How software is an enabler for Smart Cities

It has been noted that to make a city smart, there’s first a need to understand the behaviour of a city’s assets: its citizens, economy and its environment, with the intent to make the ecosystem predictive and self sustainable.

That India’s urban infrastructure is over stressed and over stretched is no secret. Our metros and other cities struggle to provide the basic civic amenities: from round-the-clock availability of drinking water and electricity, efficient management of solid waste and wastewater, to efficient transport and traffic management. Throw the lack of adequate housing in the mix, and we begin realise the extent of the India’s urban infrastructure problems. In cities across India, these amenities are scarce largely due to unprecedented pace of migration of population from rural to urban areas.  

The state of India’s urban environment, combined with the western world’s focus and consequent success on building smart cities and management, forced the Indian Government to formulate the Smart Cities mission in 2015. The program envisions the promotion of cities that provide core infrastructure and gives a decent quality of life to its citizens along with a clean and sustainable environment through the application of ‘Smart’ solutions. The focus remains on sustainable and inclusive development of specific areas, which can then help replicate the model to other aspiring cities. The Urban Development Ministry has also initiated the Smart Cities Challenge wherein a large number of candidate cities will participate every year, do a detailed study of their needs, and develop financial models to demonstrate how a city can become self-sustainable from its own funds. 

It has been noted that to make a city smart, there’s first a need to understand the behaviour of a city’s assets: its citizens, economy and its environment, with the intent to make the ecosystem predictive and self sustainable. This intent is achieved through technology, which captures the behaviour of these assets with respect to their surroundings and time. The data collected can then be analysed to make informed decisions, and build specific solutions for individual cities. Thus, digitization of the assets become a very important part of making a city smart. 

To illustrate, let’s start with the transportation and traffic management of a city. A key part of a smart city entails GPS based tracking of its vehicles. Currently, in most Indian cities, private vehicles and buses are the key modes of transportation, and are an important determinant for quality of life of citizens in a city.  Smart tracking of these buses and other vehicles can allow the administration to track the demand and match it with the supply in their transportation planning. In fact, intelligent software that is fed with GPS tracking of all vehicles can help in Intelligent traffic management, correct route information sharing with public, dynamic carpooling, road user charges based on traffic and smart toll, leading to decongestion and efficient traffic flow. The vehicle tracking software technology could potentially also help the police department in crime control. The technology is already available and currently in use in many cities around the world, and all we need is a well-planned implementation in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore to decongest them and relieve them of their traffic woes. 

Housing for All is an equally important aspect and the present government’s Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana was in fact, launched with the intent to bring the benefits of housing to the wider populace. It envisages housing for all by 2022 and aims to create 2 crore affordable homes with provisions for safe drinking water and sewage management, use of recycled water for growing organic fruits and vegetables, solid waste management and digital connectivity, across the nation. 

To fulfill this ambitious goal, Prime Minister Modi earlier this year urged the Ministry for Urban development, housing and urban poverty alleviation to look at adoption of 3D construction technology in 25 major cities. 3D software has been recognised as a major tool that can help speed up the construction of houses. Currently, approximately 1.25 lakh houses under the urban housing mission are being built using prefabricated technologies. 

Unfortunately, the continuous growth of infrastructure and housing also leads to an increase in the demand of resources, especially electricity and water in cities. Smart cities, thus, require large amounts of energy supply that can only be achieved through recycling, effective management of current resources and new sources of energy. Solar, wind, electric mobility, bio-gas and other alternatives will greatly shape the success of India’s Smart City infrastructure. According to the India Renewable Energy Status Report 2014, India achieves only 12.95 per cent of its renewable energy potential. Tapping this potential through technologies/products like 3D asset management, operations management & outage communication and e-services will lead India to achieve environmental sustainability despite rapid industrialisation and urban population growth.

Even in the traditional use of non-renewable energy sources, practices of Smart Metering and Smart Grid can be utilised to reduce wastage in the production and transmission of electricity. A smart meter is capable of communicating the real time energy-consumption of an electrical system in very short intervals of time to the connected utility. In the electromechanical meters, the cumulative number of electricity units are recorded at the end of a month (or more) whereas a smart reader is connected to the utility, which is capable of transmitting the electricity usage on a real-time basis.The use of Smart meters is rapidly gaining prominence in developed countries and can be of massive help to Indian Smart Cities Mission. More importantly, the use of this technology is not limited to measurement of electricity, it can also be used for measurement of waste water utilisation.  

Water, both drinking and waste, is a big requirement for Smart Cities mission in India. The more developed cities in India often have availability of the geographic information system (GIS) data, but not of drinking water assets or of sewage assets. Technology solutions for sustainable use of water is a need of the hour. Technology solutions from companies like Trimble allow for wireless water infrastructure monitoring and incident management. These solutions integrate advanced positioning, sensors and mapping technologies with powerful software to automate utility mapping, design, construction and operations, enabling increased productivity, enhanced regulatory compliance and improved customer service and response.

Last but not the least, disaster management is another area of significant importance for a city aspiring to be a smart city, and where technology can be a key enabler. For instance, in the case of the unfortunate event of a disaster, a 3D replica model can help in taking quick remedial decisions and measures. LIDAR solutions for mapping of buildings, monuments and other city infrastructure, which convert the captured point cloud data to actual 3D digital model objects while connecting them with other assets, can be of huge help in these situations.

Further, solutions like Virtual Reference Station (VRS) can also increase the accuracy of position and ensure repeatability of position of objects with time. This helps in sounding timely alarms in case of earthquakes or land subsidence, preventing loss of lives and property. UAV mounted sensors can be used for fast capture of data from remote aerial locations. Data aggregation, communication and analytics using all these technologies can enable faster decision-making in the event of an unfortunate disaster.

A smart city, however, cannot function without the active participation of all its stakeholders. A city’s infrastructure is used 24 hours a day, seven days a week by various stakeholders - citizens, workers, students, researchers, investors or entrepreneurs. Therefore, specific players in the smart city include municipal leadership, IT and telecommunications companies, utilities, municipality technical services, and grid-infrastructure service providers who have a critical role to play in their individual capacities. 

‘Smart cities’ is still a developing concept in India and we need to travel a long road to be able to realize its benefits. However, there’s ample knowledge available globally and within local resources to be able to quickly move ahead on this path. For instance, in Jyväskylä, Finland, the local administration has taken determined steps to develop e-Government by creating interactive eService solutions for customers. It is just one example of what any city in the world could potentially achieve and how software can be a huge enabler in making cities smarter. 

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