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Building a Sustainable Future through Smart Cities

Building a Sustainable Future through Smart Cities
July 20, 2020

Co-authored byDwaipayan Chakraborty

In the popular Sitcom Good Place, a fundamental question is raised as to why despite multitude of good deeds everyone is ending up in the bad place (In lingo of this TV series heaven is the good place and hell is the bad Place, and the place after death is decided by the points one earns in life). It illustrates a scenario where in 1534, an Englishman named Douglas, gifted a bouquet of rose, picked from his own garden, to his ailing grandmother. This good gesture earned him 135 positive points. In 2019, another Douglas from Maryland also gifted a bouquet of rose to his ailing grandmother which again earned him 135 positive points but he had ordered this bouquet online using his phone which was made in a sweatshop, the flowers were grown with toxic pesticides picked by exploited migrant workers and delivered from hundreds of miles away which created a massive carbon footprint. And hence, the overall score of Douglas gifting a rose bouquet to his ailing grandmother was a big negative. What’s very nicely highlighted is, ‘as the world gets more and more complicated, the consequences of our actions have much wider repercussions than what we can witness in our vicinity’.

Over the last decade the environmental impact of our action has gained increased recognition through awareness campaigns and many organizations, individuals, and institutions have adopted sustainable practices in lifestyle, supply chains, and business processes. To illustrate a use case, today technology can enable a system where scanning the label or barcode of a product could let you know whether the workers manufacturing it were housed in a shanty slum or the fish you have on your plate was caught using a method that depletes and degrades ocean resources. So conscious consumers would be more mindful towards product choices. But there is a limit to which one would keep scanning their food packets. While this might initially be an engaging activity and social media trends would create a bandwagon effect to drive conformity, eventually the craze will fade.

A persona analysis of the modern consumer would reveal that most consumers exhibit fleeting attributes when it comes to responsible consumption. Decisions based on sustainability matter only after other factors like availability, affordability, and usability are sufficiently addressed. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted a glaring gap in the bottom-up approach to sustainability and the extent to which institutions and businesses can lead sustainable practices. It has underscored the need for a systemic change where policies and infrastructure play a central role and business and individuals play a participative role through innovation. Thus, a digital strategy for sustainability should have deeper layers than a surface level experience of making consumers feel good about adopting sustainable consumption habits, or making businesses realize monetary benefits. It should offer solution for the entire ecosystem. This requires, harnessing and mining of consumer data and deriving intelligent insights to decipher habits, choices and response patterns and further act on those insights by building solutions powered by modern applications that ensure convenience and beneficial outcomes.

Smart cities aim to realize this vision of a sustainable ecosystem that fosters environment friendly lifestyles and business practices and reduces inefficiency and wastage. As governments embark on massive infrastructure spends to boost smart cities, digital adoption will be key to ensure that planning, infrastructure, and social systems thus created are viable for long term humanitarian development and business growth. Digitalization is a pre-condition for developing smart cities with hardware technology enabling uninterrupted broadband, sensors, mobile devices, and data centers and software technology enabling social media collaboration, utility application, transport applications along with big data and GIS modelling tools. Initiatives such as smart cars, smart shop floors, and smart homes that will need to be developed in tandem shall require investments in sensors, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and process automation at an unprecedented scale. This will inadvertently unleash a need for talent as well as the need for bridging the digital divide among citizens.

CITYkeys indicator, an initiative by the European Union proposes a framework that encompasses a synchronized emphasis on people, planet, prosperity, governance, and propagation.

Building a Sustainable Future through Smart Cities

The smart city infrastructure shall foster an economy on its own, the use of information and communication technologies will increase the efficiency and effectiveness and the ways of operations and services of urban cities to improve quality of life of citizens and build a sustainable and green world. Organizations like ISO and IEEE are developing standards for various components such as infrastructure, transportation, energy, healthcare, governance, and education of smart cities.

Smart infrastructure is an interconnected sensing network that provide real time digital information of the state of the systems. The associated technologies will build multiple information models shall in turn use – optic fiber, low power electromechanical systems, smart grids, Wi-fi networks, and wireless hotspots The current focus on installation and monitoring sensor networks in road and rail network, buildings, bridges, tunnels, and water supply systems. Traffic light systems and gas supply systems will be adequately realized as 5G technologies and facilitate high speed communication. Besides the hardware infrastructure, the middleware accumulates data for analytics and reporting purposes such as high energy usage, abnormal maintenance costs. This can be accessed for any building, plant, and waste management infrastructure.

Smart infrastructure is an interconnected sensing network that provide real time digital information of the state of the systems

Intelligent transportation systems allow use of transportation network and operate systems more efficiently and improve performance. Real-time traffic and weather updates, sensors in smart cars to alert drivers for situations to avoid accidents, and speed limits and signal timing based on real time data allow drivers to manage fuel consumptions. Radio frequency identification-based toll collection where smart car drivers can cross tolls and Automatic passport control at airports where the passengers can use RFID based passports or electronic passports for fast and reliable entry are steps that collectively lead to insights for maximizing sustainable operations.

Smart energy uses intelligent integration of decentralized sustainable energy sources, efficient distribution, and optimized power consumption. Through smart metering and smart home solutions energy consumptions of electric appliances like dishwashers, heaters, air conditioners, and electric vehicles can be tracked through easy to use dashboards and the insights can be implemented with adequate data governance and controls to easily identify pockets of wastages and inefficiencies. The biggest challenge, however, lies in creating enough wattage of renewable power supplies to support such massive data operations. If the power supply to pump and feed these smart cities are generated from fossil fuels the entire project will create an environmental catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude. The most viable option is to upgrade the capacity of nuclear power generation. However, the choice has enough political opposition and while there is nothing called clean coal, the potential of nuclear energy if not harnessed cannot compensate for the use of fossil fuels in the near term.

If education is the key to bridging the digital divide, healthcare plays an even greater role in creating a well-balanced and healthy workforce. Cloud based electronic healthcare records and data management of health records within the medical ecosystem that integrates patient data and makes it available in real-time to throw insights on healthy lifestyle adoption, adherence, and outcomes can empower policymakers to take rapid strides with regards to advancement in food procurement and nutritional health of the citizenry. Such systems empowered through other technologies like telemedicine and patient analytics can make value based and affordable care as the preferred model for both healthcare providers and pharmaceutical companies. Collectively a smart city is a pilot to scale smart sustainability models nationwide. The eventual aim is to erect a sustainability model that is not only trans-national but is more encompassing of the disenfranchised section who are most vulnerable to disasters induced through climate change and disease outbreaks.