eGov: It’s time to make the smart city dream come true

With the smart cities programme being cleared by the Union Cabinet, we now expect to see some quick implementation on the ground.

smart city
Smart City: The central government on Thursday announced 98 cities and towns for development as smart cities based on evaluation of financial and institutional capacities and past track record of urban local bodies. (Thinkstock)

With the smart cities programme being cleared by the Union Cabinet, we now expect to see some quick implementation on the ground. However, many of us are unclear about the different types of infrastructure and technology required and their exact role in providing smart services to citizens. For developing an implementation plan which minimises both time and cost, we will need to leverage the various types of infrastructure and technology which find application in smart cities.

Essentially, there are three broad categories of investments in infrastructure and technology, all of which are required for delivering “smart” urban services. The first category is what we can call basic infrastructure—water or sewerage pipelines would fall under this group. Unlike developed countries, most Indian cities have significant shortages in this area. As per ministry of urban development service level benchmarking data, 2010-11, the proportion of households with water pipeline connectivity even in large cities like Hyderabad and Bengaluru was around 66% and 51% respectively. This category of infrastructure also requires the maximum amount of investments and typically accounts for around 85%-90% of total investments in infrastructure.

Many of us may be thinking why this category is being discussed under smart technology infrastructure in the first place. The answer is two-fold. Firstly, without this basic building block, one can never achieve true “smartness” as far as urban service delivery is concerned. Secondly, there is considerable scope for innovation as far this category of investments is concerned. Bio-degradable toilets are a classic example—in certain cases they can emerge as an effective alternative to extending the pipeline network for providing 100% sanitation coverage.

Let us now come to the second category of technology investments in a typical smart city, which we can broadly call network level infrastructure. These are essentially a set of devices or sensors installed at specific points in the city-wide network which are used to monitor parameters related to service delivery. Examples could include flow meters used for monitoring water supply levels at different points of the water transmission and distribution network as part of a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) System or cameras installed at different road intersections in a city to monitor flow of traffic as well as for other purposes. In terms of costs, this category requires significantly lower investments and usually accounts for only around 8%-10 % of investments in basic infrastructure.

Integrating information and communication technology (ICT) solutions constitute the third and final component of the smart city technology architecture. These solutions can be of two types. One set of ICT solutions usually help the city administration manage their internal functions like finance and accounting, human resources etc. The other set of ICT solutions are usually used to analyse data collected through network level sensors to generate potential decision options for the city administration to provide seamless and efficient urban services.

Additionally, these solutions can also play an important role in integrating the data received from various sources and analysing the integrated data set to arrive at potential actions to be taken.

ICT solutions for interfacing with citizens like call centres, feedback through SMS, capturing social media responses etc. constitute a key component of this third category of smart technology investments. Hence, this is also the most visible part of any smart city architecture and whenever we highlight the smartness of a city, we tend to focus primarily on this component. However, this third tier of smart city technology can only operate provided the other two building blocks are already in place.

There is another important difference between this third tier of smart city technology and the other two, that is, basic infrastructure and network level technology. While the other two components have to be physically installed either at the point of service delivery or within the transmission or distribution network, integrating ICT solutions can be remotely hosted and accessed by the city officials. This is what makes them amenable to deployment on the cloud, thereby allowing use of shared hardware infrastructure, standard application functionalities and a transaction based pricing model.

The inherent characteristics of each of these three tiers of technology infrastructure offer useful pointers to fast tracking smart city implementation in individual states. Thus, given the significant time and investments required for basic infrastructure, it may be advisable to begin with installing network level sensors and integrating ICT solutions leveraging the basic infrastructure already in place in parts of the city, rather than waiting for all basic infrastructure gaps to be bridged.

What remains to be seen is whether key decision makers within government are able to leverage some of the above synergies and make the smart city dream come true in the not too distant future within the existing budgetary and financing constraints.

The writer is a senior director with Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India.

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First published on: 11-05-2015 at 00:14 IST