Smart Cities

Let's talk about Smart Cities! As always, the title of each excerpt is a link to the article it came from.

What is a Smart City?
“Smart city” is one concept that has been, to some extent, oversold and under-understood. It is not about sensors and gadgets and software and more routers and more IBM equipment. A smart city [endeavor] is more about building a happy city. We are not saying that existing cities are dumb, but we need to use technology to create an environment where people are better off in terms of pollution, traffic, education, health, jobs, living conditions and cultural spaces. All of these are very important aspects of building a happy city, including security. But the idea is not to bring more cameras and more police and more guns. The idea is to build better communities.

For example, we have built cities where people drive a half an hour to work. That’s not smart. Why can’t we design cities where people walk to work? But because of the car industry, and because of the Western model, everybody said, “Oh, that’s okay, we can drive 30 minutes to work.” And there are traffic jams everywhere. People who live in the north work in the south. People who live in the south work in the north. It doesn’t make sense.

Then we come to organizational issues. How are we organized in the city? What resources do we have in the city? We can do so much without any technology input today. Of course, technology will help a great deal. But let’s go see what we can do with what we’ve got and not jump into technology. By bringing technology to the existing systems, you’re going to create chaos, because the systems are not designed to adapt to new technology. We waste resources on technology if we are not equipped to handle the external input that technology brings.

When people talk about a hundred smart cities in India, they have no clue as to what they are saying. They’re naive. If you cannot empower the mayor of the city, how do you build it? [What about] organizational autonomy, freedom and flexibility? If you don’t allow your cities to raise money of their own for projects, how do you get cities to fund them? You have not really created autonomy for your cities. If you don’t do that, there’s no way you can bring technology to solve your problems.

Before we bring in technology, we need to look at how we organize our communities. Why can’t people live on the second floor and work on the first floor? Why can’t we create communities where they are responsible for their schools, parks, teachers and doctors, and not somebody from [New] Delhi?

The progression of the smart-city movement
The global smart-city movement, which has been around for more than two decades, has gone through three phases of evolution. It initially focused on technology-led solutions to challenges. Then came a citizen-centric, collaborative approach in the second phase. Now, the features of smart cities have expanded further to include safety, happiness and well-being.

The definition of smart cities has evolved over the last couple of decades. In the first phase – when smart cities started to be discussed in the public forum – technology players looked at some of the challenges that were created by urbanization. So, they said, “Let me create point product solutions addressing the various challenges,” related to parking, mobility, water management, lighting, and so on. (Point product solutions refer to those that address specific needs rather than an integrated approach.)

However, as many city leaders lamented, technology players didn’t quite understand how the city would consume those solutions. So came the second phase, when the city leaders said, “Let me take control of the technology agenda for my city.” However, two things were lacking: collaboration across the various departments of the city; and keeping citizens at the center of everything that they do.

Now we are in the third phase of the smart-city definition. City leaders are saying, “I want to create cities that are livable, that focus on the well-being and happiness of my citizens.” It is a citizen-centric agenda that is evolving. The capital city of Iceland – Reykjavik – developed a program right after the 2008 financial crisis called the “Better Reykjavik Program” – a platform for citizens to participate in policy-making. Other examples include San Antonio, with its highway signboards, and Beijing, with an “I Love Beijing” app that can be used by citizens to report power outages, broken street lamps or potholes to the government.

Inclusion, Human Needs, Non-violence
The first [aspect] is inclusion. Cities need to be inclusive. If cities are not inclusive you’ll have violence, and other problems. Inclusion is not just of minorities or about gender equality, but also in opportunities, education, health and employment opportunities.

Secondly, cities have to focus on human needs. How are we providing to the city all of the basic supplies, whether it is electricity, water, food, transport or whatever? Then you need to promote local economies. Why should a tomato travel 1,400 miles before it gets to your table? Why can’t we grow tomatoes locally? What can we do locally and what do we need to do globally? Those issues need to be very clearly articulated and understood. We have technology today for vertical farming. Can cities grow their own food as much as possible? Can cities teach [residents] how to eat properly so you don’t have problems with obesity and diabetes?

Then [we come to] the issue of non-violence. None of the cities promotes non-violence. There is very little conversation about non-violence in the cities, [or] in schools, colleges, universities and government forums. There are conversations on violence, but not on non-violence, which is very strange. How could you build smart cities and happy cities if you don’t have a conversation on non-violence?

Telecom in the last 15 years changed [connectivity in India] because of distributed architecture. It took us 115 years to get to a billion phones because there was centralized architecture — one big telephone switch, and 100,000 lines. Then came mobile phones and every pole had a telephone switch — [that is] distributed architecture. That changed affordability, scalability and sustainability.

The power industry hasn’t learned its lesson from the telecom industry. Power is still centralized. There is no distributed power. The basic problem is we have the wrong architecture for power now. It was okay in the early days, but the technology has changed. We need distributed power architecture. Why should my power come from 500 miles away? These are the issues cities need to address.

Collaboration across Departments
If you consider, for example, the linkage between water management and traffic management, or that between city management and city commerce, it becomes apparent as to why such a collaboration is essential. If there is a water pipe breakage in one part of the city, you want to divert traffic to avoid traffic jams or congestion in that part.

Similarly, when a city hosts, say, a football match or a popular music concert, it will enhance its safety and security measures, but what is not obvious is how that relates to city commerce. Retailers will do well if they can increase foot traffic in the areas where such special events happen. It also increases tax revenue for the city. So, collaboration across the various city departments is essential, and a unified platform will drive that collaboration.

The 5 Cs
Data is by far the most valuable asset nowadays that private enterprises and the public sector have. Whether you are driving through a traffic light or paying a utility bill or browsing a city’s website or calling a city department – or even dumping garbage into your neighborhood dumpster – the city collects so much data about you. If the data is mined properly, then the city can use that to serve the needs of the citizens. Better yet, they can even anticipate the needs of the citizens.

So, if the city were to mine this data and develop a platform, there are five Cs that the special report talks about (on Page 12). The first C is collaboration across the various departments of a city. The second C stands for the citizens: How do you use the platform to effectively serve the needs of the citizens? Using that unified platform, how can a citizen either pay a bill or get a license for starting a business? This would require collaboration, as you can imagine, across several departments of the city itself.

The third C is about colleges and university systems. How do you collaborate with them effectively for you to tap into the local talent? The fourth C is communities and neighborhoods. How do I use the platform to effectively serve the needs of a community, neighborhood, and provide them information related to their neighborhood? It may be related to safety or health about that community.

“Before cities start to collect your data and use it, they have to get explicit permission from the citizens – an explicit opt-in is absolutely needed.”

The fifth C is about civic tech space. How do you open up your platform, publish APIs that the private sector can use in order to develop new applications and tools in support of your smart-city agenda?

Before cities start to collect your data and use it, they must get explicit permission from the citizens – an explicit opt-in is absolutely needed. The city needs to also explain to the citizens how it plans to use that data in simple terms, instead of throwing a 25-page document at us. In the end, cities need to be responsible guardians of citizens’ data.