Smart is as smart does

The Hindu

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

A few years ago, smart grids were all the rage — Amitabh Bachchan was even on the cover of a business magazine in 2010 with a Smart Meter, and was dubbed “Power Genie”. Given, however, the low percentage of Smart Meter rollouts across homes, we have to be wary of Gartner’s famous Hype Cycle. Similarly, are Smart Cities just the next buzzword?

If the benefits of a ‘smart’ system are apparent — and most specialists would attest to its potential — why don’t we have more such systems?

First, we don’t even know what a ‘Smart City’ really means. What are citizens to make of Smart Cities? Would anyone prefer a ‘Dumb City’ to a ‘Smart City’? The choice is less obvious than that between a regular phone and a smartphone, where price is a major factor. In reality, consumers aren’t participants in the decision-making process. They mostly pay for or adjust towards things that help them. The problem arises in cases where they may not have to bear all the costs of their actions — what economists call ‘externalities’ — like those associated with pollution. The challenge is amplified when we move from Smart Grids to Smart Cities, where multiple domains and jurisdictions need to interact for optimal outcomes, and we have risks of underinvestment in public goods (à la the tragedy of the commons).

Smart Cities are inevitable in the same way that Smart Grids are inevitable: ‘business as usual’ is just not good enough, especially when it comes to providing quality services in a quick and sustainable manner. We need something new, something better.

On the supply side, the rise of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), especially of sensors, communications and analytics (‘big data’) has enabled far greater monitoring, visualisation, and granularity than traditional systems could ever imagine. This effectively means that one can be more efficient and also more equitable if one so designs.

Failures of the ‘business as usual’ approach are also a reason that disruptive solutions are more likely to work in India than in many other countries. In the West, people take electricity for granted, and few people would be willing to change their lifestyle to save a few dollars every month.

However, in India, people are willing to modify lifestyles if they can save on electricity charges, especially if that also means reliable power. Most citizens are already heavily engaged with the grid, due to periodic outages and load-shedding. Non-smart cities impact citizens all the time.

The current planning for Smart Cities — there are a 100 Smart Cities proposed — includes foreign collaboration. I would posit that it will be less helpful in terms of design than for funding support. If we want relevant lessons for Smart Cities, we can find many from Smart Grids.

A ‘wicked problem’

First, there is no one definition or solution. Smart Cities create an enabling environment, and we need to be clear about the choices we are designing towards. As soon as we articulate our choices — access, lower cost, sustainability, new services — we will be able to see the inevitable trade-offs. In policy parlance, these are called ‘wicked problems’ — there is no right or wrong solution, but there are choices to be made, and how you frame the problem defines how you will solve it. To use engineering-speak, the problem is so over-constrained (or under-constrained) that traditional forms of optimisation are not possible. The only solutions are multi-stakeholder iteratives.

Iteration and learning are the next lessons we need to embrace. Smart Grids talk of pilot projects (and even these should ideally be split into ‘learning’ and ‘deployment’ pilots). We similarly need to define a pilot project for a city. The sheer size and scale (and multiple-domain effects) imply that one cannot just do a part of it and expect to obtain meaningful results. That would be as silly as buying a computer but not investing in software, training, broadband, etc. This is a tough challenge, and we must be willing to embrace uncertainty and learning. Simulation and multi-stakeholder engagement are key steps in the process.

Electricity systems also have regulators, who balance producers’ need to be profitable (or at least viable) with consumers’ need for reliability and low costs. What will the equivalent be in Smart Cities? Today’s municipal authorities are neither designed nor equipped for this role. We need to create a new framework for balancing the often-conflicting needs of different stakeholders.

Probably the most important lesson from Smart Grids is that they constitute a journey and not a destination. In other words, a city is a process and not a product.

In the case of a ‘Smart City’, translating the utilities into an empowering ecosystem should be the real objective.

Focussing on functionalities rather than technologies can guide us towards success. It is said that a Smart Grid succeeds when we get the design right. Focussing on the pain points of citizens is the most effective design criteria for the success of ‘smart’ initiatives.

Ultimately, for a layperson, ‘smart’ is just the means through which he can get a ‘good’ city, one that is clean, safe, and offers opportunities. By these measures, the West can boast of few cities that can already be called ‘smart’ — for instance, where public transport is not just ubiquitous but your smartphone can even track the buses. But Smart Cities must be more than this. They must offer transformation — like the Internet — leading to empowerment.

Smart Grids can be anchors for Smart Cities and give us one starting point for the design — after all, nothing works without electricity.

This column first appeared in The Hindu, on August 5, 2015. The views are those of the author.