Print Edition - 2015-05-03  |  Free the Words

Clever cities

  • Reducing casualties from future disasters will require investment in building smart cities
Clever cities

May 2, 2015-

The devastating 7.8 Richter scale earthquake that struck at a depth of 9.3 miles on April 25 has left Nepal even more impoverished. The tremors and aftershocks that followed the quake have claimed more than 6,000 lives and injured even more. The death toll is expected to rise significantly in the days to come. While it is virtually impossible to predict an earthquake, many lives could have been saved and the relief effort could have been managed in a more effective manner had the Government of Nepal focussed its attention on transforming the historical cities of the Kathmandu Valley into ‘smart cities’, instead of using them for political battles.

Smarter cities

City authorities around the world will soon be faced with the challenge of effectively managing post-disaster scenarios, as the urban population is expected to rise by 72 percent from 3.6 to 6.3 billion between 2011 to 2050. According to the UN Urban and Rural Population, by 2009, the number of people living in urban areas had already exceeded that of those living in rural areas.  Similarly, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs predicts that nearly 53 percent of the global population will live in Asia by 2050.

There is no doubt that rapid urbanisation is the new normal and evidence suggests that people prefer cities over villages, because the former offers better housing, education, and economic opportunities. However, cities designed under medieval-era mindsets and technologies are not adequately equipped to handle the rapid urban growth  of the 21st century and thus, may invite many negative environmental and social impacts. Modern cities also have to create a secure environment for their citizens to develop their professional, social, and cultural lives. Therefore, cities around the world are investing in the infrastructure necessary for effective city management, which also includes developing resilience to environmental risks like earthquakes.

Consequently, in order to adapt to the stark reality of rapid urbanisation and opportunities from Information and Communication Technology (ICT), many of the world’s major cities, like Seoul, Tokyo, New York, Shanghai, and Amsterdam, have already embarked on smart city projects. In short, a smart city can be defined as “a city that strategically utilises ICTs to increase the its sustainable growth and manageits functions.”

However, the main factor that distinguishes smart cities from traditional cities is that the latter cannot respond to changing economic, cultural, and social contexts in the way smart cities can. A smart city can be described as a human-centric city, adapting its behaviour in response to that of its citizens as they constantly interact with city infrastructure and services to function as a gigantic independent intelligence unit.

The Japanese example

Rapid urbanisation has forced cities around the world to place increasing importance on building cities that are resilient to natural disasters by using sophisticated ICT infrastructure and analytical capabilities to enhance and coordinate the information flow between multiple public agencies, such as transportation authorities, emergency services, energy providers, and citizens. Furthermore, with mobile networks, municipalities can reach the majority of their citizens within seconds.

One example of a solution used by smart cities that is badly needed in Nepal was put together by the Government of Japan. The Japanese system was used to test the aftermath of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that hit the country on March 11, 2011, which was followed by a 9.3 metre-high tsunami a few minutes later that caused major human casualties and severe damage to cities, trapping more than five million people in the Tokyo metropolitan area. If it was not for Japan’s warning system, the tsunami’s devastation could have been much greater.

The intelligent disaster resilience solution deployed in Japanese smart cities involve observation systems, information-gathering capabilities, data analysis, and decision-making aids, together with an intelligent warning system that is linked together in an interoperable manner. The system uses seismometers to detect the first shock wave (P-wave or Primary wave) caused by an earthquake. Immediately after the quake, an analytical system calculates the P-wave and estimates how powerful the second one (Secondary wave or S-wave) will be.

In March 2011, P-waves were detected by Japan’s Ocean Bottom Observation System at 14:46:48 and S-waves burst at 14:47:17, giving Japan a window of 29 seconds. The Japan Meteorological Agency oversaw a series of actions that were initiated during this very short interval, which was enough time to alert citizens carrying mobiles with a text message.

Smart cities are generally classified into three types: new sites that are built smart from the start; existing cities made smart with retrofits and upgrades; and purpose-driven cities (industrial cities). While it would be ideal to build a smart city from scratch, it is not feasible to take this approach as cities in the Kathmandu Valley are of the second type, existing cities that can be made smart. Even so, making cities in the Kathmandu Valley smart is a somewhat far-fetched dream as long as we have not-so-smart politicians leading the country. The government sees the deployment of smart city solutions as a cost burden and not as an investment that will make the city’s infrastructure more intelligent.

Three pillars     

If the Government of Nepal has learned anything from the devastating quake, I hope they invest in the three pillars of smart cities. First, in next generation ICT infrastructure without which smart-city services cannot function. Second, in a well-defined ‘integrated-city management framework’ that is essential for a smart city to function intelligently by forcing the city’s many integrated subsystems, meta-systems, and building block systems to comply with strict adherence to common standards. Third, in capacity development efforts so that citizens are able to interact with the smart services provided by city authorities.

After the devastating earthquake, brave Nepali citizens of the Kathmandu Valley are in a state of shock. They don’t know what hit the joyous city that had just celebrated the Nepali New Year. But they know that they survived one of the biggest disasters to have hit the Valley. While we can only hope that Nepali citizens never again see such disasters, we can be sure that Nepal will be able to reduce human casualties in the future if its government invests in smart cities and smart villages in the coming years with a fanatical zeal. If we compare Nepal’s development with other countries, we can be sure of one thing—we cannot have smart cities as long as we have dumb politicians running the country.

Shah is the co-author of ‘Strategic IT Planning for Public Organisations: A Toolkit’ published by the United Nations in 2009

Published: 03-05-2015 08:52

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