Smart City: Whim or Reality?

Since the local level election in Nepal, there is a word buzzing around. Knowingly or just as a whim, everybody is saying it. It became an essential topic of election manifesto as well. Is it just a fancy thing to talk or has some significance in upgrading the quality of life of the citizens? Till now that word may come to your mind too. Yes, we are talking about ‘Smart City’, which has the power to change the life of millions Nepalese. Did your political leader said to make your city a smart one? If you believe them, welcome to the future!

With the advancement of the technologies, Nepalese lifestyle has also been changed. The Internet has become one of the basic needs. Smart devices are no longer just the things to show off; they are essential things to perform daily activities. Smartphones are not just the device to make or receive calls; they contain the whole universe. Smartwatches in your wrist provide easy notifications; you are not going to miss your friend’s birthday or a game of your favorite team. Smart lighting in your home works as you need, switch are replaced by sensors. Okay, I believe your personal life is smart but does the street light in your city turns itself on when you walk by? You are going to a movie this afternoon; can you check whether parking lots are available in the theatre or nearby? Can your vehicle find out the nearby fuel station when the fuel level is below the line? Does the traffic light stop the vehicle in the zebra crossing when you are about to cross the road? The water pipe is broken in a location a bit far from the water supply office; can they detect it before any complaint? Waste containers placed in the street near your house is full, do the municipality know it? Does the management company know roadside gardens need water? Can you see the noise and air pollution level of the city from your smart devices? Will you receive a message when your area is about to get flooded? Can the drivers instantly pay highway tolls while exiting from Thankot? Can your electricity company read your usage meter from their office? I know all of your answers; it’s simply ‘No’. But a citizen of a smart city will say ‘Yes’ all those questions and it’s not the science fiction movie. Some of the well-known smart cities across the globe are Barcelona, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Dubai, Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Nice, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Miami, Denver, Boston, Seoul, Sydney, Osaka, Perth etc. Numerous other cities have initiated smart-city pilot projects, and other more cities have signed smart-city construction agreements with IT companies and financial partners.

As a place equipped with better roads, vehicles, traffic lights, electricity, and waste containers etc. is designated as a city, integration of information and communication technologies (ICT) makes it a ‘Smart city’; it’s simply the promotion. With the help of smart technologies, the quality of life of the citizens gets to the higher level and that’s what smart city aims. A ‘smart city’ is made by ‘smart citizens’ and citizens have almost all the information from the city’s system, which is used to make choices about their lifestyle, work, and travel options. If we consider the view of United Nations Economic and Social Council, there is no standardized and commonly accepted definition of a smart city; it varies from people to people and country to country, this is due to wide variety of technologies, cities, and countries can integrate the technology they want and afford. No matter how that is defined by various people, combining a current system of the city with ICT and fulfilling the demand of the citizens enhancing the accessibility, working environment, service quality and performance is the core of developing the smart city. To uplift the citizen’s life, numerous areas such as business, environment, people & lifestyle, safety & security, water supply, energy efficiency, e-Governance & citizen participation, a communication mechanism, health and education, and transportation network etc. need to be excelled by the use of ICT infrastructure.

An American tech company IBM defines a smart city as “one that makes optimal use of all the interconnected information available today to better understand and control its operations and optimize the use of limited resources”. Similarly, another tech giant Cisco defines smart cities as those who adopt “scalable solutions that take advantage of information and communications technology to increase efficiencies, reduce costs, and enhance the quality of life”.

