India’s discussion around the UN’s Agenda for Sustainable Development, which lays down 17 Goals and 169 Targets for Member Countries to achieve by 2030, is not complete without a deliberation on Goal 11 - Making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. With 40 per cent of India’s population expected to live in urban spaces contributing to 75 per cent of its GDP by 2030, it is evident that sustainable development of the country is a pipe dream without sustainable urban development. The concept of a ‘smart city’, though around for at least two decades, gains even more significance in this context.
Numerous definitions and templates of a ‘smart city’ abound and there is no universally accepted tool to assess the “smartness” of a city. Cities have deployed intelligent digital systems in a piecemeal fashion, with varying degrees of success, to expand their socioeconomic footprint and to improve the quality of their citizens’ lives. However, to become truly smart, it is imperative that a city must integrate its human, physical and digital systems operating in the built environment enabling true urban reform.
Urban reform got a major boost in India with the launch of the ‘Smart Cities Mission’ by the Government of India aimed at enhancing the quality of urban life in 100 cities across the country. Along with the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) and “Housing for All” schemes, Smart Cities Mission is poised to underpin investments to the tune of Rs one lakh crore that will radically change the urban landscape of the country.
While ICT provides a holistic infrastructure framework, data and information form the bedrock for the integration needed to achieve this reform. Fundamentally a smart city is one that holistically unifies data from a wide range of sources – authoritative data sources, embedded sensors, public services, citizen reports, utility companies, and more – to generate actionable intelligence for decision-making for improved governance and citizen services.
One such approach is to aggregate different data streams in a city under a single roof in the form of an Operations Centre. Such centres act as unifying hubs that break down the silos in city administration. Another way to bring about this integration is by co-locating different infrastructure components. The Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT City) is a case in point. Multiple utilities are provided through a single tunnel in this city, resulting in huge cost savings and a better management of urban space.
One important aspect that acts as a force multiplier in Smart Cities is the geographical context pertaining to the data. According to a 2015 study by Dalberg in association with CII and Google, smart maps can help India gain upwards of $8 billion in savings and value, save 13,000 lives, and reduce 1 million metric tons of carbon emissions a year: and this is in cities alone. The study expects that the broader economic and social impact of smart maps to be many times greater.
Location/geospatial technology enables precise mapping of utility assets, urban properties, transportation infrastructure and government facilities. When this data is integrated with non-spatial data from disparate and multiple sub-systems of a city using a GIS-enabled enterprise information system (Figure 1), it allows city agencies to integrate various subsystems, put the data into a precise context, derive insights, visualize and extract actionable intelligence to respond to every situation holistically and take effective decisions. This ability makes location data a unique and powerful unifying component in a city enterprise, and is critical to increase the smartness index of a city.
The Government of India is cognizant of the significance of location technology. Be it the tracking of houses using geotagged photographs in PMAY, geotagging of all rural assets under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), the use of NAVIC to locate authorized and unauthorized dumping sites or the mapping of toilets under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, government is leveraging location technology in all major programs.
However, investments in location and other ICT tools to create economic, social and environmental improvements to citizens is only part of the smart city story. While this is necessary, it is not a sufficient condition to make cities smart in India. There is an urgent need for political, administrative and social groups to come together to debate on the appropriate policies and other measures to steer the outcome of the technology investments and equitable access of resources to citizens in the urban space. Without such an exercise, technology solutions will remain locked away in expensive ivory towers distinct from future cities.
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