Demystifying the current state of India's ambitious Smart City Mission

We spoke to the Smart Cities Council of India to understand where India's ambitious '100 smart cities by 2020' mission is stalled, what are some of its roadblocks and by when can we expect to see some concrete results.

Published Date
31 - Jan - 2018
| Last Updated
31 - Jan - 2018
Demystifying the current state of India’s ambitious Smart City Mi...

The conversion of a large, crowded and unplanned city in India to a Smart City is currently an impossible scenario to imagine. Taking a smaller town, not overrun by people, vehicles and multiple layers of red tape or ‘babudom’, and converting it into an ideal, intelligent, self-sufficient and secure ecosystem is still workable.

However, In India, the progress towards achieving the goal of 100 smart cities by 2020 has clearly become sluggish owing to inaction, a lack of understanding, a dearth of technical training & skill building, and most of all the non existent security framework.

While there is big talk of technologies like smart lighting, smart waste management, better surveillance, smart traffic management, and such, for now, the common Indian folk are yet to witness the wonders of living in a smart city in their daily lives. In the real world, traffic jams in large metro are still killing us softly, electricity or the lack of it is still an issue unresolved with every changing government, safety - physical or cyber - is a big joke, people as well as civic bodies use the natural environment as their personal dumping ground and the internet is still a fairly new concept in the country after 35 years of its existence. So where are these 100 smart cities?What’s really happening? We took our questions straight to the Smart Cities Council of India, a network of leading technology and infrastructure companies advised by top universities, laboratories and standards bodies.

How smart has India become and what’s the real picture? Here’s what Pratap Padode, Executive Director of Smart Cities Council (India) had to say.

Do you think India's Smart City mission of 100 cities by 2020 is on track?

According to a report released by the Minister of Urban and Housing Affairs, Mr. Hardeep Singh Puri, 148 projects have been completed till date under India’s Smart Cities Mission. Besides this, 407 projects have started work, and another 237 projects are in the tendering stage. So while things have progressed slowly until now, there are very encouraging signs that India’s Smart City Mission will be successful. Further 82 out of 99 cities now have functional Special Purpose Vehicles, who monitor, assess and implement their cities smart city projects. Furthermore, the state and central governments have created an efficient system for the flow of money, so that SPVs are not hindered by financial problems. India may not finish transforming 100 cities into smart cities by 2020, but the mission is very much on track – providing smart technology to 100 cities by 2020.

What according to you are some of the biggest roadblocks in the development of smart cities in India?

Having been used to a relationship of doling out grants to cities and its citizens the administration has grown too accustomed to not being accountable and not having to be questioned on quality of delivery. They now have to come up with sustainable solutions and be accountable for them. This requires a change in mindset. Secondly, even if the mind-set underwent a change, capacity building remains a huge hurdle. Finally, legacy of old technologies and systems further complicates the ability in making valuable offerings. These, in my opinion, are the biggest roadblocks to developing smart cities in India. Finance is another huge obstacle especially in light of the focus on public-private partnership (PPP) model to fund smart cities projects.

Is there currently a set uniform process to invite bids for India’s smart cities initiative?

Yes, the government has set up a uniform process through which smart city projects can be actively bid upon. After the setup of an SPV in a city, its CEO is permitted to invite a request for proposal (RFP) from consultants and other companies to take up work under the assigned project. These companies then bid for smart city projects through tendering, after which the SPV chooses the most suitable tender to carry out the selected project.

How will companies like HPE, Intel, Cisco, Microsoft etc. eventually find these deals viable commercially?

For companies such as HPE, Intel and Cisco who are leaders in Smart City technology around the world, it is hard to imagine that they would invest so many millions without having a clear plan for viability and financial benefit. Firstly, investing so heavily in smart cities gives these companies an opportunity to create and operate these cities of the future in a way that they see fit, thus making their imprint on the future which by itself is a tremendous incentive. Furthermore, they have the opportunity to leverage their platform and network in order to create new sources of revenues in areas such as advertising, data analytics and subscriptions. Lastly, by displaying leadership, and managing the entire implementation, operations and partner ecosystem of the smart city initiative, large companies are involved in decision making at the governmental level, thus giving them a voice in more issues that can benefit all parties

What level of training would administrators require to successfully run smart cities through command and control centers (CCC)?

The biggest hurdle in controlling cities through command and control centers is the training aspect of those set to control it. CCCs, when implemented fully, will do nothing but improve the accessibility of services and government to citizens. It will enhance the ability of officials to respond fast to situations, by leveraging good quality data and information, and ensure the best for people. Consequentially, this requires an intensive training process for those who will work in Central Command Centers. There is a need to ensure a rigid training program that would prepare city officials to act quickly, and prepare them to react to emergencies calmly. This may even require foreign assistance from cities such as Rio De Janeiro who have successfully set up CCCs, and run them efficiently.

How strong or weak is the current regulatory framework when it comes to smart cities? Do you think India has done enough to safeguard citizen services and data that smart cities will generate?

The current regulatory framework in place for smart cities in India can definitely be made stronger. Currently, the Information Technology Act governs the scope of internet activity in India. However, the introduction of smart cities has created a surge in “Big Data”, i.e. enormous sets of unstructured data analysed computationally to understand patterns relating to human behaviour. This poses new challenges regarding privacy and personal information that are currently not defined under the act, which can leave smart cities vulnerable. Furthermore, the National Cyber Security Policy, and the Geospatial Information Regulation Act also fall short of properly protecting data and privacy under smart cities. In time to come, it may be essential to examine the feasibility of developing a comprehensive law on cyber security, privacy, data protection and standardization of equipment. India is currently doing its best to safeguard its citizens and their data, but with the government's ambitious Smart Cities Mission, and the quick progress towards a new digital age, there is a new framework needed to account for smart cities.

