter day to day. Our core financial mechanisms, for example, are still firmly rooted in paper. Despite recent moves to electronic money, and the growth of digital payment systems like block-chain, we still face the legacy of cheque books, pay slips and paper-based transactions.

Greenfield cities

With a view to modernize India and accelerate the process of urbanization, the incumbent Government has launched two flagship schemes – the Smart Cities Mission and AMRUT (for urban renewal and retrofitting). The mission is to develop 100 cities all over the country, making them citizen-friendly and sustainable. The vision is to develop satellite towns of larger cities and modernize existing mid-sized cities, with the aim of:

Providing infrastructure and improving quality of life

Managing the existing infrastructure with efficient use of available assets

Offering adequate economic activities

Boosting investment and employment opportunities

Setting up a new greenfield city has its own set of unique challenges, which is why smart city implementation requires the assistance of experts in various fields such as consultancy, development, operation, financing, and management. One of the very effective models of implementation is Private Public Partnership (PPP) through which the Government is developing these projects.

Many private investors have also shown interest, as have developers, designers, service providers, and consulting firms. There are obviously vast opportunities for private players in every sector on the path of making the mission possible. One must realize that building a city is a very long-term undertaking that takes over 10 to 25 years, so the urban planning must be robust taking into account changes over such long periods of time, interactions with the regional development and interaction with the hinterlands. It is not only important to focus on a single city but on its interactions with the whole region.

Major challenges in the way of smart cities

Having recognized that cities are the engines of growth and are drawing a million people every minute from rural areas, the Government has introduced the ‘Smart City Challenge’, handing over the onus of planned urbanization to the states. In the approach to the Smart Cities Mission, the objective is to promote cities that provide core infrastructure and offer quality of life to citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of ‘smart’ solutions. Those states that measure up to the guidelines and nominate cities could get funding of Rs 100 crore per year per city for the next five years. The funding is a golden chance for states to rejuvenate their urban areas but the Smart Cities Mission still has its own challenges to face. Here are those challenges.

Regional plan: Urban planning is the backbone of every city, however, as already noted, smart city planning is not a 1-year exercise but more of a 20-year plan with high importance given to the region’s overall development. What this implies is that the city must be envisaged vis-a-vis its existence as a member of the region, and the interactions and impact must be carefully studied. The region’s planning must augment the city’s plans to be able to provide a uniform experience

Economic drivers: Economic drivers are the key for the setting up of a smart city. A clear plan of vibrant economic growth of the city based on multiple economic drivers must be the focus area of smart city, especially if it is a greenfield city.

Obsolescence of technology: In the Indian context, control of infrastructure and resources is envisaging huge investments in technology. Whilst the investment is a small percentage of the overall infrastructure, all this investment is being done with a horizon of between 5-10 years – and technology leapfrogs quicker than that. For example, we have quickly moved from 2G to 3G and on to 4G, from a wired world to a wireless world and from cables to optical fibers. Technology evolves faster than a city, and there must therefore be options to adapt as technology changes or gets obsolete. Technology protocols must be amenable to modification and upgradation.

Urban mobility: A smart city encompasses many dimensions, and a reliable, affordable, and sustainable transport system is at its core. Along with public transport systems, development of last-mile connectivity is necessary for optimal utilization of mass transit systems. This is why smart cities around the world think about urban transport in a comprehensive manner to improve accessibility and mobility. India’s public transport has not been adequate because of the high density of population, poor urban planning and zoning, and also lack of investment. As we build new cities, public transport must be the key focus. A new city’s mobility system must be integrated with the regional transport system and may need augmentation of existing regional infrastructure.

Water management: The water cycle (water resource, production, distribution, consumption, collection, and treatment of waste water) plays an integral part of an urban system. Water and its sustainability are of key importance in new cities, which must aim to be water neutral or positive as much as possible.

Waste management: Sustainability in solid waste management calls for a new approach to solid waste and converting it as a resource. There is a need for solid waste management through smart solutions for clean roads and a healthy environment. Unfortunately, India has just not woken up to this. Cleanliness and hygiene call for a baseline cultural change. Technology could help; however, the upfront investment in some of these technologies or the minimum scale investment is high. Nevertheless, it is imperative that this be planned for.

Social infrastructure: A city needs social infrastructure for making it habitable, and most of this social infrastructure needs a critical mass of population and consumption to be viable. This means that in the initial years, participation of private enterprises would be limited. It also means that to start a new greenfield city, either the projects need to be funded by the promoting government or subsidized. City planners need to plan accordingly.

Funds: A new city would take a long time to develop both the requisite economic drivers and the infrastructure – only after that will it see people stepping in. By the time the city is habitable and has a basic population, the project would at least be 7 to 10 years in the making. Unfortunately, the current funds available for this sector are only for the short-term of 10-15 years. Unless the development of the city is done out of funds that have a 20 to 30 year horizon, these projects are unlikely to survive. India needs a sea change in the way it looks at funding these cities, or their infrastructure.

Employment generators: It is important to plan along with the government on job creation in these cities. A critical focus on job creation is not only on the primary economic jobs created, but on service jobs. The city has to be serviced by people working on the support infrastructure.

Rental housing: There is considerable need to develop a rental housing market to ensure that more people can move in and work in a smart city without needing to buy properties there. The real estate laws for a smart city must be such that investors will come in and provide rental residences to people who move in to stay there.

Phasing: A greenfield smart city must necessarily be built in phases on the basis of real demand, and demand should drive investments beyond the basics. Otherwise, we will wind up with ghost cities where infrastructure has been built, but with no takers.

Maintenance: Building a greenfield city is relatively easy; however, it is continuous maintenance which differentiates a great city from the rest. Smart cities should be easy to maintain and be taken care of to extend, modify and accommodate the growing needs of citizens. Smart cities need to be smart for the long haul, not only at the outset.

Smart cities aim for smart economy

Upsurge in urban population in Indian cities will intensify societal challenges on every conceivable level. To improve the quality of life and attract investment in cities, proactive measures are now essential for government agencies. They will inevitably become increasingly dependent on ICT in order to develop and manage their assets and infrastructures more efficiently and effectively. This facilitates – and also demands – elimination of ‘silos’ within city authorities. In 2016, India’s government has selected 100 municipalities to turn substantial parts of their urbanizations into ‘smart cities’.

The applications for digital tools across different independent functions of the ‘smart city’ have been catching up of late. Today’s cities are looking up to technology to provide solutions to a wide range of issues -be it connected meters, for gas, water or electricity or Intelligent transport systems for Traffic management, congestion and parking, from intelligent energy management systems installed in the home, in the building or in a whole area to connected cars, providing connectivity in the car for emergency calls and several similar smart solutions

However, while smart cities are rightly expected to be revolutionary in the coming years, the developments and technology adoption stages differ around the world. For example, in Europe, we witness smart infrastructure for water, gas, electricity, transportation, telecom, which is well managed and invested. In India, components of smart cities are being deployed in existing cities for better city management.

A recent initiative by the Government of Bihar, which was supported by us, aims are improving city security with the help of integrated fleet management, public emergency calling facility along with a surveillance system in the city of Patna. Similar technology deployments like these are fast penetrating existing cities with overstretched infrastructure and overloaded population to find smarter ways to perennial problems like traffic, security and other public services.

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