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Ravinder Pal Singh, Consulting Director, Smart Cities, Cisco Systems, demystifies what smart cities are all about, what needs to be done to reach the target and go beyond.
What is the scope of Cisco´s role as the lead partner for DMIC project ?
You can call us digital architects. While civil architects or urban planners make the physical plan of the city, the need is to embed technology into that. There has to be somebody to create a digital architecture and ICT Master plan over and above physical master plan. That is where we come in. ICT master plan includes ICT and OT technology plan (WiFi, Fiber, Smart Solutions etc). Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) has taken a good approach here since when they appointed an urban planner, they also appointed an ICT planner.
As digital architects, what we do is we create a digital plan on top of the what the urban planners do. This is the digital architecture and the two plans have to work in tandem. Only then, you can get the best value. In the second stage, we identify what we call smart services like traffic management, etc. You could put a fiber and CCTV across the city. Will that make your traffic smart? No. You have to put a service so that people can use that. Then, you create a list of services, which says these are the things the city needs. Finally, to run those services you need the equipment like sensors, networks, cameras, and these you can buy from anywhere. That´s why Cisco is here because when you talk of smart and connected, Cisco has been the worldwide leader in networking and connectivity technologies. We are here as the early movers. Also, this initiative of Smart Cities is driven across the globe from India, for Cisco. The Bangalore globalisation centre is actually a global hub for our smart connected business.
Technology adoption has never been a strong point in India. How big a challenge is this in the context of the Smart Cities project?
In fact, the first and most important challenge is adoption. Few state governments said they would provide wi-fi or CCTVs. It was easy to do, and they did it. Look at these after three years. Either they would have stopped it or the usage would have dropped. Do you know why? Infrastructure provision is the easier thing. Adoption by users is the most challenging thing. One thing which can make it possible is the value users see. For instance, If I have wi-fi in my city, what can I do with it? Shall I just stand anywhere and open my facebook account? Does it bring value? So, it is important we use this wi-fi with some application, where a girl travelling alone in the evening in Delhi should feel safe because she is 100 per cent connected and can call emergency by pressing a button. That´s the value. An ambulance should know the quickest way to the hospital because there is wi-fi everywhere and gets continuous traffic feeds. These are the value applications we have to build on top of the infrastructure.
The problem is we are focusing more on infrastructure. We have to focus more on those applications, and there are some very good innovative young minds who have come out with these applications. I remember someone who has made an application that looks at garbage, automatically checks the place´s latitude and longitude, checks the database and sends a picture message to the concerned municipal ward with a copy to the commissioner. It´s a very simple thing. GPS is freely available. The municipality cannot now say nobody brought it to their notice.
These are what makes things much smarter. Putting infrastructure does not make a city smart unless you use it for some meaningful work, whether it be security, ease of work, traffic management, parking or other things.
What is a realistic time frame for smartening up our cities?
Surely, in the next three years, everything will not become smart. Retrofitting is not an easy thing. There has to be a transformation roadmap. Look at the low-hanging fruit and at what we can solve today. If we can tackle the traffic problem, parking, healthcare, education, garbage, sewage, by a mix of technology, will power and behaviour change, if you take these five-six things, you are 50-60 per cent smart already. Next, laying a fibre across the city, providing wi-fi, CCTV and other things will definitely take time because of economic reasons, land acquisition delays or because of government processes. Retrofitting can even take up to 10 years. However, let´s look at green field. It´s much faster. It does not mean we should not look at existing cities but let´s not look at them from a very holistic view.
Statements like ¨we can make our city smart in three years¨ is not the right statement. The statement can be ôI will solve the traffic problem in Bangalore, to begin withö because that´s a chronic problem. Garbage, sewage, security, then maybe value add services, e-governance, etc. If we do these five-six things, we are already 50 per cent smart. Ask a citizen and he will only list four or five things. First, garbage, traffic, security for women and children. If you do this, you have achieved at least some part of it. To answer your question, yes, it´s a long journey and a continuous journey.
What are the business models Cisco is interested in?
You know that the mission is not restricted to 100 cities. You´re aware there´s another programme called the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). This aims to create 500 smart cities. Then, there are private cities with private investors and companies interested in creating smart cities. We are working on a couple of them. A good example of PPP partnership is GIFT in Gujarat. It has to be an inclusive thing. You can´t say only the government will make 100 cities smart. It has to be a joint effort. Cisco is already empanelled as an ICT consultant for Mission Smart Cities project. We are also involved in couple of states and private projects. Lot of work is being done in multiple areas and models of engagement. Whether it is part of 100 or not does not matter. Right now, everybody wants something to be done with his city, which is a good thing.
Considering we are starting from scratch, is this project overambitious?
No. Ideally, we should look at the whole of India becoming smart. As I said, if somebody says we can make 100 cities smart in the next few years, then definitely it is overambitious. However, if he can solve at least a few big problems in those 100 cities in the next five years, that´s the best we can do, and I think that´s what we should aim for.