Smart Cities: My Reflections

Well as ambigous as this term can get and all encompassing it is, I will attempt to bring forth my thoughts on this, drawing on my two fields of expertise spread over a decade each: Civil Architect and now an IT Architect.

We are in the midst of the change across the world driven by global economy as well as the last few decades of technological progress now converging on internet driven mass consumer systems, wireless or mobile device applications, inexpensive smaller devices and easily programmable embedded devices etc. . Smart City as a concept is evolving from these forces. Many large companies have spent nearly the last 7+ years on various technological aspects of Smart City including Intel, IBM, Cisco and others by their nature of engagement of various roles in urban/ governance management systems they contribute to developing.

Rio-de-Janerio is already touted as the example of IBM enabled Smart City with its central monitoring system and various implementation details. There are few more cities now also making their forays into implementing various systems. Barcelona is creating an environment in which companies can try new ideas and technologies within the urban realm. We in India also have our own efforts in various cities, need to bring them upto global standards and more comprehensive enablement.

First and foremost atleast in developing nation like India, the context of urban planning and architectural development has to be set right. The complete lack of urban architectural controls in most cities is just amazing reflection of lack of that sensibility which was possessed by our forefathers as in a Harrappan settlement, to any in the ancient times. Urban spaces are growing and controlled only by a regime of commercial and political interests, the minimal support for civic amenities and urban planning and its implementation barely done in earnest. That indeed has to be corrected and if “Smart City” with its rhetoric of “Smart” , “Innovation” , “Technology”, “Efficient Monitoring..?” etc. can enable that will be one great goal too for pushing the concept of the smart city, not just for the technological aspect.

Very relevant here is the “Apple” magic; the first wave of interest in Smart City aka Smart Planet has waned considerably. But I predict the second stable wave is set to take off across the world and that will provide for lot of activity that as an UK study indicates will be about 400 billion USD annually, and that is a conservative estimate with known sources of urban activities. Apple’s fortune almost always is built on the second wave innovation, never the ground breaking “never done before” works.

Smart Cities, term that has seen an awakening in Indian Context with the Union Government’s action plan to implement it wider and now with greater political will, than before. I will list some links, I see of interest, at the end of this post.

For most part of the concept of Smart City, the usual constructs of urban planning will continue to be the major enabler and the contraint, with the new age technology modifying, tweaking every aspect of that process and end deliverables, that may eventually result in a visible bigger shift.

I. Overview:

Smart City embraces fundamentally:

Organically growing, sustainable urban area that is enabled with new age technology in socially acceptable manner

Technology should be the enabler and not the pervasive factor to ensure a healthy socially sustainable living in the urban space.

The change should reflect in better city space across transportation means and infrastructure, facilities for hospitals, schools, market spaces, social spaces, as also a proper distribution of civic amenities of electricity, water, waste disposal,  effective policing and judicial systems.

A large list of conceptual areas are involved; some I enumerate below:

* Political: Obvious need for political affirmation and thereby inclusion of all sections of the society. Political mandate facilitates the processes and legal frameworks as well as governance mechanisms. Most technology applications are disruptive and potentially will be undone through irrational arguments if the accepted norms of rolling out change is not adopted.

* Governance, legal frameworks : Effective governance structure with relevant and new rules for a conceptually different urban space is essential. Legal enforcement to limit distortion due to technological change and organic growth is essential to sustainability.

* Urban Plan: Remote sensing based GIS system is typically used today for master plan creation, push for greater use of technology to enable better long term plans and monitoring thereof to adhere to initial plans. This can certainly gain a lot from increased use of specialized technologies now available easily.

* Transport Network: The backbone of any urban space is conceptualizing the pragmatic, capable network of transport that supports as much as possible, mass mode of transports for all residents. Limit individual means of transport to the least level as possible. Envisage and make provisions pragmatically feasible for future modes in say 30 – 50 years ahead. Interconnecting through web, mobile enabled tech of the various modes of mass transport to serve the urban population properly is important.

* Urban Health: Urban – rural divide always conjures up an image of healthy, open spaces of rural settings vis-a-vis the polluted, dense urban population that is inimical to healthier living. Core urban planning has to be fixed to address probably the 90% of this issue, the additional part can be thought through with technology including tele-medicine in every zone/ locality etc.

* Environmental Sustainability: The major thrust in current age is to find all solutions to keep the urban growth that is environment friendly. Go Solar, handle waste locally, limit waste creation, contain resource usage viz: water, electricity to the minimum levels, limit pollution to all forms of environment air, water, noise and earth through housing, industrial or business activities. Allow adequate green lung spaces across the urban space to be sustained.

