Looking to build a perfect smart city? Sorry, there’s nothing like it

Big dreams.
Big dreams.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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What will our smart cities look like? Do we build new cities from the ground up, or is it better to smarten up the existing ones? What is a precise roadmap to becoming smart? Innovations in the technology space create opportunities for the cities to transform, powered by the newer capabilities. Should the city explore ways to incorporate them into our day-to-day living, to make the cities more efficient, liveable, and sustainable?

Every city is different. Every community’s culture, priorities, and natural assets are unique: The look, feel, architecture, policies, and people’s mindsets are based on the city’s historical and cultural background. Two cities that appear different from each other may be equally smart. There are poor societies with no electricity in India that produce some of the best scientists in the world. Transformation plans to improve the education, transportation and infrastructure would be preferred by these communities, rather than, say, disaster management. The priority for Los Angeles could possibly be a better public transportation system. Communities in Burundi may want safety more than electricity. Bangkok would like to reduce expenses on recycling and waste management.

Priorities of cities in growing economies like China and India will be different from those in the United States, Europe, and Japan. While many poor countries need to accommodate challenges presented by a rapidly booming population and an exponential urbanisation, countries in the West have to cope with ageing systems that are out-of-sync with modern infrastructure. What about a community that has infinite money and resources? Can they build a perfect smart city that ranks 10 out of 10 on every possible parameter? Theoretically, yes; but soon a new technology or solution will emerge, and one or more of the existing solutions deployed will become sub-optimal. So, there is no perfect smart city.


Urgent and important

There are two approaches to improving urban living. One is to keep exploring new ways of improving the existing framework: Do the needed research, attend conferences, invite specialists, and find new solutions for the city. These efforts will help discover opportunities for improving the current deployments by re-architecting a solution or installing equipment that is better suited. This is the top-down approach where the city is constantly exploring ways to save money, save energy, increase effectiveness, or add new services. This is also a proactive approach to smart transformation.

The other approach focusses on studying the recurring challenges that the community faces. For examples: the sewer pipes overflow in some areas every Saturday night; major traffic junctions in the city are causing more than 10 minutes of delay; some buses are overcrowded, but some are empty; 20 bus drivers call in sick and the bus company does not have a process for dealing with such exigencies!

This is a bottom-up and a reactive approach: The problems occur first, and the city administration looks for solutions afterwards.

Most city administrations are of the second type. They lack a long-term vision or even a process that requires a long-term planning. The fact is that cities are managed by elected people, and they generally want results in a short period of time, so they can prepare for the next election for a higher post. So, in a way, short-term nature of city planning is built into the democratic system. Cities are generally short of funds as well, and the administrators end up focussing on fixing things that were working before but are broken now. Despite this short-term approach being a common practice, there are still opportunities to initiate and execute significant transformations. The cities must be able to identify areas that are urgent such as a faulty street light, as well as areas that are important, such as the supply of water from the lake that is no more adequate to fulfil the needs. Urgent items may not be as important but need immediate attention. Important items have a more significant impact, and we need a longer-term view.


There are thousands of initiatives around the world involving deployment of smart ideas and solutions. These initiatives are intended to solve problems that the community faces at that moment, or support proactive programmes to improve effectiveness. Some of these are significant transformation projects costing billions of Euros, and there are many that cost only a few thousand. In fact, many transformative projects do not cost any money additional at all. All transformation programs need an organised framework of visioning, planning, designing, executing, operating and governing.

Developing new or transforming old

It is not very common to develop a brand new metropolis at a new location that was originally not inhabited by humans. The few cities that were built from scratch, such as Washington DC or Shenzhen, were also occupied by people earlier. However, those locations were not urbanised, and economies of those locations changed considerably after installation of the new city. Most of the new developments are on the outskirts of an existing city. These developments have their own identity, often with an independent name and unique character. These new areas present opportunities to introduce smart ideas right from the stage of initial planning. Infrastructure, security cameras, gas and water pipes, sensors can all be planned for from the beginning. This makes it easier, simpler, and cheaper to implement and manage, compared to retrofitting in an existing city.

Transforming an existing city is a more complex exercise. Significant investments have already been made in developing what exists today, and to change that to something new is generally not feasible—either financially or politically. So, these transformative ideas are usually brought out when there are parts of the city that needs a replacement or augmentation. For our discussion through the rest of this chapter, we will focus only on the transformation of an existing city.

Developing a city from scratch is like drawing on a blank piece of paper. There is considerable freedom to choose the character of the city and its priorities. In reference to our model, it is essentially starting with a value of zero or close to zero in the 12-component Smart Map. The initial state of the map is a tiny area close to the centre as most of the capabilities of the city are non-existent. Some of the environmental components, though, may rate high. The final state map and the roadmap are also simpler to develop—it is based on aspirations of the administration and the finances available.

Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury India from The SMART City Transformations: The Revolution of the 21st Century by Amitabh Satyam and Igor Calzada.