Indian Smart Cities need “Make in India” approach

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Last week, I attended Smart Cities India Expo at New Delhi. The focus of the conference was Smarter Solutions for a Better Tomorrow. It was a well-managed conference with inclusive representation from Government, bureaucrats, thought leaders from tech industry, NASSCOM (as a technology partner), municipal bodies etc. The conference had numerous sessions on following 9 key areas on smart city development:

Smart Governance

Smart Energy

Smart Environment

Smart Water Management

Smart Transportation

Smart IT and Communication

Smart Buildings

Smart Health

Smart Education

Persistent systems has already published its point of view on need for open source consortium for Smart Cities in India. This point of view emphasizes on uniqueness of India. Indian society, diversity, history, political influences, regional alignments, and resource availability pose different challenges in urbanization. It may result in different usage and adaptation of smart solutions. These unique issues may not be comparable to other smart cities in the world.

After attending various sessions at the conference, my belief in above prognosis is strengthened. The views shared by various thought leaders echoed similar sentiments. I am sharing some of the key highlights of various sessions which emphasize this point.

India specific challenges are more aggravated at brown field cities level than green field. If you talk to residents of Chandni Chowk in Delhi about Smart Chandni Chowk via smart parking sensors, or smart transportation etc., it will not ring any bells. And it is very hard to transform these old areas in cities due to various constraints with space, population density, local needs and priority etc. So a smart chandni chowk technology may not mean anything to residents there if their basic needs are electricity and water.Retrofitting new technology in existing brown-field cities is much harder that building new green-field townships enabled with smart solutions.

One of the speaker shared a very unique and hilarious example of monkeys in Bellary destroying sensors and modems. And engineers trying to figure out the problem in the smart solution sitting in AC offices! They finally figured out who the real culprit is after a field visit. This is a very unique scenario that may not happen in other smart cities across the globe.

The basic need for Indians is sustainable and livable cities with fair expectation of quality of life. They do not want flashy gadgets or cutting edge technology since majority of citizens’ basic need is still clean water, sanitation, electricity, and better roads. If these basic needs are not met by city municipal bodies, then acceptance of advanced technology solution like smart parking, smart traffic management etc. is not possible in near future. E.g. if you put traffic sensors in Bengaluru emitting alerts about impending traffic jams in festive seasons, it may not help city administrators. If you do not have alternative large roads with better condition to alleviate jams, providing just traffic alerts is a mere technology solution without constructive use. Smart solution cannot provide physical infrastructure to better manage the city. But city administrators have to adopt solutions carefully by planning alternative / fallback arrangements.

To emphasize above points, many speakers talked about citizen centricity. Current smart solution have technology-centric approach and we need to adopt design thinking methodology to figure out what the citizens really want from smart city. Moreover, each city and its citizen have different needs. E.g. heritage city like Varanasi or tourist destination like Shimla will not benefit much from fancy infrastructural developments like flyovers.Definition of “what makes a city smart” will differ from each city and each of them has to define and make for themselves.

A key point discussed was about the need for cities to have CTO and CIO. While the need is not debated, its implementation in India’s bureaucratic framework may not be able to empower this position. E.g. even Mayor in India is a ceremonial position largely and real power is with municipal commissioner. In such scenario, how much can be achieved by a City CTO or CIO?

One of the speakers provided an exciting example of citizen engagement via mobile app done in a South American city. However, idea of citizen engagement via open data and apps is exciting only in principle In Indian context. Municipal bodies are not really interested in citizen engagement; they fear that such engagement will also increase expectations of getting things fixed ASAP which municipal bodies cannot support today.

The point regarding open data and standards was also debated a lot. Technology providers are ready to help build an open platform built on open data and standards. However, underlying data has to be facilitated by Government and Municipal bodies. Moreover, the problem is in the area ofrevenue / monetization model on Govt. open data where private players can create third party apps on such platform. This model is still not discovered and thought though clearly.

And finally, the scale of transactions at Indian cities’ level is humongous due to the massive size of deployments, population density and consequent usage. Such scale is neither comparable with any other cities in the world nor tested anywhere. Therefore, adopting any smart solution from any other city in the world will not be a turnkey solution in India. The scale in India requires different handling and expertise.

Above list may be comprehensive but it highlights the uniqueness of Indian cities. So we need adopt ‘Make in India’ approach for building smart city solutions for Indian cities instead of merely adopting or retrofitting solutions built for other global cities. This will also serve as a boost for “Make in India” program of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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