Smart City Operation Challenges And Possibilities
Smart cities operate with commercially available digital database technologies meant to solve public problems, such as lowering gaseous emission, reduction of traffic fatalities, homicide, fire hazards, and improve health services. Smart cities use real-time data that has the abilities to display events as they unfold, understand how demand patterns for certain issues change, and respond with faster and lower cost solutions. Their goals are to reduce the cost of gathering large-scale (small areas with detail) information.
Smart cities bring unprecedented volume of data points at the hands of city governments, employers, and residents who are connected with sensors operated by high-speed communication networks and open data portals. Sensors take constant readings of variables, such as traffic flow, energy consumption, air quality, and many other aspects of daily life and put information at the fingertips by translating raw data into the prospective of real world events. The apps developers help translate raw data into actions.
Role of apps
Public widely adapt and change their behaviours according to the outcomes of the data that are fed into the apps. It is often said that smart people live in smart cities and act smartly by using apps that translate raw data into sensible information to make decision choices. A wide range of applications now exist to make cities not only more efficient and productive, but also more responsive and livable. Accordingly, smart city initiatives bring together high-powered decision makers from almost all parts of the city ecosystem that include city leaders, vendors, academics, researchers and non-profit organisations. They institutionalise open conversations, offer options for best alternatives and utilise a variety of data, convert them into actionable intelligence using apps aiming to improve development outcomes and provide complete information using apps in mobile phones, iPads, and computers.
Smartphones have become the key to the operation of smart city. Apps convert raw data into information about transit, traffic, health services, safety alerts, and community news and put data into the hands of millions of people. Though statistics suggest that smart cities are a must to improve some key quality-of-life indicators, help reduce crimes, shorter commute distances with short-cut routes using current information of traffic conditions, and report the situation of carbon emissions, the high technology use has become one of the major impediments to people with low incomes and non-savvy to modern technology. Yet, smart cities are the need of the day in view of the increasing urban population and complex problems developing each day.
Asian megacities, with their young populations have been the worst sufferer of urban problems. Though it is essential for the urban leaders to do more building out the technology base and boosting adoption of advanced technologies, many cities are unaware of smart city concepts. Urban population in many Asian countries is increasing exponentially. Nepal is not an exception where urban classified population jumped from 15 per cent in 2014 to 65 percent in 2015 with the implementation of the Constitution of Federal Republic of Nepal. Though the Human Capital Theory suggests that this exponential urban population growth is good for economic development, the poor infrastructure and existing rural settings due to ad-hoc basis of annexing many rural areas into urban core without proper planning has increased competition for the limited and poorly installed infrastructure.
As a result, Nepali urban centres are facing increasing challenges like traffic congestion, unprecedented incidences, such as dust cloud during the dry seasons and muddy road during the rainy seasons, development of heat island, and repeated vehicular accidents. Many cities are facing unprecedented pressures from booming population, but limited infrastructure. Poor air quality has been a basic character of Nepal’s urban areas, especially due to use of old vehicles emitting high lead contained fumes. Overcrowding of urban areas has created several heat islands and urban temperatures are increasing beyond tolerable limits. Air borne dust particles are causing a variety of respiratory and skin diseases.
Politicians are ignoring climate change as an ideological issue, but they put emphasis on popular economic and public health issues without clear mandate. Ambitious mayors announcing popular dreams during the elections ignore the climate change issues, but move further and faster towards unsustainable development. Kathmandu for example, is experiencing deleterious effects of climate change from unplanned constructions. City dwellers want more resilient, sustainable neighbourhoods and economies. However, they are becoming helpless. Reducing carbon pollution requires a strong commitment including the involvement of stakeholders with local innovation, replacing the polluting old vehicles.
Politicians need to scale and implement proven climate solutions and innovations that will help grow the economy, protect public health and improve the quality of urban life. Within the newly declared urban territories, construction activities are so high that at present buildings and transportation consume more energy and are responsible for over 90 per cent of the citywide emissions. It is high time for the mayors and their teams to put their plans into practice, engage urban departments, review evidence of progress regularly, help innovate and improve the existing conditions. Unfortunately, very little is done despite the fact that the elected representatives have been in the office for over a year. Nepal government and elected representatives need to tap the readily available human resources that can offer high quality jobs at a very low cost to meet their goals.
Smart cities require huge amount of data that become very expensive to gather. However, Nepal has many educational institutions including the Central Department of Geography (CDG) of Tribhuvan University (TU) that could facilitate in smart city initiatives by connecting residents, visitors and businesses to city services through the pairing of technology.
Many Masters level students of CDG along with geography faculty members are involved in the collections of real-time traffic data, analyse the traffic conditions and provide alternative solutions to minimise congestion problems. Student activities at CDG remind what economist Adam Smith once said “the actions of many self-interested parties combine to create larger benefits to society.” The CDG is working as an “invisible hand” to create smart cities. Data gathered by students are the starting points to design the commuter detection system that communicates to the traffic signal, resulting in a more dynamic, real time transportation system, and information that could extend a walk signal if someone needs more time crossing the street.
The pedestrian detection system would tell a connected vehicle driver – through their existing on-board equipment – of the pedestrian’s presence in the roadway, thereby preventing a crash and increasing safety. The data gathered by CDG can serve commercial, public, and social sectors and help the government of Nepal to facilitate in the policy decision-making. If CDG collaborates with the disciplines of economics, management, economics, computer science, engineering, forestry, and survey departments of TU, the CDG could be developed as the Center for Spatial Data that can play a lead role in urban planning through research and policy recommendations to improve urban life quality.
Though the most cutting-edge smart cities initiatives are still at the beginning of their journey in Nepal, the involvement of research institution like TU in urban planning would help create real-time information into the hands of millions of users and to help make better decision. Such real-time data will be helpful to the functioning of cities more efficiently. Efficient functioning of cities would make them productive places to do business, reduce accidental fatalities, and accelerate emergency response times.
(The author is a Professor of Geography at University of Central Missouri; currently serving as Fulbright Specialist at the Central Department of Geography of Tribhuvan University )