Let’s leave the sci-fi things and focus on how all those things are done. Implementation of a smart city is the prominent demonstration of the internet of things (IoT). IoT is the concept that makes every device capable of generating the data and communicating with other station. It uses high-end sensors, which are generally added to physical devices. For instance, visualize the lights in the street that automatically turns on or off sensing motion and the available light. It turns itself on when it gets dark, off when there is no movement in the street and turns on instantly when pedestrians approach. So much energy efficient, right? Similarly, if the sensor is in integrated into the waste container it will send the data to its base when the container is full. The team will come to the container’s location and take the waste to a landfill site; it maintains a clean environment in the city. Likewise, sensors integrated into the parking can determine its status and trigger the message to the enquiring drivers, more intelligently; it may also recommend other parking that has available space nearby. Buildings equipped with sensors can detect wear and tear and notify the owner regarding repairs. Powerful ICT infrastructure, broadband Internet, wirelessly managed streetlights, intelligent waste containers, smart traffic lights, efficient public transport, robust ICT infrastructure, electronic service delivery, smart power grid, smart electricity and water meters, monitoring of water and air quality, implementing an early warning system before floods, landslides or other disaster, use of renewable source of energy,  smart roads, electric and autonomous vehicles, high speed electric train, electronic payment solutions, smooth security and surveillance, smart health monitoring equipment, etc. are some models a smart city assimilates to increases the quality of the city and its citizens as well as saves huge amount of money over some period. Wow, isn’t this so cool?

The government of Nepal said to build smart cities in the Kathmandu Valley and some other parts of the country. But for the nation where basic infrastructures are still lacking, it could be a far-sighted dream. Preparing the guidelines and getting the fund to build ICT infrastructure is a major challenge. Building the smart city needs huge investment so affordability will be the key to a country like Nepal whose per capita income is less than $2500. A smart city is a completely new aspect of ICT development for us. Thus, we must first keep attention that only integrating high-end sensors and building powerful infrastructure does not make a system smart. Utilizing its potential in a sustainable manner is a big concern. The global analysis from the smart city practitioners and experts need to be kept in consideration. We may also need advisor team which provides training to the local body regarding various approaches to implementation. As our most of the existing cities are popular for their long history, rich culture and diverse communities they must be kept soulful that means smart cities should be built upon the strong historical foundation. Finding the innovative ways of integrating technology and using data generated by them is another big issue.

Currently, Government of Nepal, Ministry of Urban Development has set various dimensions for smart cities such as smart people, smart governance, smart mobility, smart economy, smart living, and smart environment and those dimensions encompasses various indicators. Smart people comprises inclusion, education, creativity etc. Likewise, smart governance contains online service availability, ICT infrastructure, transparent government & open data. The smart mobility indicator includes efficient and eco-friendly public transportation, demand-based pricing for highway toll & parking, real-time traffic management, GPS tracking system & remote monitoring system. Equally, the smart economy is another important indicator that emprises entrepreneurship, innovation, productivity and local & global connection. Smart living consist of health, safety, culture, and wellbeing. Similarly, smart environment consists of smart buildings, smart grid for communication, automated control systems for addressing system outages, managed renewable energy sources, recycled solid waste, smart electricity & water meter, sustainable urban planning along with disaster resilience plan, real-time information on city routes & maps.

The ultimate aim of a smart city is to offer improved services to the residents and that is gained through instrumented, interconnected and intelligent components. For the developing nations like Nepal, investing in ICT infrastructure can be a great challenge. But this challenge can be mitigated by performing the actions step by step. Completely transforming the existing system is not an overnight process. Following the incremental model starting with small and low budget ICT projects and combining them seems the finest option but standardization and interoperability of developed subsystems should be well managed. Currently, the South Korean government has pledged technical and economic support for transforming some cities to smart one, they promised to help on building the strategic framework but we can’t always depend upon the donors. As the process of smartening the city is not the one way practice from the government body, the Public Private Partnership (PPP) model appears to be the best way for starting the ICT projects in which the effort of government bodies, research institutions, IT service providers, and international donors can be combined for a common goal. Another implementation challenge in Nepal is the gap among citizens in terms of access to ICT also referred as the digital divide, typically seen between the people in cities and rural areas. Thus, government and private sectors must act promptly to improve the IT literacy because citizen’s active involvement can only fasten the development and implementation process as well as it makes them realize the value and they easily adopt the change.

At last, we can’t ignore the bitter truth that the incompetence and inadequate effort of the political leaders and government authorities’ is the major reason behind the poor execution of the plan and the same thing may happen in case of the smart city too. The possibilities of the smart city are almost endless but we always need to consider that the rush may exacerbate the existing system and it may lead towards the creepy city. With positive effort from the government, the citizens and external support entities the dream of the smart city is not so far.