What the UK could learn about the Internet of Things from India's smart cities

Alexandre Pelletier
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Allahabad is hoping to become one of India's smart cities (Source: Getty)

The term smart city has been thrown around for a while now. Many still view it as a futuristic concept that won’t see light of day in our lifetime. But across the world, these smart cities are being created, and in places that you might not expect.

Take India for example. The country’s first smart city is being brought to life in Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT). It has attracted attention from business leaders and prospective investors from all over, and is a product of India’s hopes to handle the mass urbanisation the country is experiencing.

The area will comprise 125 buildings and 5,400 companies, employ around 450,000 people and be a home for 50,000 more. The potential of GIFT stems from the highly sophisticated systems with which the city is being built from the ground up, the layers and layers of connected infrastructure which will enhance transport, communication, parking, energy management and much more – to ultimately improve people’s lives.

The construction of GIFT is teaching us about the critical role of infrastructure and data in bringing about the many changes a smart city can spur.

Infrastructure is the respiratory system, and big data the nervous system, adding intelligence on top. The long-term success of a smart city ultimately depends on how well all stakeholders, including dwellers and workers, use its data – networks and applications must be able to integrate and ignite the power that is needed to handle the unprecedented amounts of data being spewed out of all manner of devices, from smartphones to streetlights.

Read more: Why the Internet of Things is just one part of a much bigger prize

Arguably, if a developing country like India – with significant infrastructural, economic and social challenges – has the ambition to turn smart cities from ideas into reality, European cities have no excuse not to either.

That is why it’s promising to see projects like Bristol is Open which is testing machine-to-machine interaction with driverless cars. Companies are developing wireless links that enable driverless cars to communicate with smart city infrastructure and to even bring people new entertainment experiences with sensing and video processing capabilities.

When you think that a trip to Bristol could mean witnessing 3D images projected into the night sky, or seeing a gig in multiple venues across the city, the potential for smart cities goes way beyond the everyday.

While in the UK smart city projects have started with upgrading existing infrastructure, India has started from scratch – and both have faced their own challenges. The work being done in India is groundbreaking and inspiring for smart cities the world over, and it is arguably easier to start with a blank page on a greenfield project – as is the case for GIFT.

Yet, there are positive steps being taken here in the UK, where smart cities will stem from the upheaval of existing infrastructure. They may be two different approaches but the success of both hinges on being able to leverage infrastructure and big data to develop value-added services that we may not have thought of yet, and that have the potential to transform citizens’ lives.

In the end, it’s not about deploying technology for the sake of it. Rather, technology must be a catalyst that empowers all stakeholders – from city government to connected streetlights, utilities and city dwellers – to meaningfully connect with each other.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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