A few hours of relentless rain and a city goes under. A couple of leaks in the water pipeline and parts of it are left without water. A vehicle breaks down in the middle of a busy road and there's a traffic gridlock within minutes. This is more or less the life story of India's cities.
As more and more people migrate to the country's badly-designed and ill-equipped urban centres, such problems are bound to increase - and city managers with tight budgets, low technology support and inadequate manpower will find it expensive and time-consuming to replace the existing infrastructure and improve urban services drastically. According to an estimate, every minute over the next 20 years, 30 Indians will leave rural India for urban centres and the country will need some 500 new cities in the next two decades to accommodate this migrant population.
This growing urbanisation is not just an Indian phenomenon; worldwide, by 2050, 70% people will be living in cities. Many city managers have started feeling the heat and are looking at technology to help them cross these hurdles. Sensing an opportunity, tech companies have come up with the idea of smart cities, offering to infuse 'intelligence' into the existing urban infrastructure and systems of a city so that authorities can anticipate problems and deploy resources adequately to solve them. So, how will they do it? First, they will collect, digitise and integrate data on an urban problem. Once that is done, the accumulated data will be analysed and then given to city managers to respond to the needs of their jurisdictions.
Sounds too futuristic? It isn't. Cities across the world have already started experimenting with the idea. Take for example, the problem of traffic congestion. In Dublin, sensors are being deployed across the city to gather data on traffic movement. Once the data is captured, it will be analysed to see if there is a pattern (time, days etc) in traffic congestion. Then the information will be given to city managers, who can then decide on how to rework the traffic arrangements. Similarly, sensors can be deployed to keep an 'eye' on water-logging, waste management and street lighting. In short, technology can help city managers deploy available resources at the right time, at the right place as well as minimise the wastage of resources by acting on it quickly.
Such smart-city solutions can be used for crime prevention also. "Visual analytics could be used for street lighting which can be increased or decreased according to the presence of people and time. While analysing a city's data, if we find certain areas are prone to vandalism, then street lighting and police patrolling of those areas can be beefed up," David Boundy, director, SAP Intel Collaboratory/Intel Labs, told me on the sidelines of the 2012 Euroscience Forum recently. "The pressure is not to change the way we live life but to add intelligence to infrastructure. In the long run, smart cities would be sustainable cities," Boundy added.
Recently, Intel set up a laboratory - Collaborative Research Institute for Sustainable Connected Cities - in London to test the technologies that could power the cities of the future. Germany is also toying with the concept of smart cities and the first one to aim for such a tag is Mannheim where they have succeeded in connecting every household in the city to a smart energy network to ensure efficiency in energy provision and raise awareness about energy among the inhabitants.
The developing world is also not lagging behind. Rio de Janerio is using smart city technologies to coordinate its activities from emergency responses to traffic control. According to a report on IBM's website, by using a forecasting system that synthesises data from the river basin, topography surveys, historical rainfall logs, and radar feeds, the operations centre is able to anticipate heavy rains, flash floods, landslides, power outages, and traffic hazards.
While all this sounds grand and hi-tech, there are many who feel that the world doesn't need to spend so much on smart cities and that the concept is too West-centric. Instead, cities should try to focus on achieving small efficiencies and make hard choices to become sustainable.
No doubt, these are valid arguments that need to be listened to before opting for smart solutions to our old problems.
KumKum Dasgupta attended the Euroscience Open Forum as part of the Robert Bosch Stiftung Fellowship Programme