India Not Smart Yet for Smart Cities

by July 8, 2016 0 comments

India still finds it difficult to deliver necessary amenities like water, power, and proper roads to its citizens even almost seven decades after independence. Urban planning and execution is always marred with conflicts and red-tapism and can’t be trusted

The Union Cabinet’s nod on 100 smart cities project is an important step towards dealing with urban liveability as cities here have mushroomed rather than grown. We are accustomed to living in urban areas, overcrowded cities and towns with infrastructure inflating beyond its marked limits.

Twenty cities have already been selected and the remaining 77 applicant-cities have been asked to reevaluate their plans to qualify in the next phase of selection. Each selected city will get Rs 200 crore every year for the next five years. Rs 100 crore will be given by the Centre per year while the remaining will come from contribution by the concerned state. In all, each city will get Rs 1,000 crore in next five years.

What is a Smart City?

There is no universally accepted definition and it means different things to different people. The government’s idea of such cities entails institutional infrastructure, physical infrastructure and social infrastructure.

Citizens expect more services, more access and even more control. However, less budget and fewer resources act as an impediment to meet the growing needs. The only solution to this is that the cities need to be smarter about the way they integrate technology to meet needs.

Indian Urban Reality

India still finds it difficult to deliver necessary amenities like water, power, and proper roads to its citizens even seven decades after independence. Urban floods evident in metropolises like Mumbai and Chennai are few of the bad urban experiences in India. Urban planning and execution is always marred with conflicts and red-tapism and can be described as being rudimentary. Most of the citizens’ experience within cities is not pleasant and part of the problem has to do with the massive influx of people and the inability of the cities’ infrastructure to handle this influx as well as encroachment.

However, it is the inability of state and the private sector to provide services to the people.

Multiple Stakeholders

The complexity of cities (multiple parties, stakeholders, and processes) remains the most significant barrier for Smart City development. This complexity manifests itself across many areas of local government—regulatory, governance, economic, systemic, policy, and organizational. Also, the private and public sectors do not understand how each sector works, therefore it can be difficult to craft successful public-private partnerships (PPPs). Also, stakeholder roles must be established prior to developing any Smart City plan because these players have the maximum influence on city initiatives and operations. An open dialogue between the citizens and the government is another important aspect which should be considered before developing the outline for a smart city.

Technological Roadblocks for Smart City Development

The government needs a new operational paradigm to enable smarter governance of initiatives to make cities sustainable. They have to ensure that these initiatives are financially viable as well.

Digital disruptions including social media, mobility, Machine-to-Machine (M2M), Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, and Cloud Computing are the backbone of next generation smart cities. According to RR Bipin, VP, Digital Services – IoT, Embedded Product Design Division, Tata Elxsi, “The foremost technical roadblock for Smart City development in India is absence of standards and frameworks that allow interoperability among devices and layers at every interface in the smart city network.”

ICT strategies of leading “smart cities” are based on three key tenets:

  • Interaction and interconnectivity
  • Universally accessed services
  • Consumer centric service

Bipin strongly believes that India is still lagging in modern ICT innovations. There are 7 areas which form the ICT foundational pillars for a Smart City. We need to strategize in these key seven areas:

  1. Integrated Management and Command Centre
  2. Services and Application across various verticals
  3. Communications Networks
  4. Devices and Chipsets
  5. Data
  6. City Assistance Tools
  7. Security and Privacy

Cyber-attack Threat

Every new technology and innovation brings new challenges and problems. With the development of the smart city there will be millions of devices that will get connected and it will also be a threat to cyber security.

The working ecosystem of such cities revolves around networked utilities such as power supply, water supply, e-governance for its citizens, intelligent traffic management system, networked emergency services etc. Majority of the implementation have a networked ICT backbone requiring network security. Technology is going to play a key role in the development of smart cities which lends itself open to cyber threats if safeguards are not incorporated in the planning stage. So there is a need for concurrent cyber threat safeguards/solutions, decentralized structures and limited access rights.

“Industry 4.0 will play a crucial role in solving this challenge. The ultimate goal of industry 4.0 is to establish a system with adaptability, resource efficiency and ergonomics as well as the integration of customers and supply chain partners in business and value processes,” said Bipin.

We are living in an Orwellian world where everything is under constant surveillance. Citizen data is very important for smart city development yet people are often unwilling to share data because of privacy and trust issues. India needs to develop trusted data brokers with citizens having total control over the accumulated data otherwise they might opt out of future initiatives. Also, the government needs to educate the citizens in this regard.

India’s Terrible Record in Urban Safety

The Indian subcontinent is amongst the world’s highest disaster prone areas. Almost 85 per cent of India’s area is vulnerable to one or multiple hazards. Around 60 per cent of the land is vulnerable to earthquake (high-risk seismic zones), 68 per cent to drought, 8 per cent to cyclones, and 12 per cent to floods.

There is still a huge gap in terms of the kind of preparedness that is required given the magnitude of the potential dangers and costs of disaster events in Indian cities. Lack of capacity of the city officials in terms of assessing the risks at the local level and poor communication systems are some of the major challenges faced by the city government in disaster management. The high vulnerability of the cities also arises out of poor enforcement of rules and regulations and inadequate risk mitigation at the state/city levels.

Smaller cities Vs Large Metropolises

Rather than being a disadvantage in the smart city world, small areas have numerous advantages when it comes to planning, implementing and operating smart city infrastructure and service projects

Potential for easier planning, approval, and funding decisions: Decision making is often far less complex and faster in smaller, simpler administrative structures than in cities with large, siloed bureaucracies.

Limited reach to resources establishes need for greater access: Small cities would be distant from urban centres and would have less accessibility to critical resources which are readily enjoyed by big city counterparts like advanced medicine or smart education. Therefore, to empower businesses and citizens in these small cities it is essential to establish such services.

More social cohesion and sense of local identity: Large metropolitan areas are literally an amalgamation of diverse populations with sometimes conflicting priorities. Social cohesion and feelings of being more connected to the community can be stronger in local communities than in larger cities. There is evidence that citizens of small communities develop a strong common identity and will act to support community goals, which could make developing, approving and funding smart city programs easier.

Centre, States Should Work in Unison to Boost Growth

Ideological or party differences have been visible in the Indian democracy since its inception. It’s ironical that the finance minister invokes the concept of ‘Team India’ every time whenever there is a conflict between the state and the central government over special packages or preferential treatment meted out to the states close to the Delhi durbar. India needs to develop a protocol to bring multiple groups together to establish a common language for Smart cities. Santanu Ghose, Director, HP Enterprise has said that India needs smart planning and governance before foraying into a smart city plan.

To Conclude…

Smart cities require reliable utility services, whether it is electricity, water, telephone or broadband services. They also need universal access to electricity 24×7; which is not possible with the existing supply and distribution system.

Narendra Modi’s pet initiatives like Make in India, or Digital India have garnered enough attention, thanks to his skilled PR team but populism is a slippery concept.  Policy making in India has largely rested on the ruling party and populism is seen as a vote multiplier.

To make a working model successful we have to consistently scan for roadblocks. But one look at the existing ground realities and you know that it’s impossible for the smart city project to materialize in a timely manner.

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