Experts predict that by 2050, about 70% of the global population – roughly 6.4 billion people – is likely to stay in the cities. Even at home, the old adage that India resides in its villages is no longer true. Already 31% of Indian population lives in cities and this number is likely to go up to over 50% in the next three decades.
Managing urban agglomerations is a global challenge. Not too long ago, cities were the world’s problem children. In developed economies, people fled to the suburbs to escape crime, crowding, crumbling infrastructure, pollution, and failing schools. In emerging nations, the worst problems of society continue to beset poor people living in vast urban slums. Yet over the last couple of decades, exciting changes are taking places in the way cities are perceived and managed. Once considered concrete wastelands, cities – at least the best of them – have once again become dynamic. In developed economies, young people, professionals and empty nesters are reverse migrating into cities in search of economic opportunities, cultural enrichment and leisure opportunities.
In the emerging world, cities have always been magnets for people from the countryside who dream of brighter futures for themselves and their children. And as citizens engage more, demand accountability and technology plays a bigger role, these emerging world cities are slowly but surely being transformed.
A key to this urban transformation is the role of information and communications technology (ICT) that is making cities smarter and enhancing their livability, workability and sustainability. These smart city systems are not only using the power of big data to provide smarter solutions to the people, but by integrating them, making them more accessible to people and breaking the silos in policy making are ensuring that more and more citizens stay engaged with their city managements.
Among the most interesting initiatives is the Future Cities Demonstrator Competition launched by the Technology Strategy Board, United Kingdom (UK). This competition challenged UK cities to show how they would integrate their city systems to create better places to live and work..
A perusal of the proposals shows a fascinating diversity of approaches in applying smart technologies for solving urban challenges. Take London, for example. The city is planning a novel approach to exploiting existing infrastructure through a clever integration of transport and energy services. It is planning to extract waste heat from existing infrastructure, such as the London Underground system, electrical substations and data centres and transmit it through nearby district heating networks to supply schools, hospitals, leisure centres and large retail outlets, thereby significantly reducing the city’s carbon footprint.
Bristol is looking at setting up a Community Communications Canopy that will be established by retrofitting existing photocells in Bristol’s streetlights with RF (Radio Frequency)-enabled transceivers. These will not only be able to operate as sensors for environmental information but will also create a network which will then be integrated into the City’s existing fibre network.
Technology is, of course, only an enabler. The key to solving the global urbanization challenges lies in the way city leadership rises to the occasion and initiate change within their urban contexts. A glimpse of how this is being across the world is available from an IBM white paper on the company’s ‘Smarter Cities Challenge Grant Program’ where its staff has been working with mayors of cities across the world.
Michael Nutter, the mayor calls Philadelphia a ‘business enterprise.’ The ‘Board of Directors’ is the 17-member city council; taxpayers its ‘shareholders’ and over 1.5 city residents, its ‘customers.’ Nutter believes that he is fighting for market share every day, and if he doesn’t deliver his ‘product’ more efficiently and effectively and cheaply, his ‘customer base’ will find somebody else. His core ‘business strategy’ is to improve education and skills training and he has developed a programme that is designed to provide education to residents anywhere, any time and on any communications or computing device they have access to.
City leadership is increasingly going beyond city administrations and reaching out to academia and other stakeholders to address urban challenges. For example, Pittsburgh in the United States, which suffered when the steel industry collapsed in the 1980s, is now working with leading universities, healthcare institutions and charities to build a new economic foundation for the city based on higher education and healthcare — “eds and meds” in the local parlance.