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An interview with Gautam Balakrishnan, Vice President and Head of Smart Cities at Tata Projects Ltd.

1. What does a smart city look like & why is it important to have one? 

A smart city increases the liveability index of it’s residents. It improves the quality of life of residents and visitors by augmenting safety, security, conveniences, provides multi-modal transport and promotes overall well-being. The smartness of a city comes not just from connecting devices and services but by creating a modular foundation upon which layers of control, command and devices can be integrated and visualised.

An example of how a smart command and control system can make peoples lives better and more enjoyable is in the linkage between street lights and traffic safety. Today’s integrated command and control framework enables smart street lights that stay dim when the pedestrian or vehicular traffic is at a low ebb. When a vehicle or pedestrian enters the zone of the smart lights, they become brighter thereby enhancing safety. These sensors also check for precipitation, Co2 levels, toxic gas leaks and other dangerous phenomena that can potentially harm public health.

Another upside to smart cities is that you can make any city smart – the retrofit of systems can be done to any existing city and there is no need to scale a greenfield city to enjoy the benefits of the smart systems.

2. How can we make smart cities affordable and adaptable in the developing-country context? 

Smart cities retrofit in emerging markets are very challenging because they usually have the poorest infrastructure coupled with systemic corruption, poor governance, poor and densely populated population and endemic structural problems. Yet it is in emerging markets that the fruits of smart cities are most enjoyed in. India has seen the infant mortality rate drop 68% in 41 years as the economy grew 21 fold. India’s ‘swach bharat mission’, which means ‘clean India mission’, has focussed on smart cities as a focal point to bring in high standards of hygiene, living standards and safety. By developing smart cities, the trickle down effect will ensure that associated towns and villages also become smart and the benefits of urbanisation start to percolate to the lowest strata of society.

The flip side is the question of funding models. Tax revenue and avenues for higher taxation are usually not options in emerging markets due to poor enforcement and tax evasion and avoidance. Thus the question of affordability is a major one.

Fortunately several innovative funding models designed for developing countries have become available. PPP (Public Private Partnership) and land bank monetisation where additional land parcels are sold/auctioned to raise funds for infrastructure development are now becoming accepted widely. Several governments have now privatised and improved civic services. From garbage collection to prison services, privatisation has not only improved efficiency and accountability but also reduced costs and brought in large private investment. Thus a balance has to be struck an more investment made into developing country smart cities

3. What steps should individuals, businesses and governments take to make the smart city a reality for the future? 

The process of creating a smart city has to be a consultative one. A smart city cannot be created overnight nor it be be dictated down. The process has to involve all stakeholders in a continuous dialogue, with residents defining what services they would like to have and in what order or priority.

As individuals, the residents should suggest better ways to improve the city infrastructure to their government on a constant basis in a formal feedback (elections for example) or informal (opinion polls and social media trends).

As businesses, there should be proactive investment in smart city areas and avenues. A fear of government instability and policy changes usually keeps private investment away from this process. That should be corrected with proactive two-way dialogue between businesses and residents to nurture the right kind of business investment that will complement and support each other’s aspirations.

As governments, there is a need to monitor and foster the needs of the residents. In today’s social media age the successes and failures alike are subject to the harsh light of public scrutiny. A government that doesn’t care for the needs of it’s people is not likely to be a popular one. Increasingly we see a trend of governments becoming more pro-active in solving their residents problems before they become very major.