Cities all over the world are expanding fast with more and more people moving from rural areas towards the urban. For the first time in history, it has been observed that the number of people living in cities has exceeded the number of those living in villages. It is estimated that around 1.3 million people move to cities every week and the total population of people living in cities will reach around 5.2 billion by 2050. This mass city-bound movement of people and increase in the size of cities to an unmanageable level has resulted in problems related to their management and delivery of services to the citizens by the city governments.
Just take the example of traffic load in any typical big city and you find it in a mess resulting in loss of productivity, wastage of time, loss of business due to mobility issues, pollution and gross inconvenience to the general public. Managing it has becomes next to possible for the relevant authorities. Similar is the case with other services that fall in the domain of city governments.
Keeping these issues in mind, many countries have gone for the development of smart cities. Though this is a relatively new concept, it is becoming popular with every passing day. An example of this is that even India has unveiled its ambitious plan to launch 100 smart cities over the next five years.
The world’s smartest cities include Singapore, Barcelona, London, San Francisco and Oslo. There such systems are placed that can automatically manage traffic through censors, monitor people smoking at places where it is prohibited, detect the level of air pollution at different points, manage smart street lighting to conserve energy and even cope with shortage of water.
It would be interesting for readers to know that Barcelona addressed drought through the intelligent use of technology. When it ran out of water sometime back, it developed a smart city sensors system for irrigation. The sensors were placed on the ground. These could analyse rain as compared to the predicted level of rain forecast and modify the city’s sprinklers accordingly to help conserve water.
So how would one define a smart city whose dynamics may differ from one urban centre to the other. “However, generally speaking, a smart city is an urban development vision to integrate multiple information and communication technologies (ICTs) and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions in a secure fashion to manage a city’s assets,” says Dr Javed Nasir of The Urban Unit Punjab. He believes Pakistan has one of the best IT infrastructures in the region as well as enabling environment and modern system that can be put together to make a city as modern as it can be.
In his opinion, the strength of a smart city depends on factors such as real time data availability that ensures accurate planning and budgeting, remote access that ensures there are no middlemen involved, fairness and equity as online availability of data ensures access for all and independent processing of queries as no physical gatekeepers are involved. Such systems are effective for decision-making on a larger scale and efficient as applications run in real time, reliable and accurate as record is available and accessible and time-saving — something that ensures operational cost saving for both the government and the citizens.
Does that mean that any city having IT-based governance systems, big data collection gadgets, digitised records, sensors, networks of smart cameras and recording devices, broadband connectivity, public wifi etc makes it smart?
The answer comes from Jeff Olson, head of big data and analytics, Oracle Asia Pacific (APAC), who says these components are pre-requisites but it’s their integration that makes a city smart. In a smart city sectors talk to each other, analyse data and take decisions. He says Singapore is a perfect example of a smart city where they have adopted Oracle’s “smart city in a box” solution. Under this system, data and information related to parking, traffic and other civic subjects is collected through sensors placed all over the city, integrated and processed for the purpose of better service delivery. Maintaining data flow and its real-management to provide solutions are the integral part of such systems.
He says the example of San Francisco is also worth sharing where smart parking meters have been introduced to streamline country’s parking system. The commuters have these meters with the help of which they find and reserve parking while they are on the go. This way traffic congestions and emissions have been reduced considerably and the time that an average commuter had to spend to find has also been cut down.
In Pakistan’s perspective, Olson says public safety, law and order and transportation might be the areas where the city planners would like to focus. As movement towards big cities is also fast, he says, connecting smaller cities and suburban areas through information communication technologies with urban centers would decrease this load and help them have better access to services.
In terms of law and order, Olson says cities like London have gone smart and concentrated on remote security. He says they have installed cameras in traffic lights etc that record and monitor movements across the city. “These cameras can also perform real-time face recognition which can be quite difficult a task in certain situation but what they can do best is to immediately detect a traffic accident or fire and inform the first responders in such situations. The information reaches the right place before anyone makes a call.”
Salman Abid, a development sector professional, analyst and expert on local government systems, believes the dream of making Pakistani cities smart can become true only once the local governments are empowered in real sense. The current mayor of Karachi, he says, has raised this point after meeting international experts on smart systems and discussing the prospects of making Karachi a smart city. Besides, he says, the culture of sharing information with citizens and maintaining transparency will have to be promoted. “Smart cities have zero tolerance towards favouritism, corruption and inefficiency, the things that are deep-rooted in our system,” he concludes.