Cities must have a digital master plan for successful ICT implementation

As a former Mayor of a US city aptly said, “The 19th century was a century of empires, the 20th century was a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities.”

However, urbanization brings with it a set of associated challenges as well. Situation in India, which is all set to replace China as the most populous country by 2025, is no different. In response to a myriad of social, economic and demographic shifts happening in India and in alignment with the paradigm shift in focus to-wards cities happening globally, Government of India launched the 100 Smart Cities Mission in June 2015.

It is probably not a coincidence that today we are also in the middle of disruptions in the technology land-scape. Technology led innovations which are possible now can go a long way in resolving the challenges which are being faced by the resource constrained cities in their efforts to become the engines of future growth.

Information and communication technologies (ICT), the emergence and adoption of sensors, converging data standards, and improvements in computational methods and technologies leading to innovative opex based business models are combining to provide new possibilities for city management. The ability to integrate and analyze massive amounts of data leveraging and big data analytics can lead to very insightful findings and new ways of servicing the needs of the city. Increased smart phone penetrations and mobile broadband access are acting as catalysts in this transformation. Collaboration across city sectors is the key.

In light of the above, there are few suggested thoughts and ideas for consideration of the city leadership. Seeding in these ideas right at the concept stage itself would only make the transformation process more effective.

a) Selected cities have identified IT initiatives in their detailed plan either as a pan city smart solution or within measures proposed under area based development or both. It is very likely that there are several other IT initiatives which may have been undertaken at different points of time in the city or proposed to be undertaken each trying to address some or the other challenge. Interventions proposed in the Smart City plan may also have to be supplemented with several other interventions over a period of time to make it more holistic. A comprehensive way of approaching this would be to consider developing a digital master plan for the city which outlines the roadmap of all the technology led interventions the city would undertake for it to meet the current and anticipated challenges in the years ahead, and related infrastructure requirements.

b) Integration is the essence of a Smart City. For applications running in various departments/sectors of the city to be interoperable and deliver services seamlessly transcending the departmental boundaries, taking a city wide IT architecture view while designing the IT strategy of the city would be beneficial. It will go a long way in promoting interoperable functional building blocks which are at the foundation of a Smart City.

c) Seamless delivery of citizen centric services cutting across departmental boundaries in a city relies on ICT as a key enabler. Like any other technology based system, the Smart City technological and communication eco system including the network infrastructure are vulnerable to cyber-attacks which could seriously jeopardize and bring the system to a halt. Therefore, right from the design stage itself, cities should consider architecting solutions keeping in mind potential threats arising out of cyber-attacks. Cyber Security Model Framework for Smart Cities published my Ministry of Urban Development, may be considered while developing the solution architecture of the cities.

d) In order to respond to the technology related challenges in the most effective way, institutional strengthening of urban local bodies is a must. Today, within India and globally, there are technologies available to solve various urban governance challenges. What is required to be developed in the Urban Local Bodies and city level para-statal agencies is the capacity to absorb these technologies to make the proposed technology interventions really sustainable over the mid to long term horizon. Creating a position of CIO or CKO in the SPV, as the case may be, and building an organization under him, can signal the right intent. Globally, this has met with success and some of the more progressive cities in India seem to be thinking on similar lines. Building in-house capabilities is an imperative for the success of this transformation.

e) Procurement of ICT by government has evolved. Several rounds of discussions facilitated by NASSCOM, between the government and technology players on various aspects of technology procurement have led to a balanced procurement process where the risks are more equitably distributed. However, learnings from this evolution should be suitably leveraged by Smart City SPV’s for buying technology and SI services.

The above cited measures and learning sourced from successful smart city implementations across the globe on, governance and program management, financing models such as PPP, Baseline+Opex, issuance of Municipal bonds and others, leveraging open data, frugal innovation, process reforms within the urban local bodies etc. can potentially ensure a greater degree of success as cities embark on this transformational and ambitious journey to become a Smart City.

The article was originally published in BW Smartcities November issue

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