India’s cities are responding to myriad pressures ranging from fiscal austerity, climate change and most importantly, a rising urban population. Significant investments in land utilisation and communication technologies are being lined up, aiming to improve our built environment through energy-efficient buildings, intelligent transport networks and foster an urban utopia. That tantalising dream of an orderly Indian city — with limited congestion, full power, public security, an educated and responsible urban citizenry — might even be feasible. With a great opportunity at hand, holistic urban policies are urgently needed.

Smart cities have typically been science fiction. It is about automating certain utility functions, building urban systems that can be monitored, analysed and improved upon to lead to better efficiency, equity and quality of life for the citizens. Creating intelligent systems can help improve its built environment, monitor energy usage, provide personalised health and human service, ensure full spectrum public safety and security with integrated transport system while conserving and treating water.

Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, a perfect example, aims to create a commercially viable, sustainable community (100,000 people by 2025) will rely ultimately on solar and renewable energy, with a zero-carbon, zero-waste ecology.
Upcoming wireless sensor networks can conduct citywide monitoring, from pollution watch at a street level to optimising the lighting on major roads and public offices, or creating noise maps and rubbish bins that alert the municipality when full. Vehicle traffic could be monitored with a congestion charge imposed whenever traffic gets too high. Parking slots could be available for online booking. Sewage overflow could be monitored and mitigated through rainwater harvesting infrastructure. This data can be delivered wirelessly and in real-time to the appropriate authorities and citizens. All of this implies a new form of governance — with genuine citizen involvement and a renewed debate in public policy.

India’s reinvented cities: The 100 smart cities announcement is a major step. Networked infrastructure (public transport, business services, housing, leisure and lifestyle services) can enable social, cultural and urban development. London’s integrated transport planning and its Crossrail investment showcases how good public transport can drive economic growth. Helsinki on the other hand aspires to have a car-free city by using car pool and public transport with heavy coordination between businesses and local government.

Consider waste management, something most Indian cities lack. In Barcelona, a pneumatic area waste management system has been piloted — where waste is automatically collected via underground, pneumatic tubes — taking trash off the roads with ample opportunities for recycling. Such a system’s high capital costs will require high densities — something that Indian cities already possess. The reinvention of India’s cities needs to recognise our need for resilience, utilising high-tech, smart monitoring devices and low-tech techniques to adapt to climate change and short-term natural, security and financial shocks. Water neutrality needs to be promoted with aquifers recharged as much as is withdrawn, while rain harvesting fills the bucket.

A reformed government

Indian cities need to be given the authority to decide their own growth and economic model. They should be asked to develop their own vision plans with little expectation of support from the Central government. The municipal bond market should be revived to enable them to gather funds and raise their own taxes to fund infrastructure development. At the same time, they can use a standardised infrastructure for addressing routine services and situations. ISO 37120 defines 100 city performance indicators that could or should be measured and how. Such peer comparisons should be made regularly. Not every city needs to focus on information technology.

Inclusive cities

Our smart cities need to be inclusive. They need to give profound attention to social inclusion of the poor and vulnerable. Internet access is highly important to the future economic success of businesses and households. Providing broadband at subsidised rates through high upfront investment could help drive a knowledge economy. Consider Barcelona, whose focus on shifting public services to the cloud has resulted in online payroll receipts and significant cost savings. Its Open Data BCN initiative offers hundreds of updated city indicators detailing how governance is focused on inclusion. With such accountable and efficient government, citizens can expect personalised welfare schemes and automated public services.