Systems Thinking: The 'Smart' of Smart Cities

By Prasun Dutta & Dr. Sumit D Chowdhury, Gaia Smart Cities

The peripatetic human race has been migrating into urban centres since the beginning of civilisation. Earlier trading hubs and governmental offices formed the kernel of urban areas which was greatly bolstered after the industrial revolution. Prognostication based on current trends suggests an alarming celerity of growth and an urbanization level of around 64 percent by 2050! In other words, two out of every three persons will be living in urban agglomerations. Additionally, these centres will contribute a disproportionately high share of the nation’s GDP. Economic performance has always been and shall continue to be a critical cause for the formation and sustenance of such urban agglomerations. However, the shortage of land, water, good quality air and the desire of better quality of life will continue to put limitations on this growth. Globally, therefore, appropriate management of such cities will therefore be a sine qua non.

‘Smart cities’ should be able to provide its citizens with superior quality of life and render governance a lot simpler. It should enable participatory and inclusive management of cities and ensure the safety and security of all its denizens. Cities are modelled today as complex organisms. Various parts of the cities, its administration, businesses, people are all interacting with each other to keep the city functioning. As technologies become ubiquitous, the extensive and intelligent use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) would eventually form the nervous system of such complex creatures.

This Systems-model of the city and the subsequent design of the ICT system can enable the city to function as one integrated entity. In today’s cities, we often encounter situations where different aspects of a citizen’s life appear to be sequestered from each other. Each department of our local authorities have their own requirement and we, the hapless citizenry, is left repeating one activity several times. Information flow from one department to another being non-existent, every bit of information had to be filled in umpteen numbers of times.

If you open any newspaper and read about the events on each day, it is evident that, there are no linear cause and effect linkages of events in a city. Everything is complex. It is this nature of the city that leads us to believe that availability of information and utilising ICT and incorporating feedback loops in the design of systems would greatly enhance the capability of each system/asset rendering these intelligent and eventual self-healing. We need to remain alert that such loops can also accentuate a situation.

ICT systems have another major and effective feature; they greatly aid in the handling of the varieties that is inherent in such a complex context. In the great diversity that characterize our cities, monitoring behaviour and ensuring adherence to rules, or identifying potentially dangerous or disruptive situations, before these can actually cause damage, with our present day systems is difficult,  but again with the intelligent use of ICT systems it is easily possible. Imagine if you could get reports of incoming patients from all the hospital/medical centres in a city; one could easily identify any incipient trend that could grow to be an epidemic, or one could identify the location from where a particular disease seems to be originating and take corrective measures to avert the further persistence of the cause.

Systems thinking also introduce an important idea of finding good leverage points. In complex networked systems, a simple change introduced in the right spot can bring about massive change in the system. This deep study of ‘leverage points’ will help us achieve multiple goals through simple small steps. As one may have assessed from the above, the potential of using ICT systems in providing an excellent quality of life to citizens as well as facilitating better management of systems and assets is extensive and the current focus of all concerned appears to be on this singular aspect of smart cities. However, at the cost of belabouring the obvious, it is essential to note that technology is an enabler, a good facilitator, perhaps, but will, by itself, not make the city ‘smart’.

In conclusion, one may point out that cities are critical constituents of any nation, even today, but their importance is likely to grow substantially in the not so distant future. Their roles as centres of economic activity will draw people from all over the world and as global barriers to people’ movement reduces, as is likely, such urban centres will turn out to major population hubs throughout the world. Systems thinking about smart cities will allow us to have deeper insight, understand components and their links in the system and thus giving us a way to understand its behavior.

As the main nervous system of any city, ICT holds tremendous potential to augment governance and improve quality of life. Systems thinking however, provides a more holistic perspective that is essential for success and will collectively deliver the promised benefits.

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