Smart cities are built by smart citizens

By: | Published: September 16, 2015 12:15 AM

India must avoid the mistakes that London and Shanghai made in the execution of their smart city plans

Although the smart city concept is driven by advanced technologies, its success is highly dependent on the engagement of citizens—it is essential for locals to be fully aware of the existence and usefulness of the smart services available, and they should be able and willing to use these services.Although the smart city concept is driven by advanced technologies, its success is highly dependent on the engagement of citizens—it is essential for locals to be fully aware of the existence and usefulness of the smart services available, and they should be able and willing to use these services.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has set an ambitious target to invest R98,000 crore in building 100 Smart Cities by 2025. This, in fact, is part of a new global match, which involves most major cities and countries in the world, with the fundamental aim of becoming “smarter”.

Smart cities are essentially built by utilising a set of advanced information and communication technologies (ICT), including broadband networks, wireless sensors, Internet of Things, Big Data, cloud services, mobile devices and apps.

In this context, ICT as an enabling smart city technology will generate radically new “smart” services and facilities across all areas of a city, including transportation, healthcare, public safety, food management, education, energy and so on.

These smart services are widely perceived by government leaders, academics and industrial experts as the key to resolve many global grand challenges related to climate change, pollution, the ageing population, food crisis and energy shortage, to name a few. Consequently, most developed (such as the US, the UK and Japan) and developing (such as China and India) countries have put smart city as a top priority in their national development agenda.

Nevertheless, although the smart city concept is driven by advanced technologies, its success is highly dependent on the engagement of citizens. More specifically, if smart cities are to be successful, it is essential for local citizens to be fully aware of the existence and usefulness of the smart services available, as well as to be able and willing to use these services. The daily usage and engagement of smart services can then encourage and lead to behaviour changes of citizens, such as shorter showers, frequent energy usage monitoring and recycling. These behaviour changes can eventually generate economic and environmental benefits, such as cutting resource (such as energy, water, materials) usage, saving on energy bills and eventually reducing carbon dioxide emissions. However, practical evidence shows that the importance of citizen engagement has often been underestimated by governors even in leading cities, and some essential mistakes have frequently occurred worldwide.

For instance, London (one of the smartest cities in the UK) launched the country’s (and, in fact, Europe’s) largest on-street smart parking project in 2012. This smart service aims to improve traffic congestion by helping local drivers find a free parking space in the Central London area by using an app that is connected to thousands of sensors located within parking bays. The sensors provide data on whether each individual space is vacant or not, and so allowing drivers to see a real-time map of parking availability through the app and be directed to an empty space.

This smart parking service has the potential to save drivers’ parking time, and so reduce petrol usage/cost and vehicle emissions. However, my recent survey results showed that although the local authority had made very substantial investment in this technology, they did not make sufficient effort in raising citizen awareness and usage of the service. As such, the survey study found that 85% of local drivers had never or very rarely heard about the service, and 70% said they know nothing or very little about the functions and usefulness of it. In addition, over 78% of survey respondents said they never or rarely use the app to look for parking availability. Consequently, London’s smart parking service currently can only deliver less than 18% of its intended economic and environmental benefits.

In a different case, Shanghai (one of the smartest cities in China) launched its large-scale smart meter programme in the early 2010s. By 2012, over three-million smart meters had been deployed in the city. Smart meters are the next generation of gas and electricity meters, which can tell consumers how much energy they are using in real-time, communicate such information directly with energy suppliers, and eventually put consumers in better control of their energy usage and help save money on energy bills. The local authority in Shanghai teamed up with energy companies to promote the usage of smart meters. However, they failed to inform residents that energy saving cannot be achieved by simply having a smart meter in the house. In fact, in order to reduce energy consumption and save money on bills, consumers need to monitor their energy use carefully through smart meters and then make an effort to change the whole family’s daily energy usage behaviour (such as shorter showers, less TV watching, switching off PCs when not in use) especially in peak time. Due to a lack of awareness and understanding, Shanghai consumers were not at all prepared to use the new meters in the right way. It was frequently reported that these consumers felt that the installed smart meters are not delivering the benefits as promised by service providers, and consequently this resulted in plenty of complaints and great user disappointment.

To conclude, the above examples from the UK and China provide some valuable lessons that shall be learned by national and city leaders in India, if they want to avoid failure, achieve their ambitious plan, and make the country stand out from the global smart city match. Certainly, the realisation of India’s Smart City dream cannot be simply dependent on new technologies. Beyond the very technological efforts, Modi’s central government and local authorities need to make further endeavour to involve citizens more deeply in the whole smart city development cycle, i.e. from planning, designing, developing, to implementing, testing and marketing phases. High levels of citizen awareness and engagement will provide the key for India to match and even surpass its western and Asian counterparts in the smart city journey by 2025.

The author is a lecturer in Information Systems, the University of Sheffield, UK

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