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It’s Time We Achieve India’s Smart City vision

For India to succeed in its vision to intelligently connect cities and improve people’s lives, governments and businesses need to develop a future-ready mentality, and identify opportunities and innovations that are worth and investing in

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In July 2018, a massive downpour hit Mumbai, flooding the city and its surrounding areas. Throughout the financial capital of India, traffic came to a standstill. Each year when monsoon hits Mumbai and the city floods, so are social media and news channels with tragic stories of its many stranded victims and inspiring stories of courage, support and mutual aid. Yet, Mumbai continues to face this year after year. 

Now imagine another hypothetical scenario: several supermarkets are facing a crisis in a city with a population of close to 1.5 million as their shelves are running low on rice. The problem: a local logistics company missed processing the local grocers’ routine bulk orders to stock up rice supplies. 

India has significantly evolved and progressed on many dimensions. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), India is the dominant economy in the South Asia sub-region. The country will continue to be the world's fastest growing major economy, ahead of China, with 7.3 per cent growth rate in 2018-19 and 7.6 per cent in 2019-20. Nutrition and quality of healthcare have vastly improved, contributing to longer life expectancy across the region.

And yet, when we look closer, despite the progress the sub-continent has achieved over the past five decades, the scenarios painted above still reflect the realities in this region. Amidst its achievements to become a global economic powerhouse, supported by rapid urbanization all across the region, more efforts are needed to improve the quality of life for a majority of the population. Rapid urbanization is taking a toll on infrastructures, and the government still has to grapple with issues like city congestion, water and air quality levels, poverty, rising inequalities, urban-rural divide, citizen security and safety. 

These are the issues holding India back from the next chapter of its growth. For India to move ahead and realize its potential, the government, public and private sectors have to work together to address the challenges at bay.

Harnessing ideas and capabilities through the Smart Cities Mission

The Smart Cities Mission by the Government of India is an initiative to develop 100 cities across the country making them citizen friendly and sustainable. Its strategic components include city improvement (retrofitting), city renewal (redevelopment), city extension (Greenfield development) and a pan-city initiative in which Smart Solutions are applied to cover larger parts of the city. Just like its opportunities, the challenges for developing smart cities can be overwhelming. From augmenting existing city infrastructure to timely clearance of projects, the challenges include managing projects, scheduling resources, and working in a multi-vendor environment.

Across India, various cities and municipalities have already been investing in “smart city projects”, testing proofs of concepts around the Internet of Things (IoT) to find solutions ranging from managing traffic congestions during rush hour to predicting flood threats or finding a solution to the impending water as well as energy crisis in the country. The consolidation of such efforts is a move in the right direction, which can help India better harness ideas and capabilities, bringing together insights from think tanks like Niti Aayog, expertise from leading technology players and learnings from developed economies.

Some of India’s unique challenges stem from the lack of consistency, integration and scalability of projects to deliver the Smart City vision. For example, cities earn revenue from a wide range of services (parking, tolls etc.). These services are quickly expanding to IOT enabled smart services and in many cases, each service is tied to its own billing system. Modern billing support the consolidation of disparate billing systems onto a single agile platform which is known to help cities reduce operating costs, offer more compelling service bundles to citizens, provide holistic view of revenues, manage settlement with PPP and deliver a much better customer experience.

The power of data

Central to this mission is the role of technology to address the issues facing urban cities in India. It goes without saying that in the digital age we are in, data is a smart city’s most vital asset. It provides governments with insights and influences decisions or actions required to resolve issues facing the city.

Think about the two scenarios above. The first anecdote is relatively common around the world, and is in fact not unique to India. 

Mirroring a similar challenge but with a different outcome, in Buenos Aires, the cosmopolitan capital of Argentina and a flood-prone area, the local government embarked on a project to leverage big data to provide insights on rainfall and water levels during stormy seasons. The city installed a vast network of sensors across its underground storm drainage system, which recorded readings of rainfall amounts and water levels during storms and relayed that information in real time back to city officials, creating an effective flood early warning system. 

Leveraging smart technologies to analyze the readings, city experts are equipped to predict the effect of major weather events so they can take action to warn residents of potentially hazardous flooding.

In the second scenario, had the local logistics company leveraged technology to automate its processes through historical data of when the local supermarkets would typically be running low on rice, such problems could be avoided.

In India, state governments have also embarked on their digital transformation journeys. Oracle has signed memorandum of understanding with the governments of Maharashtra and Jharkhand, with the goals of establishing a new center of excellence, accelerating smart city programs and exploring how the latest technologies can help improve citizen services.

Closer home, IFFCO is bringing farmers on the digital map. As India’s largest co-operative society, IFFCO is engaged in the business of manufacturing and marketing fertilizers. The company sells one-fourth the requirement of the country’s fertilizers. Today, IFFCO is digitally empowering farmers to procure fertilizers through its newly launched e-commerce platform – which is cashless.

Tech-savvy “smart cities” are reacting to heightened demands on scarce resources by developing new capabilities such as artificial intelligence (AI) and sensor-driven analytics to resolve myriad challenges, from crime to congestion. The new insights that result are helping city managers look at old problems in a new light, while cloud computing is making these efforts affordable and realistic.

As urban cities in India become smarter, public and private sector players have to reconcile with the new oceans of unstructured and semi-structured data, which hold a wealth of hidden insights that can now be explored with technologies. And for data to be effective, they need to be supported by a strong data strategy, standards, processes and tools to ensure the proper collection, classification, analysis and storage. Without this structure in place, the resulting information silos have the potential to bring lower data consistency, integrity, quality and accuracy leading to inefficiencies, potential incidents and higher costs. 

Investing in the future

The data explosion in the digital economy presents both an opportunity and a challenge. If intelligently managed and analyzed in a timely manner, data can become the most valuable asset to help uncover new solutions and accelerate innovation in a smart city. On the other hand, fragmented data and infrastructure, slow access to data, risky manual processing, and expensive resources make it prohibitive to monetize data. 

As I speak to customers across the country, both from the public and private sectors, many are still overwhelmed by the challenge of managing enterprise data today. Remarkably, for something so important, many organizations still run manual processes, where data are being managed and shared through conversations, telephone calls, spreadsheets and e-mail.

For India to succeed in its vision to intelligently connect cities and improve people’s lives, governments and businesses need to develop a future-ready mentality, and identify opportunities and innovations that are worth and investing in. The Indian economy has a huge potential to leap forward in this digital era, and technologies from cloud services, autonomous, artificial intelligence and blockchain can contribute to its success.   

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Shailender Kumar.

The author is Managing Director, Oracle India. As managing director, Kumar leads a team of sales and sales consulting professionals from all lines of business—including technology, applications, middleware, and systems—that is focused on delivering Oracle solutions to more than 7,000 customers in India.

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