When Smart Is Not Intelligent And Intelligence Is Not Enough

Author: Himanshu Ranjan

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A tale of Indian Smart Cities

Mckinsey Global Institute reports that by the year 2030, 59 crore Indians will be living in cities where 70 percent of the net new employment and GDP will be generated. Cities have become the powerhouses of India’s growth and the NDA government has rightly proposed to develop 100 smart cities out of which 90 cities have already been selected with an approved investment of up to Rs. 1,91, 155 crore.

The concept of Smart cities is new to the Indian subcontinent and a mere large amount of investment can’t attract the quality in an under-prepared eco-system. The progress so far reflects a gap in experience to implement a solution of this economic size and innovation in an Indian setting. Several interventions proposed as evident by the Request for Proposals issued by the urban local bodies demand functional and technical requirements that are too challenging for the domestic bidders such that they are refraining from participating in the bidding process. The result is that only 24 smart city projects got completed by January 2017 out of an approved total of 731. 

This calls for smaller time-bound investments keeping in view the feasibility and quality of the project to pace up the slow process. Several components of the integrated and complex scope of work can be fragmented into simpler ones. They can be implemented by innovative firms to which the financial eligibility can be made less stringent. That will be startup-friendly too. There are provisions to form a joint venture or to sub-contract the work but the better way is to avoid this complexity by adopting a simpler process. A firm specialized in Intelligent Traffic Management System shouldn’t look after the aspects of Solid Waste Management or a firm having expertise in e-governance need not be worried about the implementation of city-wide surveillance. This will require an active urban local body’s functionary which also means the bureaucracy needs to tighten their belt accordingly to take up this challenge. 

The name smart should carry the weight of its meaning. IoT and app based services shall be applied wherever required. Innovation means integrating different interventions together to solve the problem centered on a revenue model as well as the end-user, the citizens. There’s huge scope for innovation in the infrastructure being developed in the name of smart cities which if not taken care of shall be counted as a lost opportunity. A robust water supply system, sewerage network, 24-hour electricity, GIS mapping based solutions, uninterrupted urban mobility, and related infrastructure development requires not only intelligent planning but the integration of modern ICT technology. A smart water supply system shall not only have a metering facility but also an intelligent plan to integrate other aspects such as solar panels installed over a canal or the provision to decontaminate underground water by proper GIS implementation and to ensure proper ground water recharge. A cloud seeding technique is an intelligent intervention but not a smart one as this is a sign of a depleting water table. 

A smart citizen will first ask for clean air, plenty of drinkable water, walkable pavements, emergency health solutions, quality education, uninterrupted electricity, better designed and closer parks, zero-waste cities, a sewerage network that checks vector-borne diseases, and faster app based services. Compare that with a situation where the air is not clean, groundwater is depleting, hospitals are overcrowded, education is too costly, electricity is coal-based, and parks are too far, waste is not segregated at source and the roads over flooding during rain but since the city is smart there’s an integrated command and control center looking over the number plates of the cars. 

There are solutions that need to be intelligent enough to be called smart rather than for the sake of it but there are certain solutions where common sense should prevail rather than artificial intelligence. There are simpler problems that need to be addressed to the concerned specialists rather than presenting a puzzle to a system that has never solved it before. 

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