I had recently written an article for The Times of India’s Property Plus supplement, which was published on February 9, 2015. I had shared a .pdf version of the article last week. I am posting the full text version here.
With the rapid increase in urbanization, cities are becoming more complex to live in. According to the United Nations, we reached a tipping point in 2008 when the urban population crossed 50 per cent of the world population. By 2050, it is predicted that 64.1 per cent of the developing world and 85 per cent of the developed world, will be urbanized. This means that more than 6 billion people will be living in cities, almost double the number of people living there today. What does it mean for common citizens? Starting with poor predictability in transportation, to increasing demand in public utilities and services, living in cities is quite challenging for individuals, impacting the quality of life. A smart city leverages out-of-the-box solutions to simplify complex systems and provide scalable solutions for growing cities. A smart city is a concept in evolution which can not only arrest degradation in urban quality of life, but also improve it manifold. Smart cities deploy smart systems with real-time solutions for utilization of the city’s assets, without which, it will be difficult to address the growing needs of the increasing population.
India is also urbanizing at an exceptional rate, with an estimation that 600 million Indians will be living in cities by 2030, up from 290 million in the 2001 census. Let us closely look at just one aspect of urban living – the ‘Urban Commute’. Typical commutes for Indian citizens can vary from 30 to 90 minutes. Cities address this basic issue in multiple ways like building flyovers on arterial roads, developing multi-lane ring roads with constant flow of traffic, preventing slow moving vehicles (like trucks) during peak traffic times, and alternate modes of public transportation like metro rails and mono rails. While these are important and more should be done, they need to be supplemented with smart planning. Infrastructure development is capital intensive and time consuming, and beyond a point, adding them can be prohibitively expensive. Smart cities deploy ICT in planning, backed by analytics and tracking usage in real-time, so that these amenities are used in a smarter way to bring out maximum effectiveness and utilization.
Smart cities are gradually becoming real. Take the example of personal transportation where powerful navigation systems deploying GPS, have made driving in cities easier. Imagine a situation where your navigation system can help you to get to your destination, avoiding traffic congestion or taking you precisely to a vacant parking slot or guiding you to a petrol station sensing that you are running out of petrol, and so forth. They can help the drivers with more real-time information, if integrated into the traffic infrastructure of the city. The increase in smartness levels in personal transportation from an integrated navigation system, culminating in autonomous cars, will happen as both cities and vehicles get smarter. This infrastructure could be in terms of intelligent traffic signals, sensors, active lanes, communication, and so on. Thus, smart devices when integrated into the city’s infrastructure through the effective deployment of ICT, can make life in a city a lot more seamless. Intelligent Traffic Management systems use roadside sensors, cameras, automatic number plate recognition systems, wireless communication technologies and big data analytics, to track the traffic in arterial highways and roads. Connected traffic infrastructure with analytics, are used to improve traffic flow and prevent snarls and pileups. Navigation systems deployed in a smarter city, can proactively predict most congestions and help ease the same by diverting the traffic through alternate routes.
Traffic management for an integrated multi-mode public transportation in the context of Indian cities, is even more challenging. The complexities are manifold since the variety of transport vehicles in India is high. Networked Transportation Systems facilitate the easy integration of multiple systems in smart cities. Real-time communication allows easy synchronization of trains and buses thereby, ensuring a shorter commute home. Simple availability of online information as to when the next bus is due on a real-time basis itself, can help in personal time-planning. A city’s smart traffic infrastructure with effective usage of ICT, is an obvious and immediate example of smart cities.
The applications of smart cities will go beyond this example of revolutionizing transportation in improving the quality of life. Traffic cameras with license plate and facial recognition systems, can not only help in streamlining traffic but also improve the overall security in smart cities. Networking with security cameras of adjacent corporate and government buildings and human identification techniques, can be used to improve security throughout the networked city. The next biggest impact that smart cities can create, is on energy and utilities (planning, distribution and consumption). For this to happen, a comprehensive integration of ICT is required in buildings, homes, smart power grids, hospitals and so on. E-governance will become a necessity and basic hygiene to bring excellence and smartness in public services. Smart homes are an integral part of smart cities and when connected to cities public infrastructure, can bring out efficiencies. Obviously, all of this will come at a cost. People living in smart cities need to be more compliant for the city’s community to derive the maximum benefits of smart cities.
Since life in smart cities will capture the digital footprint of the citizens, it is likely to give rise to problems like individual privacy, information theft and misuse. While there are no easy solutions, upfront planning can improve security and bring down misuse to a manageable level. In the end, the benefits far outweigh the issues. All said and done, smarter urban infrastructure is an essential need today, otherwise daily life can come to a grinding halt.