Smart cities that ensure quality living to its citizens are a reality in many places across the globe and the concept is fast catching on in India too. Geeta Padmanabhan tracks the trend

As rain sloshes in the pot-holed street below, I dream of a smart city. In my hazy blueprint, I see smart networks whiz messages past, drones drop off stuff ordered online, police contain crime through telepathy, food growing in high-rise farmscrapers, bio-streetlights, digitally-connected buildings, driverless cars, robo-taxis, all-weather living spaces, sensor networks for healthcare...

Virtual crystal-ball-gazing, maybe. But in big and small ways, changes are being seeded.

Winds of change

The high-tech Safe City Project is one of them. The post-Nirbhaya plan of Integrated Intelligent Surveillance Systems (IISS) and the Automated Traffic Management Systems (ATMS) will watch public places through a network of CCTVs, use analytics and facial-scanning to catch criminal activity. The police will use IISS to run a background check on suspects and vehicles, detect explosives and perimeter intrusion, read biometrics, track prisoner movement and plot digital crime maps. The cop on duty gets the city's criminal database on his personal (Internet-enabled) digital assistant (PDA) device which helps him check if a car is stolen, if the driver has a crime record. Automatic number-plate readings and CCTV footage will be analysed in real time. ATMS will track e-challans, check speeding at night with night vision speed detectors, detect peak loads and help junction management. Elsewhere, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) will see the creation of seven smart cities dressed in smart grids recycling power, water and waste and public transportation harnessed by technology. In Madurai, a company follows the movement of its buses through a central network.

A smart city is one that provides quality living (beyond quality of life) for all its citizens on a day-to-day basis, says V. Ravichandar, City Connect. In his from-the-ground-up view, a smart city is sustainable — with no resource-depleting, energy-hogging solutions in the name of progress, is eco-friendly — with rainwater-harvesting, source segregation of waste, local recycling, low-energy products, investments in public transport, is scalable — it adapts solutions appropriate to local conditions, cultural context and citizen behaviour. “A smart city is citizen-centric,” he said. “E-tech should bring bus routes and facilities to SMS, should have evidence-based ‘challans’ to monitor/guide/improve traffic conditions; should share violator data with insurance firms to increase premiums on risky drivers, have time-of-day-based energy metering/pricing to manage power demand and increased online citizen services.”

Boyd Cohen, Co.Exist, has devised a rubric he calls Smart Cities Wheel to walk us through examples of “how to develop/implement a smart cities strategy through citizen participation.” Vancouver used social media and digital technologies to spark citizen-led public engagement activities that resulted in the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan. Castle Rock, Colorado used CivicPlus (software, mobile tools) to get inputs on plans for a new city park. Copenhagen developed its cycling plan using ICT. Smart cities have an “integrated approach to improving efficiency of city operations, quality of life for its citizens, and growing the local economy,” he says. To a smart city (“digital city”, “connected city”) of smart grids/meters, water supply, waste-reduction, add “human infrastructure” for commerce and mobility, says 2Thinknow.com. Think broadband and public transit.

Attracting the youth

Fine, except for one missing element. Attracting and retaining young people to study, live and work is a critical piece of the “smart city” puzzle. Smart cities should be incubation engines, ensure smart city financing, a crime-free environment and clean digital solutions. They should enhance the ability of local companies to market their products/services internationally, says Cohen.

A smart city is much more than a complete setup of IT/ITES, says architect Mukund Vedapudi. “IT should deliver quality citizen services more efficiently, effect behaviour change in government workers, city businesses and citizens so cities can develop sustainably.” Yes, ICT will improve city management by linking mobile/fixed phones, satellite TVs, computer networks, e-commerce and Internet services — all driven by wireless and broadband connections, advanced analytics software and intelligent sensors. And data would be delivered in real-time to whoever wants/needs it. But “setting up such infrastructure would need long-term planning and a top-notch team to plan and execute it. One wonders what budget and kind of people can make it happen. Can you imagine that ever happening?”

Even if it does, is that a solution to our problems, he asks. “If strategies focus on the city as a single entity and not on people, if the approach is top-down, it could be a benign dictatorship. People must drive the city. As Usman Haque put it: “Empowering citizens to find and build their own solutions dynamically may yet allow the full potential of smart cities to be realised.”

Some smart cities

Cities that boast near-zero pollution, excellent public services and great schools:

- Vienna, Austria

- Zurich, Switzerland

- Auckland, New Zealand

- Munich, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Hamburg, Germany

- Vancouver, Canada