Making Our Cities Smarter

Making Our Cities Smarter

Ravi Kumar Pillai

In the labyrinthine slum known as Dharavi, nestled within the megapolis of Mumbai, as many as 1 million people live and work generating an estimated $600 million to $1 billion in goods and services. The living conditions there are abysmal. In much of the non-slum areas of India’s cities also, the infrastructure and civic amenities cannot boast of being significantly better.

India is home to some of the filthiest and most chaotic urban agglomerations. It is in the cities that almost a third of our population live and contribute two-thirds of our National GDP. Urban areas are expected to house 40% of India's population and contribute 75% of GDP by 2030. According to a 2013 study by an independent research firm, Indicus Analytics, 36 percent of slum households do not have basic facilities of electricity, tap water and sanitation within the house premises.

It is against this background of urban squalor and chaos that the Government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 launched with much fanfare a new initiative called Smart Cities Mission. After nearly 4 years, a reality check shows that 53% projects across India under the Smart City Mission spread across 100 identified cities are still in the tendering stage while just 39 per cent projects are either completed or in the implementation stage. A budgetary funding of 1,00,000 Crores is envisaged for Smart Cities Mission, contributed equally by the Centre and the State.

Let us examine what is a Smart City as is understood globally. Then look at what is being attempted under the Smart Cities Mission of the Government of India. Finally, we shall discuss how we can change the narrative on Smart Cities to align with realistic expectations of outcome.

A smart city is an urban area that incorporates Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to enhance the quality and performance of urban services, utilities and governance. Smart City framework includes data collected from citizens, devices, and assets that is processed and analyzed to monitor and manage traffic and transportation systems, power plants, water supply networks, waste management, law enforcement, information systems, schools, libraries, hospitals, and other community services.

The overarching aim of a smart city is to enhance the quality of living for its citizens by deploying state-of-the-art digital technology.

A Smart City functions on three digital technology concepts, namely distributed intelligence gathering - from sensors in devices, real-time data analytics and connected network of devices. These components constitute the Internet of Things (IoT) that deliver smart user experience to urban citizens.

Planners and policy makers across the world are engaged in the design, development and implementation of smart solutions to enhance citizen experience. In the developed societies, smart living proponents are advocating less government, more social empowerment and encouragement for entrepreneurial initiatives to improve urban living experience. The smartphone proliferation and the successive upgrade of bandwidth availability (with the impending 5G roll out) have enhanced the scope for private initiative on digital innovation to fast track the digital transformation of urban life.

Smart city framework offers extensive scope for applying digital technologies to upgrade the delivery of public services. Some of the applications that can bring in perceptible improvement in the urban infrastructure and ease of living are indicated below.

1. Centralized Traffic Monitoring and Control System: In the Indian urban scenario, traffic chaos and callousness are glaring signs of public disorder and indiscipline. Smart traffic solutions using sensors and access to GPS data from drivers’ smartphones can effectively tag and monitor driver behavior. Smart traffic lights connected to a cloud management platform would monitor green light timings and automatically alter the lights based on current traffic situation to prevent congestion. Traffic management system can also incorporate predictive analytics based on historical data trends and take measures to prevent potential congestion and advise drivers to take alternative routes.

2. Smart Parking Solutions: With the help of GPS data from drivers’ smartphones (or road-surface sensors embedded in the ground on parking spots), smart parking solutions determine whether the parking spots are occupied or available and create a real-time parking map. When the parking spot becomes free, drivers receive a notification and use the map on their phone to find a parking spot faster and easier instead of blindly driving around. In our cities, we need to create enough designated parking spots proportional to the requirement in localities before leveraging sensor-driven tracking, assignment and management of parking spaces. PPP Model and pure play private investment can be tapped to build these facilities.

3. Public Transport Systems: The data from IoT sensors can help to reveal patterns of how citizens use transport. Public transportation operators can use this data to enhance traveling experience, achieve a higher level of safety and punctuality. Integrated transport management with cross-mode ticketing solutions would result in significant leap in ease of commuting.

4. Utilities: IoT-equipped smart cities allow citizens to take effective control over their home utilities. Smart connected meters can send data directly to a public utility over a telecom network, providing it with reliable meter readings. Smart metering allows utilities companies to bill accurately for water, energy and gas consumed by each household. These services allow citizens to use their smart meters to track and control their usage remotely.

5. Smart Lighting: A smart lighting solution with sensors can regulate a streetlight to dim, brighten, switch on or switch off based on the outer conditions. For instance, when pedestrians cross the road, the lights around the crossings can switch to a brighter setting.

6. Environment: IoT-driven smart city solutions allow tracking parameters critical for a healthy environment in order to maintain them at an optimal level. For example, to monitor water quality, a city can deploy a network of sensors across the water grid and connect them to a cloud management platform.

These are some instances where IoT based services make life easier for citizens. IoT can be integrated with a range of urban public services to upgrade the quality of life.

The primary focus for India at the current state of our urban development should rightly be to build livable cities with minimum acceptable levels of physical, social and governance framework. The Smart Cities Mission has the stated objective of targeted infrastructure upgrade in the identified locations through Retrofitting, Redevelopment, Greenfield Development and Unique Projects for Area Based Development. While retrofitting and redevelopment are aimed at upgrading existing facilities most of which are in dire need for repair, green-field development and area-based projects provide opportunity to develop model infrastructure over a limited area within the city that can then be replicated in multiple locations.

Though called Smart Cities Mission, the smart content of the project is rather limited. An integrated IoT based development involve connected devices, intelligent data capture, real-time analysis and feeds to trigger responses with least latency. Attaining a minimum basic urban upgrade in physical, social and governance infrastructure is the first step and the necessary condition to build the edifice of the smart cities of future with connected communities enjoying global standards of urban living.

To make Smart Cities Mission successful, in the Indian context we need to drill down to smaller units of community like a housing colony or a street and provide digitally enabled services by deploying IoT and Analytics to make life in urban communities faster, smoother and effective.

With the legacy of lethargy, inefficiency and pervasive status-quoism, we need to bring in changes in small doses. A sustainable model for India would be encouraging the building of smart communities through PP and private initiatives and encouraging their replication. We need to give ownership of the smart systems to the local communities and encourage citizen management of smart solutions within the micro communities that make up the smart cities.

Achieving smartness is not a one-time action. It is a continuous process. Technology aids and catalyzes the smart transformation of communities. But the chief drivers of the change are the citizens who make the smart systems effective by adopting smart living values and behaviors.

*The author is Principal Consultant & CEO of Cherrypick India, Trivandrum and can be contacted at