How smart is my city

Written by Goutam Das | Goutam Das | Updated: Jul 13 2010, 03:51am hrs
The story of smart cities in India begins with 48-year-old researcher, scientific advisor and professor Anupam Saraph who in February 2008 was appointed Punes chief information officer (CIO). The first CIO of an Indian city was born out of a public private partnership, between Software Exporters Association of Pune and government agencies. Saraph wasted little time in highlighting the need for designing a nervous system, or a shared information system that can sense problems proactively and solve them. He implemented a traffic management system and created a Pune Governance Wiki that went on to track the spread of H1N1 epidemic in the city.

Around the time Saraph joined office, honchos in technology giant IBM and Ciscos boardroom were busy debating and chalking the path their next generation solutions could take. They gaped and salivated at a trillion dollar prospectselling solutions and services that can make cities and its infrastructure far more efficient and liveable.

The world, according to Cisco, will now see a new industry where technology, telecom, utility and infrastructure companies among others will come together to sell smart cities, or e-cities, or connected communities, or simply, better cities. Over the next decade, around $1.2 trillion will be invested in smarter cities, Ciscos chief globalisation officer Wim Elfrink estimates. Of this, the addressable market for technology players could be 4%.

The marketing muscle of both IBM and Cisco has ensured that governments around the world understand what the future could look like. Executives often begin their presentation with alarming projectionsone power point said that about 700 million will be urbanised over the next 10 years; cities will creak, groan, and eventually crumble if they didnt become smarter.

Advanced countries with good broadband penetration were the early adopters. Both the technology biggies are currently working with multiple municipal corporations and greenfield cities to make things like transportation and security more intelligent, often using sensors that throw up real time information for analysis.

IBM says it has over 300 customer cases where its solutions, marketed under Smarter Planet, have been implemented or piloted. Ciscos most advanced implementation, under what it presently calls Smart+Connected Communities has been in the new city of Songdo in South Korea. The company is creating instant cities or templates of a smarter city that can quickly replicate a Songdo in any part of the world. Both the firms are drawing on their experience to pilot projects in India.

The message of smart cities, which Punes CIO flagged off in early 2008, has therefore cascaded to other states in India, among infrastructure developers, as well as politicians. Cisco, along with IT services firm Wipro, is at work in the scenic Lavasa, Indias first hill city since Independence spread over 25,000 acre; it would become the countrys first complete e-city.

Rajgopal Nogja, president of Lavasa, says the goal is to create an equivalent of enterprise resource planning (ERP) for a city. ERP is a software used by businesses to manage resources such as assets, finance, materials, and human resources among others. I have an ERP software available today to run an industrial plant. But there is no ERP to run the city. ICT will help create that ERP required for city development, he says.

Residents of Lavasa, therefore, will flaunt a digital lifestyle, much like their counterparts in Songdo where every home is expected to be equipped with TelePresenceCiscos advanced video conferencing equipment. All homes under construction in Lavasa already have fibre to home. The telecom infrastructure is being built out. Technology will now bring all basic and value added services onto the residents computer screen.

Property taxes, electricity and water consumption and bills, house maintenance bills, everything you pay to the city will be available on the screen. Value added services would include books on demand and video on demand, Nogja says. Lavasa has discussed the technology roadmap with Cisco and Wipro for the next 5-8 years and expects to invest Rs 500 crore in various e-city components in the next 5 years. We are planning to open the first town this year in October-December. By this time, a substantial e-city component will already be functioning in Lavasa. Everything else should be in place over the next 12-16 months, the president says.

While Lavasa can build information infrastructure into the city from day one, it is more complicated for old cities that have grown in an unstructured fashion to become smarter overnight. But urban planners and politicians, alarmed at the increasing rate of urbanisation, have started to put plans in place. Bangalore, where potholed roads, traffic jams, power and water shortage challenges every citizens quality of life, now has ABIDeAgenda for Bengaluru Infrastructure and Development Task Force. A government initiative, it seeks to adopt a new urban planning model based on technology to create a better quality of life.

The convener of ABIDe task force is a man of many trades, one who understands both technology and the polity. 45-year-old Rajeev Chandrasekhar, is Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha, an entrepreneur, a technocrat. Between 1986 and 1991, he worked with chipmaker Intel and was part of the team that designed the architecture of the Pentium microprocessor.

