Somewhere in the world right now, I am sure there is a conference on smart cities or at least someone preparing to hold one. It is the hottest topic in the world of planning and urban development. In the European Union, ‘smart cities’ is a concept that is à la mode and huge amounts of money are pumped into anything that includes these two magic words. All across the world, however, ‘smart cities’ is a much-touted but little understood concept. In the absence of a single definition or clear defining criteria, it’s much like the story of the blind men and the elephant.
Everyone acknowledges that to become smart, a city has to undertake large-scale digitisation, though how much and for what is unclear. Even in western countries, mayors and city governing bodies hire infrastructure and IT companies with a vague idea of creating something futuristic, where everything is wired and fitted with sensors. Someplace where inhabitants only have to wave a single card fitted with a chip that will hold all their passwords and information needed to buy tickets for public transportation, use ATMs, shop for groceries and even open the front door.
Going beyond technology
The prevailing thinking is that technology is central to the smart city concept, making different systems of the city run more efficiently. IBM’s ‘Smart Cities Challenge’, for example, attempts to find ways in which all the GPS data on buses, traffic cameras, weather information and even data from smart phones can tackle traffic jams. All this data can be subjected to data analytics to predict the traffic situation for the next 60 minutes.
In Seoul, the underground railway already offers hi-speed Wi-Fi, with electronic panels outside stations giving connecting buses’ information and Korean company Samsung is working hard to connect mobile phones to household appliances. Songdo, 40 miles outside Seoul on 1500 acres of reclaimed land, is frighteningly futuristic with digitisation architect Cisco fitting every square inch of the city with sensors to gather information about water, electricity, waste management, telephones and traffic. For instance, the Cisco Innovation Centre in Songdo’s website shares plans to enhance safety on Songdo crossroads with the help of sensors installed on traffic signals and other peripherals to detect pedestrian and vehicle patterns and send the data to ‘Fog Computing’. That – in turn – sends it to a control tower that alerts jaywalking pedestrians, controls stop-line violations and ‘helps identify car accident causes.’ Digital Big Brother is watching.
Another aspect that has become essential to smart cities is they have to be green cities, going beyond the inclusion of a few parks in the master plan. Songdo has 40 percent of green space and all that information gathering is used to cut resource consumption. The smart city will have no garbage vans plying the streets or rubbish bins outside homes. Instead, the waste will be directly sucked in from the kitchen through a vast network of pipes and transported to a processing centre for treatment. The city’s water is to be recycled, its solid waste turned into fuel for heating systems and solar panels installed in all buildings, making it the most energy efficient city in the world.
An agenda for inclusion
Back home, in Dholera, an industrial township in the Gulf of Khambat in Gujarat, Cisco has created an information and communication master plan that will enable Dholera to have a central control to manage water, road infrastructure, traffic, street lighting and fibre networks. Internet will be a basic service supplied to each home and all would be made possible via monitoring and management.
But is intelligent data warehousing and monitoring the only measure of smartness? Putting technology to intelligent use is a great way to tackle a city’s challenges of providing utility services efficiently and economically. It is equally important to be cautious that all this dazzling digitisation doesn’t create ‘exclusive’ cities that keep out certain segments of the population that are not in tune with its requirements. A technology-centric view may benefit the city’s civic services, (and software vendors, of course) in many ways but it may be cruel to, say, senior citizens for whom computerisation may manifest as a nightmare.
This is particularly true for countries in Europe that have more aged populations. India has large chunks of people who can barely read their native languages. It is hard to imagine a rural farmer conducting his life in a Songdo-like environment that pre-supposes literacy and, in all likelihood, English literacy. Women in poorer sections of the population are less likely to have encountered technology in any form, compared to the menfolk. Will wiring up a city to its gills push them back further in their attempts to get equal access to the city?
In a country like India where social polarisation exists at many levels, be it gender, religion or class - to name a few - smart cities need to ensure that technology enables inclusiveness and not segregation.