6 key elements for building a real Smart City

Developing new cities that are well equipped with latest in infrastructure and best in class technologies has become a major initiative across the world today. After all, giving quality of life to the citizens is the biggest responsibility of any government especially in democracies. Many countries have proposed their set of cities that would be developed as Smart Cities over the next few years.  Billions of dollars are proposed to be invested in building such cities.

While governments are committing to the of Smart cities initiative, world’s top Consulting and technology firms too are joining hands for the delivery on the promises. The enthusiasts and commentators are gung ho and agog as things now look getting possessed of form in many such projects too. But amidst all these, we seem to be missing on some key elements of critical importance which could make or mar any Smart City initiative. Following is the list:

1)      No two cities are the same

Every city is different and so the approach to developing it into a smart city should also be. Gurgaon in India cannot become smart the way Singapore or Amsterdam did! The problems of every city, its people’s aspirations, their problems and priorities are different.  Learning the lessons from Songo or Amsterdam is OK but mere replication of their development model won’t work. So we have to really think does a city really need a particular transport system to reduce traffic? Or we are just proposing it as we have seen it working well in some other city. An approach to it is the Human Centred Design (HCD). In order to understand the real problems and requirements of a city ‘surveys’ are not enough and we need to use HCD tools  like “Citizen’s Journey Mapping” to unearth the real problems . HCD tools can help in the discovery of many unarticulated needs too. Be ready to answer questions like is your city Smart enough to be friendly to the Senior citizens and the ‘specially -abled’? If not how infrastructure and technology can help.

2)      There is lot of data and there are indicators too

A Smart city is a system of systems. If we look into the Command & Control center of a smart city there are scores of software applications for various needs like energy, pollution monitoring, water & waste management, surveillance, traffic, law & order etc used to manage it.  There are thousands of sensors and Internet of Things ( IoT) endpoints connected together. The data generated by these systems is huge. A perfect representation of the Big Data 4Vs.  The Smart city has to use this data to better on its ‘performance indicators” and services to the citizens. These systems shouldn’t be siloed systems but should complement & add value to each other. Take for instance a city’s traffic management system should not only minimize the load on the roads but also contribute in reducing air pollution and this should be evident from the pollution monitoring systems data.

ISO 37120:2014: Sustainable development of communities has proposed Indicators for city services and quality of life. There are 100 indicators structured around 17 themes covering areas like health, transportation, energy, environment etc.  Idea is to help cities capture relevant data and constantly improve on it. A smart city will bring data to good use not only for reporting purposes but to take actions, innovate and improve on the core metrics.  For instance Gini Coefficient (a supporting indicator in ISO 37120 standard) is a measure of a city’s distribution of wealth which is not only a metric related to economy but perhaps impacts other areas like Law and Order too. So correlation & interpretation of data is of critical importance. It’s a Smart City where ‘Data Science’ could be seen in real action. Secondly the real measure of the success of any solution/ platform/ technology could be the indicators it helps to improve on.


3)      Closing the loop is important

Most of the cities which are getting modelled on modern urban planning principles seem to be missing on one important front and that is “closing the loop”. For instance, they all have smart waste disposal system, leakage prevention system, intelligent bins etc but what happens to the waste finally isn’t very impressive. Our systems should be beyond the current "take, make and dispose” extractive industrial model. It should be restorative and regenerative by design.  Cities should follow ‘circular economy’ which could make them sustainable and resilient. For instance “Waste to Energy” conversion plant is now considered against global best practice as the process causes a lot of air pollution. So mere disposal is not the answer instead the system should be modelled such that there is minimum impact on the environment and there also is value fed back to the system. Same goes with Renewable Energy resources like Solar too. The system has to be designed and modelled so that the loop is closed.


4)      People participation

How a city innovates and solves its problems. Is the process a closed room activity ( like it happens in the boardrooms)? Or people from different segments of life are engaged with and made stakeholders. Innovative ideas often slip through cracks because it could not be tapped on time. Engaging citizens could be done in following ways:

a)      Building e-groups &  Social Communities

b)      Encouraging  Open Innovation through IM platforms

c)       Engaging & incentivizing citizens through Gamification platforms ( Identifying City experts/ advocates building leaderboards)

d)      Access to city open data and cloud infrastructure

e)      Facilitating Local innovation labs/startups to build city Apps

f)       Organizing Brainstorming, design workshops & Hackathons.

g)      Involving local NGOs and educational institutes

Smart Cities are bound to fail when they solely become a government’s project. Smart Cities are for the people and so have to be driven by them too.

5)      Financial Sustainability

Most of the cities start with government funding along with partnership with private players.  Since Smart City is a novel and great idea the initial investments often come easy. But over a period of time, the city has to become financially sustainable.  City should offer smart services which the citizens would like to pay for. Further, city administration should work to improve the “city’s’ Investibility Index” so that more investments and commercial establishments come to the city increasing its revenues. Technology/ Smart Billing solutions could help in effective collection of revenues and check leakages.


6)      Choice of right technology and platforms

One of the big challenges public services ICT systems have always had is the creation of ‘siloes’. Departments could add a lot of value to each other if they could collaborate and make use of information. The points to consider while choosing the technology/platform are does the technology/platform become a part of the city ecosystem effortlessly? Or does it create siloes? Is it scalable to meet the city’s expansion needs?

A city has to be the real reflection of the aspirations of its people. The quality of lives of the people and the success of its enterprises depend on how a city develops and innovates constantly.  So building Smart Cities is much more than just infrastructure and technologies. Also it is not just about finding the right solutions which make building a Smart City difficult but equally challenging is to identify the real problems too.

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