In true techie style, he rushes towards a white board in his offices conference room in Bangalore Central Business District, and draws a model to show this writer how IT can rescue Indias Silicon Valley from permanent chaos. One of the diagrams was that of a square box. If this is a data warehouse and mining platform, he tells, pointing to the sketch, all the agenciespolice, bus corporations, water supply, hospitalswill be interfacing with it.

As these agencies interact with the platform, data would be created and analysed, helping data-led urban governance. Urban governance is not data-led today in India. It has been led by intuition, political rhetoric, and in a lot of cases because of a nexus between politicians and people who benefit from contracts, Chandrasekhar says.

The second model he sketches on the whiteboard talks about creating communities that are connected through broadband across the city, which would reduce the demand for infrastructure, especially transportation. Bangalore will continue to grow. The city has 8 million people now; the population can double by 2020. At some point, you cannot build anymore roads, flyovers, metros. If you build, you will be destroying the heritage and the enviornment. So IT will be relevant in helping ease pressure on the infrastructure, he says.

ABIDes plans are at the visioning stage and has been aided by the insight and experience of technology experts and companies, including Cisco. Chandrasekhar, in essence, was talking of revitalisation of existing cities using technologya challenge since unlike China, India cannot rip and replace slums and communities overnight to create new infrastructure. So how do you take an existing infrastructure that has been built over a period of time and better that

Indian cities have seen lot of investments but they are siloed and collectively suboptimal, Ciscos president of Globalisation and Smart+Connected Communities Anil Menon says. We need to have a political will and a public-private partnership to address problems in a way where all parties are brought together and made to work according to an integrated plan. It is an extremely difficult task because of the coordination problem and the political problem, he adds.

The problem gets more complicated since in many Indian cities the laws and regulations were written in the 1700 and 1800s. All we have done is peppered these laws. The biggest challenge in revitalisation is smart regulation, Menon says. The executive points to an example of wasted money. In most Indian buildings, there is a sign saying Exitthe fire exit sign. These signs made sense 40 or 50 years ago. They cost $50-$60 per sign. Now we dont need them. When you have a fire, digital displays used for advertising can be used. Telephones have speaker abilities which can be used. Dumb signs have no meaning, he explains.

Cisco will be spending just as much time, if not more time, in revitalisation kind of projects across the world. Ditto for IBM, which is trying to infuse intelligence into existing infrastructure by collecting data. While replacing city infrastructure may not be possible, infusing intelligence is always possible. Smarter city is a journey and different cities have started at different points, with different components. When we talk of larger cities, it is components of smarter cities that are currently getting implemented, says KS Raghunandan, director of solutions and business development in IBM India.

So in some places, IBM is planning to infuse a layer of digital intelligence on the electricity grid. In another project, it may be trying to monitor the quality and usage of water. It is also forming an ecosystem to work with. Instrumentation involves sensors and IBM certainly dosent manufacture them. It may have to work with independent software developers like KLG Systel, a firm currently implementing a real-time energy management solution for one of Indias largest cement companies.

We are working with some anchor clients. New Delhi Power Limited in energy, for instance. We are engaging with Indian cities as well. It could be municipalities, large SEZs, infrastructure companies. There are infrastructure corridors being built. We will engage with the stakeholders, Raghunandan says.

Avneesh Saxena, an analyst with IDC Asia Pacific says vendors will have to create significant amount of awareness on what is being offered and how it will benefit the economy. Just like how not all governments have adopted IT in the same enthusiastic manner, we will see some take a bigger role in experimenting with the smart-city concept, he tells.

Saxena sees a great potential in areas such as critical facilities like emergency and hospital, ensuring efficient management and distribution of utilities to masses. But before this potential is realised, Rajeev Chandrasekhar and ABIDe, for instance, have to hardsell their model of data-led governance not just to the present state government but to successive ones. This would involve the daunting task of convincing a majority of elected representatives whose vote bank is not Bangalore.

Anupam Saraph, the CIO of Pune, says that a majority of e-governance projects initiated under the Manohar Parrikar government in Goa (2000 to 2005), where he was an IT advisor, got scrapped after the government was reduced to a minority in 2005. Lets hope this is not the case any longer.