IoT is still an alien concept to the layman in India, even though the government has been very keen on building smart cities. What do you think is the reason for such low awareness of the concept and how can it be improved?

The Government of India launched its Digital India campaign and its Smart Cities Mission in 2015, after which improvements in online infrastructure are slowly being carried out. In a country such as big as India, which is still developing on a cultural and economic front, there were basic changes that were needed to even provide the common man everyday easy access to the internet. However, albeit slowly, the government has made technology a forefront in everyone’s life. IoT is a relatively new and modern concept in India, where we are still trying to deliver stable electricity and connectivity to every corner. Thus, IoT is still an alien concept to the country. Applications of technology in resolving daily city life issues are a good start as parking, public safety, lighting projects are introducing this concept to citizens and officials. However, through public awareness conferences and seminars held by the government, the IoT is slowly being discovered and put to use in everyday applications. Additionally, initiatives such as Smart Cities Council India’s ‘Smart Urbanation 2018’ convention & expo on March 22-23, 2018 in Hyderabad, will also contribute to educating administration officials from India’s smart cities on the subject.

If you were to put a number to it, how many years do you think it will take India to understand IoT and implement it in daily life, such as citizen services, energy conservation, smart waste management, green/smart homes?

IoT technology stretches to all sorts of appliances from household objects to industrial ones, with new applications being developed every day. In India, these advances are taking shape very rapidly, with Deloitte projecting that by 2020, there will be 1.9 billion IoT units in the country and that the market value of this sector will hit $9 billion. With the strong focus on smart cities now, tier 2 and 3 cities are also in line to implement IoT at a faster rate than other countries. While currently, these projections may be limited to smaller household objects and appliances, I project that by 2025 it will extend to full industrial use, and for applications like smart waste management and smart homes.

How easy or difficult would it be to deploy automated energy management systems in India, a country which is still famous for ‘kundi’ connections? 

There are a few barriers that would impede the deployment of an automated energy management system in India. Apart from the widespread ‘kundi’ connections which would take a huge amount of investment to take down, there are other challenges to this problem. An automated energy management system would result in an increased load on the electric grid, and the ever-changing weather in India would also increase its unpredictability due to changes in cloud cover and wind speed, complicating the scheduling of power generation. Furthermore, in the presence of a large number of sensors, enormous amount of data is generated. Data may have issues like missing values, corrupted values and inconsistencies. These can further complicate the process of energy management and also introduce other problems, such as privacy, which is already an unstable issue in the country. Even local heating and cooling systems commonly found in EU countries may be too expensive to implement in India.

Which companies do you think are at the forefront of Smart city development in the world and in India?

Some of the leaders of Smart City development worldwide are Hewlett Packard, IBM, and Cisco. In India itself, HPE has managed to provide the best features for managing cities effectively and in a cost-effective manner. Bhopal, Kakinada and Pune are just some of the cities that have been positively impacted by the work of these IT giants. Some cities now have an efficient provision for integrated and scalable solutions, as well as an optimum use of resources like sharable infrastructure. These companies have also brought Indian cities a single interface for the implementation of multiple solutions, integrated and scalable infrastructure solutions, and made it easier to execute, coordinate and monitor various projects. For example, in Pune the implementation of a CCC in public transportation has increased the modal sharing of public transport throughout the city, increased convenience for citizens, and increased the control of bus movement, which helps Pune’s transportation provider to manage its own fleet and the operation of its running buses in the most effective manner.

We've been hearing smart cities for the past 2 years. When do you think we will first start seeing solutions like smart meters and smart home energy management become commonplace in India?

As per the power ministry’s strategy to implement solutions like smart meters and smart home energy management, it predicts that such technologies would become commonplace in India only by 2027. The plan is to install ‘advanced metering infrastructure’ in phases, with those consuming 500kWh or more by 2018, those consuming over 200 units by 2020 and then 2027 countrywide. This is due to such smart solutions needing good data connectivity not only in large cities as well as in remote and rural areas. India is still in the process of distributing good data connectivity, making the power ministry’s predictions logical. Furthermore, there are more challenges that impede smart energy management solutions in India. These include the need to setup a communication between the technology and control centre which is proven to be a difficulty due to connectivity problems in the country, as well as the intense personnel training required to manage such a large operation.

Security is key to deploying IoT solutions. The moment you connect anything to the internet, it becomes vulnerable to attacks. What sort of protocols are required to secure vulnerable infrastructure in smart cities, especially in India?

City-wide connectivity allows much more room for a single security vulnerability to wreak havoc on the residents and governments that have adopted smart cities technologies. As more cities adopt more Smart City technology to replace or upgrade existing infrastructure, the risks they carry will only grow and compound. Thus, there is a need to make smart technology cyber-safe. This means that developers in India need to work with one another in tandem, to make sure there are no lapses in online security. Smart cities can also implement predictive cybersecurity analytics, which would prevent data breaches and continuously find gaps in security infrastructure to improve them before they can be exploited by outside attackers. Responsible citizens who are trained to make smart lifestyle choices, keep their own data secure, and contribute to public awareness campaigns can also go a long way towards pre-empting major cybersecurity threats.

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