Forecast for the future: strong clouds are hovering over the technology landscape, all that big data floating around has started forming data lakes, and people are increasingly going social + mobile. A part of the future has already arrived, although much of it is still buffering like that revolving circle on your smartphone screen (the last one is especially true of bandwidth-challenged countries like India).
If that prognostication sounds complex, try this: everything is getting connected to the Internet. Or it soon will be, as the vendors and analysts constantly tell us. According to a Cisco estimate, 25 billion devices will be connected by the end of this year and 50 billion by 2020.
It is difficult to talk about the Internet of Things (IoT) without also dragging along social media, mobility, (big data) analytics and cloud, the SMAC stack as it’s called. One thing is built on top of another or something is enabled by something else and so on. Typically, as we have seen in technology, things have been done often in isolation (that brings a pet CIO term/peeve to the mind: silos). And then, they are inevitably pulled together by the inescapable tug of the Net. Lo and behold! You are again struggling to swim in turbulent waters.
I was driving to my new workplace amid the chaotic rains of Delhi earlier this month when my thoughts veered to how IoT can help us navigate the traffic snarls, besides making other aspects of city life easier for consumer-citizens.
The first traffic signal that I stopped at was a familiar scene of free-for-all that city-dwellers in India in general and Delhi in particular have come to witness quite frequently. It happens because of sudden signal failure and people driving through in all directions. In this case, the signal succumbed to some mysterious forces of malfunction—ones that are always in full fury at the first hint of rain or a power outage.
Somehow, I wriggled out of the mess, took a turn and drove further on. And just when I thought the downpour was beginning to thin down to a drizzle, I found that, on the side of the road, there was a burst pipe from which water was gushing out voluminously. This caused some motorists to avoid the “water lane,” with the result that cars and bikes were squeezing into the middle of the road, creating an artificial jam of sorts.
Before I finally reached office after a marathon drive, I witnessed several more stupidities of not living in a smart city. Among them: an ambulance wailing its siren to no avail, for it was stuck in a sea of cars moving at snail’s pace; garbage from the open dump area overflowing and mixing with the rainwater sloshing about on the roads; and street lights that were turned on even in broad daylight.
At this point it would be hard to imagine if driverless Google cars can *ever* navigate the roads of Indian cities. But the following are equally hard *not* to imagine: Why can’t megacities like Delhi have an intelligent, robust traffic management system (one that doesn’t stop working every time it rains or each time the city lights go out)? Why can’t we ensure that medical emergencies do not die a premature death on city roads? Is it not possible to enforce lane driving with the use of sensors/CCTV cameras at least at key points where congestion/violation is highest? How come some roads are tarred again and again while others have crater-size pits that haven’t been filled since ages?
Other common sights visible across Indian cities include water tankers with leaking taps plying on the roads, parking lots that are over-crowded in some places and virtually empty in others, and all types of garbage getting dumped in a single, overstuffed lot.
Chaos rules in public places such as bus and train stations, hospitals and even private, huge supermarkets. People have to wait long hours where no wait should be required. Or they run from one hospital wing to another merely to collect reports. I have seen people abandon shopping carts, which must have taken them hours to fill, when they see the serpentine queues at checkout counters.
It is true that the situation has much to do with over-crowding and the paucity of resources. But a lot is lacking in terms of intelligent governance and larger participation of the private sector in delivering services that can ease the pain of common citizens. In the context of enterprises, the deficiency is in creating a connected service ecosystem that is intelligent and efficient.
Thankfully, we are at a point where appropriate use of technology—sensors, CCTVs, SMAC, etc.—can not only solve a lot of the problems associated with the smooth running of a city but also create huge business opportunities for companies (and hence CIOs) in multiple industries.
For sure, all that talk of Digital India by the Government of India has given everyone hope for betterment. But it is high time we studied and learned from the examples of smart cities across the globe and got down to adapting and implementing those solutions for the Indian environment. The important point here is that things should not happen in isolation—whether a project concerns different government departments or a public-private partnership (PPP) model. Done in isolation, things often go haywire and the envisaged impact is lost.
Barcelona is often cited as one of the most shining examples of smart cities, where IoT is not a distant concept but a living reality. The most significant aspect of the city’s smart strategy, in my opinion, is the fact that it takes a comprehensive view of the various projects being developed or the services being maintained throughout the city.
A holistic approach has enabled Barcelona to boast of a system of underground service galleries that enables repair/improvement of services such as power supply and waste collection without the need for excavation; Tap & Go contactless card payment system (using NFC or near field communication technology); sensor-based intelligent street lighting (with measures such as regulated hours of lighting and electrical analysis of the position of lamps rendering 40% in cost savings); a smart service delivery platform for citizens and municipal workers, which has a common data warehouse where the different sensor systems store their information (built through a PPP model); and an integrated waste management plant. Besides these, several other projects have been completed or are under way to make the city sustainable, competitive, smart and, most important, worth living.
Among other cities that are touted as leading examples of smart cities are Copenhagen, London, Helsinki, Seoul, Montreal, Chicago and Singapore (not in any particular order). India can look at any or all of them to work out its own IoT and smart cities plan.
Most of the cities that are doing well as smart cities are not shying away from the latest in IoT and SMAC technologies and putting them to optimum use, especially in partnership with private businesses and entrepreneurs.
In India, the intent of the government and business biggies seems to be in favor of IoT/smart cities. Now, all that is required is a lot of action on the ground so that smooth order can replace random chaos—in some Indian cities at least.
(Note: This blog post first appeared on DynamicCIO.com.)