* Sociological Construct:  The Smart City at its core is for the humans that should have balance to their living and quality of life improved with more use of technology not the other way around. Traditional urban planning theories should hold good and continued with, though with changing social mores, adaptation  be worked in to the plans and policies.

* Economic Sustainability: Technology should enable more economic activity in the city for the citizens and the local government. For the government it generates the required revenue to sustain the investments in modernizing civic amenities and provisioning long term technology assets, renewal on periodic basis etc.

[ Many others not enumerated herein … ]


* New Age Technology:  The enabler, to bring in better control, lower long term costs, assist just in time provisioning, provide real time alerts and controls for all forms of urban management.


Yes technology can enable a raft of possibilities for the SMART City, but need to first align it with the greater scheme of organic growth, the sociological impacts of catering to myriad sections of society, various urban activities etc.


II. Technology:

SMART City Technologies:

Given the caveat, let us set out and understand all the elements of technology specially over the backbone of an internet / Metropolitan area network ( Wifi / Wired as it may be). Most of these are already present and working albeit in fractured ways. Many new applications of technology or technology capabilities will evolve in the next few decades. Need to make them work and extend the technology ambit to include better coverage, sustainable long term without breakdowns, redundancy as in today’s systems.

Enable, promote as much citizen, business participation to evolve applications, systems to support adoption and growth of the Smart City technology.

* E-Governance Systems: The most essential enabler to get least effort is expended by residents, businesses, governance officials in ensuring the city works transparently and effectively.

* GIS Systems: All forms of remote sensing images that enable more capable/ actionable GIS based planning and execution of civic works. Monitoring of the organic growth and incremental changes to urban plan can also be supported.

* Transport Network / Traffic Management: Before tech is envisaged, the fundamental concept of mass transport has to be deployed, make individual transport mostly redundant or legally highly limited. Then bring in the technology with proper traffic management system, vehicular systems as in interconnected devices for all buses, metro trains, possibly fire trucks, ambulances etc. to be able to project their information in a manner actionable real time.

* Amenities Monitored with Sensors:  Enable more micro level monitoring for water, gas, electricity usage at locality / large apartment levels for proper distribution, prevent leakages enhance delivery capacities etc.

* Security Systems: Street cameras are used in bits and pieces, a tokenism in traffic management is visible in Indian context, need to tag them to an actionable IT enabled system that will proactively reduce incidences rather than just act as post – facto evidences, or static images that give nothing actionable per se. Non intrusive technology for security monitoring is a small challenge both for hardware and software because of the scale and privacy concerns involved.

* Locality level technology usage: Promote use of solar panels in nearly every building ( if the city is in a solar zone ), fibre optic / wifi enabled apartments, office buildings and other technologies relevant. They can then have automated reports generated for sharing with civic authorities for billing on electricity, water or other charges. Integrate all cables including digital TV, telephone network, broadband etc through a common backbone that rides through the city.

* Industrial and Commercial Space Monitoring: Mandatory sensor based monitoring of all forms of activities that needs control over environmental pollution should be in place, with exclusion list of types of industry not permitted within the Smart City. The monitoring for environmental pollution can also be done throughout urban spaces including office spaces, large apartment blocks, localities if they can have centralized monitoring.

* Technology Enabled Urban Activities: Web-app, GPS, Mobile or wireless technologies are disruptive and changing the face of the world as we know it. The issue for Smart City is to ensure there is necessary process, approvals that will guarantee continuity and alignment with long term objectives. E-Commerce now is fast accelerating to probably create hollow shells out of commercial spaces, web-app integrators for taxi services have spun way beyond governance norms. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, there has to be a planned approach to integrating technology based urban activities with the urban growth.

* Sustainable E-Commerce vs Commercial Spaces: E commerce is to be regulated and supported by commercial spaces that give the right socially sustainable mix.

.. will include more as I edit this further..


The recent Uber fiasco as it is unfolding is a clear example of deploying technology circumventing regulatory, political approvals. The need for planned albeit a slightly slower approach to enabling a smart city.

I would say the immediate reaction of banning Uber across many countries is counter productive to the concept of technology enabling urban economic activity. The web app or technology enabled aggregator concept is a great practical solution, but the political heads should push for governance mechanism around it to make it ideal a solution, though I would still recommend minimal personal modes of transport to be permitted in a smart city.
















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