“Smart cities combine data and technology”

pujab

Puja Bhattacharjee | September 23, 2014


Jagan Shah, director, national institute of urban affairs
Jagan Shah, director, national institute of urban affairs

As India readies to develop 100 smart cities, the national institute of urban affairs (NIUA) is bound to play a crucial role in the ambitious project. Established in 1976, it is a premier agency for research and training in urban governance. It enjoys the support of the ministry of urban development, states, urban and regional development authorities and other agencies. Its director Jagan Shah, in his 20-year-long career, has worked on various aspects of urban development in India. During 2007-10, he was the chief executive of Urban Space Consultants, providing consultancy for clients such as Infrastructure Development Finance Company, Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transport System, Jaipur Virasat Foundation, and Sir Ratan Tata Trust. Puja Bhattacharjee caught up with Shah to understand the concept and structure of smart cities.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

How do you define a smart city?
The common characteristics of a smart city approach are the deployment of ICT combined with the intelligence that comes with using data. Data can be harnessed from both existing official archives and through real-time collection. When you combine technology and data, it allows you to make decisions in an informed manner. There is an ‘intelligence’ that develops about the city and its operations. E-governance is a platform that already exists and has been put into practice by many cities.

However, e-governance platforms are currently more like voluntary disclosure platforms where basic information is being shared with the public. Some cities also offer services on e-governance platforms. For example, municipalities use GPS devices and cell phones to monitor solid waste collection and handling. Local governments are increasingly using ICT to monitor and manage networks and systems, and even to maintain a check on employees deployed in the field.

Smart cities have to harness such data in order to improve the delivery of services, to build better infrastructure and enable timely and informed decision making. For example, one of the critical areas where deployment of ICT is very useful is emergency health services. Incidentally this is an area where India did some pioneering work in the 1990s. ISRO used satellites to provide e-health services in remote areas of India. We were world leaders in deploying this kind of technology. However, we lost the edge and countries like France and the UAE are now world leaders in this sector.

But do you think smart cities can address the challenges of rapid urbanisation?
Housing is a challenge of a rapidly urbanising India and the key ingredient to provide access to housing in different brackets is information. At present the entire market is mediated by brokers. They hold and monopolise that information and convey it as a service to earn commissions. A smart city should be able to provide you that service like a value-added municipal service, where you can select the accommodation on the basis of detailed data about the property and how it has performed.

How exactly will it solve this problem?
At present the information that is critical to purchase and renting of a property is lying with different departments of the government. One department registers property, another collects taxes, a third issues power meters, and a fourth department collects water charges. These four sets of data don’t speak to each other. They all have vital information about a single property. The information is vital because it tells you whether it is occupied and for how long, and how efficiently it has been performing. While we can even get information about the misuse of the property, we can concentrate on information that can be put out in the public domain and become part of a service.

The biggest problem of rental accommodation is to know where it is available and whether you can access it in the bracket in which you can afford. Many agents and websites broker that information but still there is a lack of transparency as they do not connect you to the owner. Smart cities are going to get rid of a lot of brokering activities as technology will become the mediator. Information is not going to be in the hands of someone who is manipulating the market. Transparency is one of the key outcomes of a smart city. We have a huge stock of rental housing in this country which is not being let out because of anxiety. People are worried about squatters. A sufficiently responsive system does not allow that to happen.

Can we completely rule out human intervention?
A smart city needs human intervention at the level of planning and integration of services. It evolves at an exponential scale. Numbers evolve and become larger, data sets becomes bigger. To handle big data we need skilled professionals. Data has monetary value. In the developed western world, municipalities are leveraging the value of data that is generated and monetising it. This is a fantastic opportunity to do something that is not mere futurism or fetishism of technology but an opportunity to introduce improvements in the urban system at a speed which could not have otherwise been achieved if we did it in a sequential manner.

How challenging is the task of setting up new smart cities and upgrading the existing ones?
The biggest hurdle we need to cross is the integration of infrastructure and services. The integration requires a new breed of smart city architects. It has to be along special engineering and technical domains as well as social and behavioural aspects. This kind of integration is not easy. We have to develop the capacities for that.

Moreover, at present the new (greenfield) smart cities are at a blueprint stage. A smart city becomes a city when there are users. For example, there are seven cities which are being developed along the Delhi Mumbai industrial corridor (DMIC) where the horizon for fully developing the cities is 2040. Let us say that by 2030 there would be a sufficient number of people settled there. Once there is occupation, then all the systems actually begin to work as they are planned and designed. That is when the benefits of smartness kick in.
Globally, the greenfield applications of the smart city approach are fewer than the brownfield applications. The smart city movement is more about making existing cities smarter. That is where the real value propositions are being delivered. Cities in many countries have peculiar problems like multiple city authorities and stakeholders, combined with opacity in the data. It is not giving us information we can use. Without a user base the greenfield smart city is a blueprint of a smart city. In existing cities like Delhi, with millions of people dealing with the urban system every day, there is tremendous scope for improvement.

