Smart solutions for sustainable cities: translating vision to reality

Smartness is synonymous to being stylish, neat and intelligent. Translating the concept of smartness to cities shall mean cities to be livable, safe, healthy, neat and responsive to citizens' needs. The challenges faced by Indian cities are well established and yet we see steady migration to cities for job and better lifestyles. Cities thus continue to face challenges over increased population to be served by limited services and resources. The demand supply gap in water sector will reach a whopping 1,500 bcm (by 2030) while current supply is only about 744 bcm; associated with this, overexploitation of groundwater, declining water availability and deterioration in surface and groundwater quality remains a constant challenge. In the transport sector, 4 times increase in cars is expected between 2011 and 2025.

Today, most large Indian cities feature amongst the top 100 polluted cities of the world as vehicular pollution continues to rise and will emerge as major public health issue. Buildings, residential and commercial, are getting constructed at a fast pace and we inherit a legacy of buildings that are not so efficient. As per estimates energy need for heating and cooling in residential segment shall increase by 180% by 2021 over present baseline, while energy need for lighting in residential segment shall rise by 80%. At a macro level, access and equity remains priority for the country as,though percentage of household with electricity has increased from 56% in 2001 to 67% in 2011, almost 45% of rural households have no electricity connection. The eleventh plan added 55000 MW of generation capacity, which was more than thrice the capacity added in the Tenth Plan. The 12th Plan envisages addinganother 88000 MW, putting various questions on availability of fuel and its import dependence.

The above facts paint a gloomy picture and we have already started believing that nothing can be changed. However, the new government with its agenda of "acche din ayenge" holds a lot of promise, at least in its progressive thinking. And results are surely to be delivered if we think right and take quick and positive steps. The 100 smart cities' initiative is one such example of a progressive initiative that holds a lot of promise. The initiative is creating a lot of flutter among the businesses and industry as they see lots of opportunity for technology interface and business generation.

However, given the resource and environmental challenges that we face, concept of introducing smartness in cities should be embedded on strong principles of achieving sustainability. In common parlance, smart cities' initiative is being perceived to be making a city more IT enabled. The government objective of this initiative is to enable a safe, healthy, livable and sustainable city that has resource efficient infrastructure, has sustained economic growth, is environmentally responsible and has good governance and delivery mechanism. Use of IT and technology should be able to strengthen the primary objective of achieving sustainability. Citizen satisfaction holds primary focus in Government's agenda for enabling smart cities. About 100 existing cities shall be initially taken up under the initiative and shall be extended to 500-700 cities in the near future. Ownership at level of Urban local bodies would be critical to success and thus capacity building of the employees of urban local bodies shall have a major role to play.

The former government had launched a few smart initiatives in some sectors such as in transmission/distribution in power sector, in governance, municipal services in select cities, that are worth a mention. The ongoing smart grid initiative of the Govt. of India in the power sector helps monitor, measure and control power flows, helps identify losses to enable actions to arrest losses under the APDRP program.

Some basic components of smart grids are being implemented in 1401 towns of India, which can be leveraged strengthened through the new smart grid program which can further feed into the smart cities program. The water sector needs urgent attention in the smart city initiative. The 12th need for water use efficiency, management and re-use, if we aspire to achieve economic growth between 8 to 9 percent. As per studies, total water demand is likely to be 50 per cent higher than today. While strategies such as ground water retention, rain water harvesting, additional storage can be augment supply and demand can be controlled through appropriate water use efficiency measure, there is need of adding smartness to manage leakages and losses, for enabling optimization of high volume consumers such as golf courses through need based smart irrigation, mitigate sewage overflow events and several such issues which is difficult to manage on manual modes. Thus smart water initiatives can help achieve overall sustainability in the sector. Smartness is context of water availability and use in India shall entail enabling optimum water availability, and maintained quality.

Waste management in another area of concern in Indian cities, that needs smart interventions. Urban areas in India generate more than 1,00,000 MT of waste per day. A large metropolis like Mumbai generates about 8000 MT waste per day. Collection, processing, transporting and disposing this municipal solid waste remains a major challenge. Inappropriate and inadequate waste management is a cause of poor public health and environment. Waste collection and treatment is still low in India and holds potential for being up scaled through smart initiative. Smart containers with sensors detecting overflow situation can be used to make ULBs respond to the situation. This, coupled with efficient collection, segregation and treatment can make cities healthier and clean.

The Government's smart cities initiative is a welcome and forward looking move to ensure that cities are livable and sustainable. Ensuring sustainability of urban services for a burgeoning urban population should be the core of the smart cities. Citizens should be happy and content living in a city and the success shall lie in ensuring citizens' satisfaction. The Government should be able to define simple achievable goals for the cities. Most of the cities that shall be taken up under the smart cities initiative shall be existing cities, contrary to the understanding that these shall be new cities. The former government had launched eight ambitious missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change.

The Mission on Sustainable habitats was one such mission. Though several planning exercises were carried out under the mission, the mission never took off. It would be useful to build on the work done under the mission and make it complement the work to be initiated under the smart cities' initiative.

Several national and international best practice examples exists in addressing the aforementioned issues in a smart way and a compendium of the replicable best practices would be useful to be compiled. TERI had prepared a model building bye law by integrating concepts of sustainable habitats including integration of the energy conservation building code, under the mission's activities. It, however, remains to be implemented. TERI has developed the GRIHA framework for large neighborhoods ( that is based on strong principles of sustainability and also encourages inclusion of smartness to manage and monitor resource use and other environmental parameters.

A roadmap to implementation of 100 smart cities should include.:

  • Identification of initial set of cities based on demographics, willingness to participate, economic,social and environmental parameters.

  • Creation of sectoral baselines to assess needs, gaps and future needs based on growth parameters.

  • Setting implementable goals and targets (e.g. round the clock potable water supply and reliable power supply)and prioritised goals

  • Seeking citizens' participation and raising awareness level of citizens by using social media and smart applications

  • Prepare integrated framework for implementation and avoid duplication of initiatives to avoid resource wastage e.g. aggregate utility corridors for urban services may be created to cater to urban infrastructure (use of GIS mapping shall be critical to map existing infrastructure and planning for future)

  • Devise sectoral policies, guidelines and regulations to complement the framework.

  • Carrying out technology assessment and mapping and engaging partner institutions for implementation.

  • Engaging with industry partners

  • Creation of robust financial structures to realize the vision and to maintain it.

  • Most importantly, creation of sense of ownership among each and every citizen and build capacities in urban local bodies to implement, monitor and maintain.

It is a tall ask but I am a strong believer that we can make it happen.

Tags: sustainable habitats, sustainable development, GRIHA