Life in Gurgaon

Data penetration, innovative application can help Indian cities counter climate change

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Today more than half of the world’s population lives in towns and cities. This number is expected to rise to two-thirds by 2050. A lot of this growth would be natural. However, mass migration from rural to urban areas will also drive urbanisation, especially in Africa and Asia. Today, cities generate over 70% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and that’s good. However, cities also consume two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of the global CO2 emissions. Therefore, how we respond to the challenge of urbanization will be critical for our planet.

Urbanization is not new to mankind. In fact, it is believed that the process of urbanisation started in the ancient Mesopotamia in the Uruk Period and around 3,000 BCE. However, thanks to technology, the pace has changed only in the last few decades. Technology has changed the way we eat, live, commute, and even socialize. And while we can blame the technology for all other evils, here are three ways in which technology can change our cities for better.

Data consumption

Data consumption is getting cheap and the consumption is rising exponentially, courtesy smartphones and the internet. Networking giant CISCO in its Visual Networking Index (VNI) suggested that till 2017 only 27% Indians were using smartphones, this is expected to double by 2022. This will massively increase the internet traffic in our country as India already has the cheapest mobile data in the world. It is suggested that 1GB of data in India costs around ?18 as against the global average of ?600.

The “fifth generation”, or 5G as it is known, is expected to roll out globally by 2020, the mobile network technology is expected to be about 50 times faster and will further galvanise data consumption and internet penetration. This will have a far-reaching impact.

For example, as per a World Bank report, 10% increase in high-speed internet connections leads to a 1.3% increase in economic growth. Similarly, the World Economic Forum estimates that the global GDP can be boosted by a $1 trillion by connecting another 327 million people to the internet, as against 40% of the population that currently has access to it. Therefore, it’s not wrong to say data is the new oil.

Innovative applications

The massive usage will also result in innovative applications for data. Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Machine Learning are already transforming service deliveries in cities, such as New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Sydney etc, so much so that these are being are called data-driven cities. Parking, energy efficiency in buildings, air quality monitoring etc. are all driven though data. In addition, technological developments like Blockchain which form basis for cryptocurrency like Bitcoin can further disrupt our cities for good. The technology allows decentralisation of verification of transactions thereby making intermediaries, such as the stock exchange, redundant. This can have multiple applications in planning of cities ranging from charging of electric vehicles to land registrations. In fact, the blockchain can also be used for as a tool by urban planners to redefine the zoning systems. Therefore, these developments can change the way we plan our cities for good.

Transportation sector is seeing big innovations. With the money pouring in, this could make way for a totally new paradigm of mobility. John Zimmer, the co-founder and president of ride sharing company Lyft recently said that by 2025, private car ownership will all but end in major US cities. Similarly, Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority estimated that a combination of TaxiBots (driverless cars) and a rail system can remove 90% cars from streets. It’s not only about cars, cities like San Francisco are seeing the new wave of electric scooters which are redefining the way people access transport services. Similarly, Beijing and many other cities in China are getting flooded by dockless bicycles. It’s not that India is unaffected by these developments. Today, together Ola and Uber are cloning on close to 2 million drivers in India and have changed the entire taxi industry. Similar innovations are also being seen in the two-wheeler and other vehicle segments.

It’s said that the battle for climate change will be won or lost in cities. Therefore, it’s time we take our cities and towns more seriously. It is even more important in countries like India, where two-third of urban infrastructure is yet to be built.

Bill Gates once said we tend to overestimate the changes that will happen in the short-term and underestimate those in the long-term. Therefore, it’s time we harness the technological evolution for good and move towards compact, connected and coordinated urban development.