On Smart Cities - Turning Vision into Reality

Cyber-physical metamorphosis of Cities

Most civilizations in history have established their hallmarks of urban planning and/or architecture. Harappa for example, where their most striking feature is the Town planning with excellent drainage and sanitation systems. Then there are the Mayas who were influenced by astrology, cosmology and geomancy; similarly the Egyptians, the Teotihuacan, etc. And many others who adapted to the environment, culture and topography; all left their respective legacies in urban planning representing the best of knowledge, methods and material available to them and characterising the society they lived in. Each was transformational in its own way.

We are an information society, in many ways past the threshold of emergence and in a state of maturity. With IoT - sensors, cameras, so much of data gathering, analytics, dynamic systems and automation, we are constantly redefining how the cyber world meets and influences the physical world and this is now touching cities. We are at the crux of a cyber-physical metamorphosis of cities. It may be strong for me to say so, but I am inclined to believe that information, its blending or merging with advances in computing/electronics and how we leverage it will truly transform urbanization and be the hallmark of our urban planning in history. This may be our legacy.

The Micro-Macro conundrum

At a recent event in Mumbai, I listened to a few urban planners who were very good in their work and seemed to have an excellent understanding of local urbanization issues. Likewise most of the audience; together they knew the traffic problems in Mumbai, the housing challenges, cost inefficiencies, Dharavi issues, etc., they knew the pulse of Mumbai. I call this the micro knowledge and it is extremely essential for folks to focus on it.

But what would have given it the edge is if the urban planners, well others too, but urban planners especially, could step out and look at the bigger impact. As an example: all of them spoke about Mumbai traffic's effect and how it impacted their daily lives. If they could also co-relate it to the extra petrol consumed and then further extend it to the amount the government is losing out on importing that petrol, more people unaffected directly also will relate to it. And if they could extend it further and align it with the Current Account Deficit or the GDP, they would see what all it really affects – which is each and every one of us in India

To illustrate this, let me cite a recent study that put the annual monetary cost of traffic to Bangalore’s IT & BPO industries at $6.50 billion. This is about 0.36% of India's GDP (if you consider it as 1.87 Trilion in 2013) and about 7% of the cost of our oil import, which at most recent figures was around $85 billion (not for the same period, but to illustrate). This is one city and one industry's people; imagine many such in many cities. Our last quarter’s CAD was 2.1% of GDP. If it could have been reduced, I’m sure it would have had an impact on our overall budget, rupee convertibility, etc. Such insights would enable them to analyse the larger impact urban problems have and the inter-relatedness of it all. It is the macro impact of the same issue and how one problem in one city affects the living conditions of everybody else in India.

Common Information Grid

Every time I talk to somebody about this, I get more reinforced about the concept and it has become a favourite agenda of mine. At a smart city tender pre-qualification meet earlier this month, I had the privilege of being right in the midst of some thought provoking discussions and unfortunately I am confused (and disappointed).

Let me try to articulate why. In our current structure, every department in every city puts out their own requirement (read tender) for systems and other IT infrastructure. Not only is there undue expenses and effort, or no sharing of infrastructure but most systems remain under-utilised, and there is no sharing of information even, which is the need for a city to run well. Remember, ultimately it is the taxpayer’s money, our money, which is funding all this largesse.

We are still exploring the same old models of information systems, approaches to resolution, and methods of execution and tendering even when we are setting up new cities and have the opportunity to do things anew. We can get better than in the past, get the latest in solutions that technology can offer and address city problems the way it ought to be, city-wide, but we fall short for some reason or the other. It may be radical but why can’t we put out common information infrastructure for a city that can be shared or utilised across departments and utilities. Well, even if this is too radical, to slowly evolve, we could put in systems like a common information model. The Open Government Data Platform (OGDP) that currently has 3445 data catalogs by 85 government departments is a good example of this. Though not regularly updated and it does not share semantics or ontology, we could extend initiatives like that. It promotes transparency and greater citizen engagement by making government data, documents, tools and processes publicly available, and it reduces costs and bring in solutions that can scale

To quickly summarise, to truly turn the Smart city vision into reality, we need to dream - of new possibilities; of achieving the yet unachieved. We need to look at bigger pictures and be more inclusive; we are interconnected, so stop looking at it as one isolated city. And we need to put in more holistically impacting systems, city-wide; not go back to silo’d, verticalised solutions.