A Realistic Timeline of Developing a Smart City

A distributed approach, wherein each city department takes up a smaller or less complex initiative aligned with the Smart City Mission, has helped kick-start projects across different areas and has achieved some success


The Smart City Mission in India was announced on June 25, 2015 to transform the city infrastructure and services through a combination of retrofitting, redevelopment or greenfield projects. With an initial ear-marking of ₹98,000 crores fund (expanded to ₹2,00,000 crores now), this initiative intends to develop and improve multiple areas spanning Transportation, Sanitation, Education and Healthcare to make them citizen-friendly and sustainable. The key feature to ensure sustainability was the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) model of funding wherein the Government contributes about 20 per cent and the remaining 80 per cent is expected to come from the private entities. About 100 cities are expected to become representative “smart-cities” by 2020 and be on par with smart cities across the world. 

Observations and Learnings

The progress of this initiative has been slow and hardly 10 per cent of the 964 projects have been completed till date. While, there are many reasons for the slow progress, in this opinion article, I will present primarily the technology and project execution perspective and suggest how to move ahead. 

The “common” comprehensive Request-for-Proposal (RFP) approach seeking solutions spanning all areas of focus for smart cities was a big challenge. Adding to the challenge of creating such an RFP, no single consortium of companies or Master System Integrator (MSI) could comprehensively address the requirements specified in the RFP. This led to significant delays and there are some lessons to be learnt.

A distributed approach, wherein each city department takes up a smaller or less complex initiative aligned with the Smart City Mission, has helped kick-start projects across different areas and has achieved some success. However, smaller problems addressed in isolation many times lead to the selection of simple solutions that achieve a short-term objective, but fail to achieve the scale and flexibility needed for long-term sustainability. This is more likely to happen if the city administrator having little or no experience in executing technology projects also doubles up as the program manager for Smart City initiatives. 

Some suggestions for the way forward

To bring the Smart City projects on track, the cities have to first address the common set of services needed across various projects. 

  1. Common Services: A renewed focus on implementing common services that are needed across several projects will be a key to success.
    a. Wired Connectivity: Multiple services such as CCTV cameras at various locations or command center services need wired connectivity across the cities. Facilitating the right-of-way and incentivizing the connectivity service providers to stay engaged can help accelerate the Smart City initiatives.
    b. Sensor Network: Provisioning of sensors such as Temperature, Weather, Traffic, Air and Water Quality sensors can benefit the deployment of multiple Smart City applications.

It is important to note that the technology and service providers for these common services should address scalability, flexibility, maintainability and of course, affordability as key parameters in the selection criteria.

2. Smart City Advisory Board: Given the strong technology focus for many of the initiatives, the Smart City Advisory Board should have a significant representation of members with strong technical and technology project management experience. These members can envision the scale and track innovative technology alternatives that can benefit the city immensely. 

3. Active Involvement of younger citizens: It is important to engage the youth and student community through Ideathons and Hackathons that can address the challenges of our cities. The millennial generation is a lot more technically savvy. New initiatives with technology at the crux can succeed only if the millennials can adopt, provide feedback and finally evangelize the adoption amongst citizens. Such engagements can be encouraged through internships and fellowship programs.

4. Technology Think-tank: Rapid technology obsolescence is a reality today. Newer technologies are cheaper, faster and better. The Smart City administrators should provide a platform to leverage and continuously stay engaged with the academic and research communities that can help in the identification and subsequent adoption of newer technologies. This can also foster a strong entrepreneurship ecosystem. 

5. Long-term perspective is key: Pilot projects and model solutions are necessary to test and identify viability and adoption challenges. Such pilots provide great learnings that should be documented for future. A compelling and viable business plan, backed by a focused execution plan that addresses scalability and replicability, is equally important. 

The Venture Capitalists (VCs) have strong experience in creating and validating business plans. The Smart City advisory board could leverage this experience to ensure the long-term success of these initiatives. An added advantage of having a VC involved is that some of these projects may also get additional funding. 

In conclusion, the citizen is at the center of a Smart City. Improving their living conditions, minimizing their inconveniences and providing high-quality service is paramount. Beyond technology, the success of the initiatives will require a change in peoples’ mind-sets about their social responsibilities and societal benefits. We have made small progress, but I am optimistic that some of the suggestions can help us get back on track to make the Smart City Mission a success in coming 3-5 years.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house