Rise of Smart Cities in India

Infrastructural development has been at the crux of any progressive society. We define history in terms of Iron Age, Bronze Age, Stone Age and so on, due to the fact that we look at what comprised the core utilities used during those times. Ever since India opened its markets in 1991, we have been speeding to improve infrastructure in the country to keep up with the demands of ever growing businesses and the middle class. As is evident by the high number of non performing assets owned by banks giving debt to infrastructure development organizations — although infrastructure has been a key area of focus for the past decade, it has neither been profitable for, nor accessible to all classes of society. However, India is all set to enter a new age of growth and development with its smart city initiative in the coming years. Today’s infants will grow up to look at the $1.2 trillion investment from foreign nations the same way we look at the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991.

What is a ‘smart city’ ? There is no clear definition as to what it could be, due to varying geopolitical and cultural factors involved. What could be considered smart and efficient in London could be basic jugaad in Agra. However, the generally accepted notion is that a city can be considered smart when technology blends into the core infrastructural requirements (housing, water, electricity etc) of a basic city. I am not talking about street lights switching on and off as per the intensity of light cast upon them; this layer of technology will facilitate much more. Think about buildings being able to harness energy from sunlight and being able to trade it as and when required with no human intervention whatsoever. Idle assets could now be sources of income generation. Think about the implications of utility measurement happening en-masse and warning stakeholders and city administrators about possible draughts or sanitation related issues in advance. The cities of the future will not bank upon cheap human labour, but the optimal utility of technology in every layer of its functioning- thereby replacing human inefficiency, greed and character flaws with reliable machines that hold no emotions susceptible to corruption. 

How does this help the average Indian? To begin with, this will help in tracking inefficiencies in our systems faster and easier. Instead of waiting six months for a road’s tender to go out and be fixed, an analysis of imagery attained routinely and calculations made on the traffic flow atop the road combined with artificial intelligence generating prediction models inculcating weight, pressure and friction generated would help predict the road’s gradual decline well in advance. This will help city administrators track down the builders of the road and hold them accountable, send out new tenders for the road to be rebuilt and track the performance of other constructions around town. 
The devastating crash of a flyover this year resulted in the death of hundreds of individuals. Similarly, a lake in Bengaluru has been constantly spewing out white foam in bulk to the roads near it. Chennai’s recent floods were a result of bad infrastructure planning and could have been avoided if the water was redirected or channels were set up to do the same when weather predictions were made. In other words , the integration of technology into our cities will help us in not only diminishing impending disasters, but will also enable our citizens to attain higher levels of productivity by having little to no concern about crumbling infrastructure. 

However, it will not be all cotton candy, unicorns and happiness. As with most initiatives in the past, we are susceptible to human corruption and under the table dealings. Until machines take over our transactions, and higher levels of transparency are ensured in every step of the dealing, we are still very vulnerable to the funds being misused. If anything, the crisis of 1991 in India was a result of India making wrong infrastructural developmental choices that created no return of investment for the nation, and should be a strong reminder of the need to optimally utilize incoming funds. Administrators are still in a position to hand out tenders to companies of their preference and the selection procedure is as opaque as it could get. Additionally, human resources in India are not equipped to deal with the impending implementation of technology. Our administrators are under equipped to make the right choices when it comes to technology. Similarly, our workforce is under equipped to cope with the steep learning curve of interacting with a purely technology driven work environment. Furthermore, existing infrastructure is crumbling to bits and pieces and we are yet to figure how to fix them. Given the monumental rise in population figures in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, a move towards being smart, poses additional challenges in human rehabilitation. 

Amidst all the hue and cry, it is also true that this is the nation that went from a national telephone carrier taking years to hand out a telephone connection, to one that has over 900 million telephone subscribers today. We were once a malnourished nation of farmers — we have evolved to be a nuclear state running some of the world’s cheapest space missions today. Additionally, we also have one of the world’s largest unique identification system- the Aadhaar card. Technology has been hand in gloves in every instance that we as a nation have moved forward, and due to the same, it is fair to have an idealistic dream of a corruption free, productive nation fuelled by technology coming to being through our smart cities in the near future. What things boil down to would be our administrators growing to be smart enough to handle our smart cities- because no amount of artificial intelligence would be enough to beat human stupidity.

  • Joel John
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