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The Great Humbling of Urban Tech

So that is why the voice and data industry needs to continue to address urban systems: for that is where they will be challenged to deliver the best.

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The Great Humbling of Urban Tech

So that is why the voice and data industry needs to continue to address urban systems: for that is where they will be challenged to deliver the best, that is where they can push innovation that matters, that’s where they will have opportunities.

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Vineeta-Shetty

By Vineeta Shetty

A Decade

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What a difference a decade makes. Before 2010, technology and city management were worlds apart. A decade later, the tech majors have hopscotched on to the next game, be that robotics or artificial intelligence, leaving a few expensive toys in the hands of city managers. One deputy mayor likened her new integrated command and control center to a Television Showroom with banks of screens.

But many see this as good for the evolution of cities. Technology has left a permanent footprint in city managers’ understanding of spatial and real-time data. Cameras may fall off their perch and wires get cut, but urban tech is here to stay. The concept of what makes a city smart or liveable is constantly evolving as it has for thousands of years.

The terms of discourse on Smart Cities may have been set by Cisco, IBM, and SAP. But now they are reduced to selling components to the mid-level entrepreneur: their inheritors are the metropolitan-level systems integrators, who are often the ones to bid for the tenders for installing rubbish bins and GPS-tracked waste collection trucks. And they do a good job.

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IOT manager / Waste Manager

For a while, it seemed that an IoT solution architect was a better manager of waste than an assistant municipal commissioner. But the tech industry has been humbled into recognising that they are only one piece of the puzzle. Crores of taxpayer money have been spent on solid waste and sewage management infrastructure. But still, cities are not cleaner: that’s because waste management is a more complex problem. It is not just ensuring collection trucks are doing the beat or controlling them in real-time. There is behavioral change, asset adequacy, asset management, urban street structures, waste composition, density, form, resource availability to be considered and invested in.

Doing business with the government was never easy, because of regulations and the maze of public procurement processes. Yet, very few voices and data network and service providers can afford to ignore urban administrations as important clients, as key as mining, gaming, and other enterprise segments.

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Shrinivas Kowligi, who spent decades interfacing with the public sector at Price Waterhouse Coopers and later Ernst and Young, quotes the immortal lines of film villain Ajit to describe doing business with government: “Liquid isko jeene nahin dega, oxygen isko marne nahi dega.” Vendors may keep cribbing that government is a cost leader, he says, but nobody will stop transacting with the government because it is too big a segment and brings relevance and purpose to a lot of companies. Even if the government is 5% of their business, that’s the bit they will talk about to the outside world as driving change, helping society and countries.

So that is why the voice and data industry needs to continue to address urban systems: for that is where they will be challenged to deliver the best, that is where they can push innovation that matters, that’s where they will have opportunities if they are successful in doing big business.

Urban challenges are more than just the technology, data, and analytics challenge. There are people, demography, public policy, investment, politics: a whole range of issues that impact cities. So now, the buzz words are visual appeal, resilience, sustainability, climate-readiness, placemaking, and public spaces. Techies, like journalists, have to understand this and keep a step.

Vineeta Shetty is the Founder, of The Smart Citizen —Barcelona, and Pune

feedbackvnd@cybermedia.co.in

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