Smart Cities: Is the West lagging behind India and the Arab states?

Approaches being taken now could play a huge part in finding out which region will reign supreme in the smart city battle

The ‘Smart Cities’ concept has been around for many years, and although it hasn’t found its way onto Gartner’s 2018 Hype Cycle, it is still a topic that divides many on whether there’s more hype than substance.

What’s different to other technology trends, is that the success of the concept is down to the region or specific city that it is in, and everything that goes along with that. And some believe this can make or break a smart city project.

 

Smart projects require commitment

HPE Fellow Colin l’Anson believes the likes of Arab states and India are better equipped than Western Europe, the UK and the US to produce smart cities. “If you sign up for a smart project, you’re signing a cheque for 10 years which means you have to look after it, keep it going, maintain the [smart] dustbins and traffic lights and everything else for 10 years – and it’s a much more difficult purchase for someone in Western Europe given the nature of local authorities, rather than the Gulf, where the Sheikh who runs the city says ‘I’m going to do this’,” he explains.

According to l’Anson, local authority leaders in the UK are likely to keep changing and with that means a shift in priorities – meaning smart city projects are not maintained and therefore don’t provide the long-term benefits they were set out to achieve in the first place. Instead, in the Western regions, he sees small solutions put in place which are effective, but not what he would describe as a ‘real’ smart city solution.

“A smart city is no good if you only cover Bristol Broadmead – Bristol is a big city and you have to go right around the edges, it has to work all the way as you go in and all the way as you go out – and that is the scaling issue that local authorities have to think about,” he says.

According to Vassilis Seferidis, CEO of Zeetta Networks, a Bristol-based technology company, the Indian government’s intention to establish 100 smart cities and similar projects across the countries of the Arabian Gulf are clear indicators that these regions have no shortage of ambition.

“In many cases they are leading the way in smart city deployments over their Western counterparts. This stems from the urgent need to address key indigenous problems such as rapidly growing populations, income diversification, reducing dependency on petro-chemical based revenues and the desire to showcase the capabilities of these regions to the rest of the world in events like the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2020 World Expo,” he says.

 And the capabilities are bearing fruit. India’s first smart city project, Gandhinagar, has been able to address a range of challenges for citizens since officially becoming smart in 2017.

“In its first year, the city has reduced crime rates by 39% through the introduction of an e-beat system that monitors the movement of police officers to ensure they’re covering their allotted area of the city. With the deployment of Smart LEDs for street lighting, more than 40% of the city’s energy has been saved. It’s also been able to reduce road accidents in the city by 20% and speed violations with a smart surveillance and traffic management system,” says Shrikant Shenwai, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance.

 

Are Arab states and India better equipped than Western countries?

Dr Rick Robinson, digital property and cities leader at global engineering consultancy Arup, explains: “If a country had significant financial reserves, a very centralized system of government and direct control over infrastructure services such as transport, energy and water, then an initiative that provided a single ‘smart’ payment mechanism for energy usage and multi-modal transport could be viable, and could create end-user savings, national efficiencies and environmental improvements.

“In a country with challenging public finances, distributed public sector authority and public services delivered by a mixture of public and private sector organisations - governed by contracts, franchises, laws and industry regulation - such an initiative would be far, far more challenging,” he says, which suggests why Arab states may have an easier path to smart city success.

But aside from the money and politics, there are other more obvious reasons why India and the Gulf may have an edge over others.

“In so many cases, the Arab States and India are able to move faster as they have often skipped the historic communications infrastructure that has evolved over a longer period in Europe and the USA,” explains Julie Snell, managing director of Bristol is Open, an initiative to develop an open programmable city.

L’Anson gives an example of a project that HPE worked on with global communications company Tata to provide basic public-sector services to 400 million people in India.

“Because it’s a relatively green field – the tech is that little bit easier for everyone to go and implement, if you move away from big sophisticated systems in Western Europe, you may find three roads with IoT-enabled street lighting but across the rest of the town they won’t have it – in India you have the story coming together better,” he states.

 

Lack of privacy regulation a double-edged sword

There is also a case that smart city projects in the Arab states and India may be helped by a lack of legislation around data privacy.

Akshoy Rekhi, partner at Abacus Legal Group, Globalaw, says that while the likes of New York and London have their own open data and data protection policies that pertain to smart city initiatives, the same cannot be said for India.

“Europe and the US have clearly laid out policies to support and guide the project, which means a well-planned ecosystem for regulation and governance of systems, technologies and cities. In comparison, in India there is no enabling legislation or policy to have been formulated by the government – apart from releasing mission statements and guidelines,” he states.

This means that India could technically move forward with plans without having to consider data protection, as its laws do not consider the implications of collection, dissemination and privacy of large quantities of data which will be stored and processed by governments, private organizations and their employees. Data usage is of course a huge part of smart city initiatives.

This could hinder India – and other regions which also don’t regulate the use of data – in the long term, with concerns about the misuse of sensitive personal information, cyber hacking, identity theft and phishing all going against the aim of smart cities providing a better quality of life for residents.

While the idea that India and Arab states are better equipped to provide smart cities may make sense because of an essentially blank canvas compared to Western Europe and the US, when it comes to legislation and legacy technology, there are experts who disagree.

Professor Jacqui Taylor is an advisor for smart cities and artificial intelligence to the UK government, and she is working internationally to create standards to underpin these changes. She is familiar with India and Arab states’ smart cities programmes as she works with their experts.

Taylor argues that Arab states and India are not better equipped to deal with smart cities than the US, UK or Europe: “In the case of both the governments you mention they are indeed focused on spending money to achieve their agendas, but I would argue that this will not lead to smarter cities. Why? Because they have a technology focus not an outcome focus.

“In the UK, we have collated the international evidence base for the transformation which is needed in smart cities and this is underpinned by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the approach should be to deliver better outcomes for citizens,” she states.

Unfortunately, it may be years before we really know who the leader in smart cities is, as the benefits may only become clear as time goes on. But these starting points in terms of investment, technologies and approaches will all play a part in deciding which region reigns supreme. That is, if you believe there’s substance to a smart city in the first place.