Cities have much to gain by adopting Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and must earnestly harness the opportunities they provide, urged the recently held Global Informatisation Forum at the Shanghai World Expo 2010. The forum, hosted by two United Nations agencies and the Shanghai municipal government, spotlighted how cities with the help of ICT can deliver public utilities better, improve mobility, reduce the carbon footprint, and enhance public participation in governance. Existing urban systems are unable to meet the complex demands of their burgeoning number of users. They often fall short of environment standards. Countries such as Malta and Japan have proactively addressed these issues with the help of technology. Malta opted for a smart grid system to manage power supply better. Unlike conventional grids, this bi-directional system allows consumers to get information about their energy use in real time. This enables them to make intelligent choices, regulate their consumption, and become energy-efficient. The utility companies too have optimised their power supply. Tokyo has mobilised technology to help the visually impaired to move freely. The electronic tags and markers placed at strategic places in the city helped the disabled to navigate by using either a portable computing system or special white canes with embedded sensors.

But how do Indian cities fare? The use of technology is often limited to a few municipal functions such as issuing certificates and collecting property tax. Initiatives such as the National Urban Information Systems, which are meant to support urban planning with the help of GIS applications, have not progressed well. Despite the Eleventh Plan stressing the need for using technology to relieve congestion, improve safety, and enhance the productivity of the public transport system, not much has been accomplished. After much delay, efforts to create the first intelligent transport system have begun in Mysore. Cities such as Chennai have put in place a GPS system to inform commuters about bus routes and timings — this however covers only a fraction of the bus fleet. The city mangers must quickly implement existing programmes and scale up the use of technology to improve all urban services. Urban policies often tend to be myopic: to them, building smart cities is about creating special enclaves with enhanced facilities for investment purposes. On the other hand, the experience of successful cities shows that the adoption of technology produces good outcomes when the city as a whole improves and the resulting benefits are shared equitably.

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