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Wiring cities for future

Songdo International Business District in South Korea is set to become the most wired smart city in the world. In fact, as of 2015, South Korea led the world in terms of per capita number of online IOT devices. At 37.9 devices per 100 inhabitants, this Asian country was ahead of other developed nations including the USA, Germany and Japan by some distance.

Internet of Things (IoT) is the current wave of technology that is likely to impact human lives in far-reaching ways. In an age when ‘Digital India’ and ‘Smart Cities’ are engaging the attention of city planners and citizens alike, the IoT discourse is adding momentum and seeks to scale up the possibilities in an urban setting. Simply put, IoT refers to a vast network of physical objects or things, i.e., buildings, vehicles, home appliances and so on, which are embedded with sensors and software enabling them to ‘speak’ to each other and to respond to commands of an operator. Among the simpler things that are possible, you can switch off your home air-conditioner (something you forgot before leaving home) from your office many miles away. In other community wide applications, computers at electric utility companies, for example, will be able to detect power usage patterns across homes, offices and factories to efficiently manage distribution, akin to ‘smart grids’.

All this has profound implications for our cities. The same survey which ranked South Korea on top at 37.9 devices per 100 inhabitants, ranked India way down at 0.6 devices per 100 inhabitants. Not very surprising since the technology is yet nascent and adoption in Japan (8.2) and China (6.2) too is yet to catch up. However, now that planners and citizens are becoming aware of the power of ICT in shaping the urban landscape, we can expect to leapfrog into higher orbits.

While ICT can add ‘smartness’ to cities in a wide array of applications, city planners would need to prioritize and sequence the areas for applying the technologies in order that the benefits reach larger sections of the population, especially the underprivileged
and vulnerable

On the flip side, concerns are being expressed in some quarters. What happens to the privacy, security and control of our own lives? Governments and large corporations would have access to very private, often intimate details about our lives including eating habits and health matters. Then there is the fear of hackers. If computers have access to our automobiles and heart pacemakers, what if the controls were to fall into the wrong hands? There is also concern from the environmental angle. The phenomenal increase in the use of semiconductors and e-waste, for example. Light switches and many devices in our homes will need to be replaced more often, not because they do not function anymore, but to make them compatible with newer technologies that will emerge. That will create mountains of e-waste.

While ICT can add ‘smartness’ to cities in a wide array of applications, city planners would need to prioritize and sequence the areas for applying the technologies in order that the benefits reach larger sections of the population, especially the underprivileged and vulnerable. Public safety and security, sanitation and hygiene, healthcare, power and water supply management, waste handling, environment monitoring, transportation and traffic management all need to be addressed on priority. Simultaneously, there is need for capacity building of ULB employees and citizens, to cope with the technology onslaught and harness its energy for greater efficiency, and transparency in local governance.

In this issue, we bring you some articles and viewpoints which will likely stimulate further debate and discussion on different aspects of such technologies, their possible impact on urban lives and the way forward.

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