What was earlier known as ‘˜modern’ is nowadays giving way to smart. ‘˜Smart Grid’ is a digital enabler for optimizing electricity services that connects and integrates all stakeholders and infrastructure. A more popular version of something ‘˜smart’ is the smart phone that is evolving as a communicating device that helps the user integrates everything that they end up doing in a day from search, emails to taking pictures, sharing those, listening to music and much more. To understand what smart cities are all about, it is only too logical to imply that systems do get integrated somewhere. In fact, after the whole wave of specialization in technology, it is the integration that is becoming increasingly significant. It is almost as if no matter how specialized your technology is, if it is not integrated in a way that is accessible, it is of no use. IBM’ s definition of a ‘˜Smart City’ is to have a unified view of all city agencies to enhance the ‘˜predict and response’ system. It is essentially an idea of putting in place a centralized system which connects to various civic systems in the city for optimizing operational efficiency. Almost makes you wonder why they weren’ t doing it until now. However, it is far from being a truth even in the most well managed cities in the world. Why things get managed wherever they do is because of the efficiency of the individual departments.
IBM and the City of Rio de Janeiro are together attempting to demonstrate the concept of smart city. IBM assumes the role of the master integrator in this experiment. A positive outcome of this experiment would go a long way in fetching IBM and others who share the ‘˜expertise kitty’ , a multibillion dollar business. At this stage, even if a few more cities join the bandwagon to get futuristic and ‘˜smart’ through IBM’ s campaign march towards smartness, it is not far when a smart city tag would become a pre requisite for inviting new businesses, hosting global events etc.
What this experiment does for the city of Rio De Janeiro is to have efficient interconnected departments that engage with the people of the city on a real time basis. Timely interventions by civic agencies can mean reducing impact on lives in case of adverse situations such as landslides, earthquakes, flooding or any natural or manmade calamity. This can be achieved by advising people to stay out of certain areas, helping medical and policing teams to get to the place in time, alerting hospitals, fire department etc. This can have a tremendous impact on handling events, incidents or crisis. All of this can be achieved only by being information ready.
Are smart cities all about information? Mr Banavar, CTO of IBM, who is spear heading the movement of smart cities says it is “Once you have the information and understand it and know what to do with it, you are halfway to smart.’ While in this information age, where both the input and output are dependent on how quickly it can move from one end to another, one would tend to agree with Mr Banavar. However, things may not be as simple as we think they are. An aging water and sewage system in a city may be helped by the information in some way, say to find out quickly about a leak and sending people to fix it. However, it would be arguable to know if the problem is just about finding out the leak. Isn’ t it about funds for fixing, manpower, availability of equipment and then eventually the will to fix it. In case of mayor of Rio, it may well be the case that the mayor is all driven to get this going. How many cities (people in the cities) in the developing world can vouch that for their mayors? What about the corruption, the intention and the reality of the real life world.
In a way, this experiment may be successful in not only Rio, benefitted by the leadership of its mayor, but in many developed countries in the world as well. Cities in the industrialized countries in the world do not face as many challenges as those in developing countries. The challenge of corruption, lack of funds, ill equipped civic departments are all a reality of the cities of the developing world. These cities may be far away from the reality of their departments getting connected. Therefore to assume that information is a panacea is really expecting too much from it.
However, another aspect if the cities show willingness for getting integrated is there. It is about increased transparency that can come from connecting all stakeholders in a city. It may lead to a more visible system and may trigger more responsibility in certain government departments. If it works that way, it is then that it may become a norm that people demand. Then it could become a more ‘˜proactive’ way of engaging citizens and services than a more ‘˜reactive’ way. Who knows if the ‘˜reactive’ indeed becomes a precursor to ‘˜proactive’ governance? If that happens IBM is a clear winner for helping transform cities to be smarter cities. The thing to remember is that there is more to this transformation at this stage than information alone, which is political will, availability of funds and no corruption.
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