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Fast-forward to the future

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At a recent press conference in Bangalore, where a large tech corporation was announcing its smart initiatives for the future, a reporter made an observation: why talk about a smart city when a simpler issue such as garbage clearance remained unsolved. Though the question was rhetorical — relevant as it is given the colossal and persistent nature of Bangalore's garbage crisis — the short answer is that technology waste management solutions are not exactly a thing of the future.

The smart city concept, which has now entered public discourse as an idea that will propel us into our digital future, remains an abstract idea for most. Most people don't get what a smart city is, says a technologist from Cisco, part of the team setting up a smart city pilot in Bangalore. “Basically, it is just about a better, efficient way to manage our cities,” he says. “The possibilities are immense. Garbage management is certainly a possibility, though a challenging one. At a more basic level, simple use of sensors, some data crunching and analytics, paired with a smartphone app, can actually help ease the parking woes in urban areas.” he explains.

Given the ground realities in urban India, most people — like the journalist — would find it unfathomable that our poorly planned and largely mismanaged cities are up for the ‘smart’ deal, at least not in the Asimovian version that dominates popular imagination. These legacy issues, however, are somewhat bypassed in the proposals that were tabled in the Union Budget, which earmarked Rs. 7,060 crore for building satellite towns and ‘smartening’ mid-sized cities. But what of existing cities, where ‘smart’ initiatives are yet to go beyond digital metering, and at best, confined to applying a layer of analytics to existing data?

‘Smart’ experiences in other developing countries indicate that this is entirely possible. Take, for instance, the city of Rio, Brazil, where the push to get its act together for two global events, the just-concluded FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, has resulted in the creation of a world-class integrated urban command centre. The Centro de Operações Preifetura do Rio de Janeiro (COR) is an operations centre where information is shared real-time between government departments ranging from those of transportation to health care, and importantly, emergency and disaster management services. The latter is significant given the city is prone to natural disasters, mudslides in particular. Executed by IBM, the operations centre is being touted as a best case example of how a city, even one as populous as Rio, can use technology to get its act together. Another interesting example of how a simple technology layer can drive efficiency even in large legacy systems is that of the New York Police Department’s Real Time Computer Complex. The data warehouse created by IBM simply stitched together complaints, crime records and public information, allowing the NYPD to use analytics to gain insights that could aid better planning and policing.

India's 100 smart cities initiative in some sense is more comparable to the top-down approach that China has taken, says Prashant Pradhan, Business Head, Smarter Planet and Industry Solutions at IBM. “What they did was similar. They decided to identify areas and build cities from a scratch. The interventions are similar, and different from what you see in Western economies,” he explains. Doing so offers an advantage in terms of less legacy to deal with, though on the flip side, it also means digital infrastructure is less mature.

‘Not a binary’

Networking giant Cisco’s Angshik Chaudhary has a different take on this. The chief of staff for Smart+Connected Communities at Cisco, he believes that one must stop seeing ‘smartness’ as a binary indicator. This is because competition today is not among countries but among cities, where the primary premises are availability of human capital and digital overlay. “Basically people are asking how soon can I plug in?” explains Mr. Chaudhary, who believes that India is a late entrant compared to China, but well in time when compared to other BRICS nations.

The narrative in China is different, he says. Unlike India, which he terms a reluctant urbaniser, China took a very different approach in looking at putting infrastructure in place ahead of people moving in. “Among all the BRICS countries, China is the only one that remained ahead of this curve,” he explains.

A similar scenario is being played out with smart cities. Similar to the ‘smart cities’ that are being envisioned in the Delhi-Mumbai corridor, where infrastructure is being built from scratch, China is building several cities of the future. Meixi Lake for instance, is a city that is being built from the ground up, and here naturally the digital infrastructure is being built in along with the physical.

Both in China and Russia, Mr. Chaudhary says, digital overlay has been part of urban planning for at least a decade. Here, the investments into digital infrastructure is less than 2 per cent in most cities, with the best case scenario being up to 7 per cent. India has certainly been lagging till now, he believes. That this tide is changing is obvious in the fact that several corporations have been lobbying with the newly formed government.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 8:25:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/fastforward-to-the-future/article6229342.ece

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