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M Ramachandran: Towards smart cities

M Ramachandran 

As urbanisation proceeds faster, the trend the world over is towards It is assumed that 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in such cities by the year 2050. In a smart city there will be integration among all concepts and tools in a variety of areas such as urban planning, mobility, and population management, all with a view to ensuring sustainable urban development. Innovation and technology leads to greater efficiency in the provision of clean energy, smart buildings, open government systems, better water and waste management, sustainable resource management, smart vehicles, integrated transportation, and so on.

Examples from all over the world show how (information, and communication technology) is being actively employed to change the way traffic complexities are managed, and how cities deliver services and are made safe and secure. in Brazil, constantly mired in traffic jams, decided to turn to technology for a solution; as a result, commuters now receive traffic alerts and re-routed directions via social media before congestion becomes problematic. Singaporeans receive traffic predictions with an accuracy of 90 per cent.

The successful cities of the future will run on information. Today, in addition to cities trying their best to govern better so that all residents benefit from the best civic facilities, there is also intense competition among cities. Connectivity has become a critical element in how they function. The ability to connect businesses and people enables new services and capabilities; for businesses, being connected means access to the global market and a platform to offer their services to a larger outside market. Digital communication and the internet today have assumed the role of a fourth utility.

Allegany County in western Maryland, with a population of 80,000, where traditional industries like glass, textiles and tyre manufacturing withered away under the pressure of overseas competition, has been able to thrive with an influx of new businesses mainly because broadband connections have become available to all homes and businesses. Songdo in South Korea has a $35-billion project to connect all components of the city as well as buildings, whether residences or offices — and residents have the extra comfort of controlling functions of their homes remotely. Data analysis has helped reduce crime even in New York, by 35 per cent.

How far have we taken advantage of in our cities scheme? Are we steadily moving towards smart or smarter cities? One of the key steps in recent years in this direction was inclusion of e-governance as a reform measure under JNNURM. It was proposed that all states and participating cities and towns should improve the systems of urban governance through the use of IT applications. Modules relating to eight basic services such as property tax, accounting, water supply and other utilities, birth and death registration, grievance monitoring, personnel management, building plan approval and health programmes were to be implemented.

Not all the mission cities and towns have been able to achieve even this minimum target. There is a lot more to be done still to have e-governance spread in all the 4,000-plus municipal bodies, and to steadily extend it to more functions in cities which have already taken the first steps. Even though done in silos, some prominent examples of technology leverage in our cities are: Greater Hyderabad using and to cover solid waste management, and maintaining parks and street lights through cell phone images, subsequently put in the public domain; Surat introducing an on-line water quality monitoring system; Coimbatore's computerised building-plan approval scheme; Bangalore opting for geographic information systems (GIS) to standardise property tax administration; Jamshedpur Utilities Company providing an IT-enabled 24/7 single-window call centre and customer database; and Kanpur improving municipal revenues using a GIS-linked property database.

While transforming India’s current cities will be a lengthy, resource-intensive, concentrated effort, it is worth noting that some of the new cities being established are planning to take full advantage of these modern tools. Lavasa homes in Maharashtra will offer touch-point automation, occupancy-based lighting, door and motion sensors, beam detectors and on-call transport services. GIFT city coming up in Gandhi Nagar, Gujarat, will have a central command centre to monitor the city-wide IT network and respond quickly during emergencies, energy-efficient cooling systems instead of air conditioning, and high-tech waste collection systems. Cars will remain outside, and there will be moving walkways to get to the city centre. Seven new are to be built along the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor. They will have new-generation technologies to stop wastage of water and energy, and smart grids to efficiently manage power distribution, as well as reduce waste and pollution. Infrastructure will be managed digitally.

Cities of the future have to be smart enough. How to make cities competitive and liveable using will be a key question for city planners to ask and answer if the substantial contribution they make to economic growth is to be sustained. Cities have to have broadband infrastructure — with IT-enabled civic infrastructure connecting roads, railways, gas, electricity, water supply networks and other city features like traffic lights, towers, telephone systems and so on.

Why should our cities not take advantage of a system which can reduce wastage of water, monitor water logging and waste management, efficiently manage street lighting and even help reduce crime? The earlier the importance of these is recognised and the required policy push as well as technical and financial support is provided, the better it will be for sustainable development and the competitive growth of our cities.

The writer is a former secretary of the ministry of urban development

First Published: Sun, October 07 2012. 00:13 IST