In your opinion how equitable will the smart cities be?
It is going to be an outcome of the economic drivers that these smart cities are going to accommodate. From our understanding the smart cities along DMIC are linked with the national manufacturing and industrial zone policy, creating large manufacturing hubs. The residents would mainly be workers in these industries. Alternately, people might even commute to these smart cities and live in their hinterland. I don’t believe these smart cities can take care of all the challenges of urbanisation. They are going to contribute, obviously, but they are cities which are essentially adjuncts to the development of economic centres.

What the country definitely needs are jobs, and industry and manufacturing are definitely the places where jobs get generated. When you have economic activities of that scale which employ a lot of people then they need to be housed preferably in an environment close to their workplace. But it is very difficult to predict what is going to be the socio-economic profile of the residents of the smart cities. A lot of it depends on the planning for these cities and also on the economic activities that are being generated in these cities. However, we need to have very efficient systems by which these houses land up in the hands of the workers in those factories as we know the free market does not operate that way.

Any kind of residential accommodation in a city is valuable in India today. We should not look at smart cities as opportunities of social engineering. They should be seen as opportunities for planned growth. We should not assume that they should have a certain kind of social profile. As a society we should be committed to creating wealth for all citizens, which will generate equity through empowerment.

What should be the parameters for selecting existing cities for upgradation?
I believe that the key parameter is where there is economic potential for growth. You cannot create cities where there are no jobs because then it will be an experiment in futility. Economic drivers are of many kinds all over the country depending on the region. Firstly we need to identify the potential areas. We are likely to go by the economic history of the place or the potential for generating something totally new. Mobility is an enabler for economic growth. If a person can move freely and within a reasonable period of time and reach their work place wherever it might be in that city then transportation enables their livelihood. It does not exclude them from a social life and pursuing their hobbies. The huge success of metro in Delhi is based on that. This is all because of providing transportation as a service well in advance of people coming and living there.

Likewise housing is an enabling condition. You must have sufficient accommodation for everybody. The growth of slums is simply due to the lack of access to housing. Shortage of commercial places is one of the biggest drawbacks of Delhi’s master plan. We never built sufficient commercial spaces so they are popping up in residential areas. If we had anticipated that the urban economy would require more commercial space, we would have provided for it.

What should be the governance structure of smart cities given the poor implementation of the 74th amendment?
Smart cities will need professional management. How that management comes about does not affect the outcomes of the smart city. A smart city can be managed by a CEO, a commissioner, a mayor or a minister. What we need to aim at is more professionalisation of the management of cities. At the fundamental level we do not have the time to wait till the entire system gears itself to the point where you actually devolve all powers and also have the people to handle all those powers. The smart city approach is one of the ways to find speedier solutions to our problems.

Do we have the finance and infrastructure to build smart cities?
We have to develop the capacity to deal with partnerships between the public and the private. One of the key benefits of working with a smart city will also be the reduction of risk for private investors. One of the great advantages is the ability to measure and predict outcomes. It will require a lot of creative thinking, accountability, dependability, transparency and intelligence. India is an extremely wealthy country. We need to use our money well. Better financial management of cities is also an enabler of growth.

Do we have enough land to build new smart cities?
If I have an existing city where the soil is firm enough and it is not a seismic zone we can always go for high rises and use land in an optimal way. We need to go for compact cities. The average height of a building in Delhi is two floors. That is not the best use of land. Think of the amount of space you will create if you make all houses four floors high. The issue is: do we have the vision to make our cities real engines of growth and are we driven enough? We need leadership and vision for these efforts. We cannot wait till the 74th amendment and all its provisions are fully implemented because cities are becoming unsustainable at a faster rate than we can manage.

What should be the USP of smart cities?
The USP of smart cities is that they are intelligent, liveable, productive, beautiful and extremely well-planned.

How environmentally sustainable will these smart cities be?
They are certainly more sustainable than non-smart cities. One of the first things to do in smart cities is to track the performance of the environment. In a highly polluted city like Delhi, we barely have enough data on air pollution. The air quality of every neighbourhood has to be measured in a specific manner to understand what is creating air pollution. The biggest causes of air pollution that do not get sufficiently detected are sewage, nullahs and toxicity in rivers. The metrics on air pollution do not take into account all the toxic chemicals in the air. Smart cities will be more environmentally sustainable and liveable because they are smart about identifying sources. Nobody at present can be held accountable for the toxic air coming out of the Yamuna because we don’t have sufficient data on it.

What should be the ideal transportation infrastructure of a smart city?

It should be an integration of motorised and non-motorised vehicles. It should be a judicious mix of mass rapid transit system. There should be smart use of non-motorised transport so that most of them are short trips within the city. Pedestrian mobility is a very important aspect of a smart city.

This interview first appeared in Magazine Volume 05 issue 16 (16-30 September 2014)

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