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Smart city technologies can tackle India’s urban explosion. But key questions must be asked

Modern cities have come to produce tremendous quantities of data. Understanding this data will give India a new level of understanding of the urban ecology.

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It is projected that two out of every three people in the world will live in cities by 2050. With its current trend of urbanisation, India is likely to have more than 60 cities with populations exceeding one million and six megacities with populations of 10 million or more by 2030. Mumbai and Delhi, which are already among the world’s largest cities, would continue to be the centres of urban explosion. 

This growing Indian urban population is going to place a strain on resources like water and energy, infrastructure like housing and roads, services like waste management, public transport and even basic services like education and healthcare. Sustainably using resources and efficiently planning infrastructure development and services are going to be critical.

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What is a smart city?

If India continues to invest in urban infrastructure at its current rate, in 20 years’ time, the urban set-up will fall short of what will be required to sustain these cities.

Solving these problems will be no easy task. However, developments in technology in the form of smart city technologies do offer us a way forward. A smart city, simply put, is a city that uses technology to improve city operations and enhance the services it offers its residents. To be called a smart city, a city needs one primary resource, which is reliable data to inform its long-term decisions.

Thanks to automated sensors and the pervasiveness of mobile technology, every transaction we make be it social or economic, generates data. These settings have led to modern cities producing tremendous quantities of data. Using data analytics to make sense of this data can give us a new level of understanding of the urban ecology.

Using data for efficient management of cities

The Narendra Modi government took cognisance of these developments and launched the Smart Cities Mission on 25 June 2015. Under the mission, 99 selected cities have pitched Rs 2,01,981 crore as their total investment budget to improve the way they are managed.

Collecting socio-economic data and information on municipal services will enable city planners to plan infrastructure development and provision of services in such a way that they improve the quality of life for all residents of a city. This data could also enable the targeted delivery of municipal services such as energy or water supply to areas that require them as well as be used to provide subsidies to residents of the city that need them most. Data on waste production could be used to plan the waste management systems in a city in such a way that waste can be locally processed without having the need to create large landfills.

Creating a database on the ownership of property in a city could reduce property disputes and also enable the collection of taxes that could not previously be collected due to the anonymity of property owners.

Transportation authorities can use data about traffic flow to discover patterns and come up with ways to better manage and monitor transportation in the city. The areas that can be improved are essentially limited by the kind of data available.

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Ethical concerns of data misuse

The collection of such large amounts of data through the use of smart city technologies can, without proper regulation, pose a significant risk to privacy and security. The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018 will reportedly be tabled in Parliament’s ongoing winter session.

If this is codified into law, certain important questions will crop up: will we be made aware of what data is collected, how will it be monitored and used? Will we know if our personal data will be sold or what will be done with it in the future? Privacy education and transparency with regard to data management and practices become all the more important.

The government should create mechanisms to ensure that residents of these smart cities are made aware of the data that is collected about them and how that data is being used. Another key question is: how much data is enough data? The government and smart city managers will have to collect data required to fulfil their objectives without gathering excessive amounts of unnecessary data. Excessive data collection has the potential to turn India into a surveillance state where privacy doesn’t exist and every citizen’s moves are watched.

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The Modi government is clearly aware of these concerns and has taken a step forward by joining the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance on Technology Governance. It is expected that the new global policy standards for privacy, security and sustainability of smart technologies will be unveiled before the 2020 G20 summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. As Chizuru Suga, Head of the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Japan, said “As urban populations grow, smart city technologies become more and more essential not only to improve the quality of life of citizens but also to simply keep our cities liveable”.

This article is part of a series examining The Future of Data in partnership with Carnegie India leading up to its Global Technology Summit 2019 in Bengaluru from 4-6 December 2019. More details about the summit are available here

R.K. Misra is a non-resident scholar and Arjun Kang Joseph is a research assistant at Carnegie India. Views are personal. 

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  1. Missing the wood for the tree. Growing urbanisation is due to availability of jobs in cities. If there are no jobs in cities available for the incoming new population, then the concept of Smart cities goes for a six. Why are we missing this big picture? Whatever technology we have and let it be the best of AI, if we are not creating enough jobs in smart cities, then this AI technology is not going to give us the correct data. Incorrect data or fudged data is going to create havoc in the system. And that is what is happening to the Indian Smart cities.

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