Urban informatics for sustainable and smart cities

Feb 2023 | No Comment

The paper dwells on the range of key ICT enabled planning, smart, green and intelligent infrastructure services- energy, public utilities, mobility, community frameworks, disaster management, telecom networks, e governance and urban management

A.K. Jain

worked as Commissioner (Planning), Delhi Development Authority and as a member of the Committee of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs on the DDA (2015). He was a member of UN Habitat (2007- 12). Author of several books, he is visiting faculty in planning and architecture. He was awarded 2nd Urban Professional Award 2014 at World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia and IBC Lifetime Achievement Award (2016), Living Legend (2022) by the Indian Institute of Architects (NC) and the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Smart Habitat Foundation (2022)


The ICT (Information and Communication Technology) enabled informatics, planning and infrastructure development can make the cities and its services more efficient and sustainable.

The breakthrough in technology with the application of microchips, microcomputers, microwaves, nanotechnology, blockchain, GIS, GPS, cyber-space, 5G/6G wi-fi and e-topia are changing the familiar borders like inside-outside, private-public, here-there, city-country and yesterdaytomorrow. These are characterized by intelligent and smart services, dynamic networks and floating nodes. The paper dwells on the range of key ICT enabled planning, smart, green and intelligent infrastructure services- energy, public utilities, mobility, community frameworks, disaster management, telecom networks, e governance and urban management.

The collapse of the Morbi suspension bridge in Gujarat on October 30, 2022, killing 135 people, has shocked everyone. A 206-meter-long bridge in Begu Sarai (Bihar) on Burhi Gandhak river, costing Rs 13 crore, collapsed on December 18, 2022, even before it was opened up for traffic. The recent floods in Bengaluru and Chennai indicate the lack of information, deficient urban planning and infrastructure. After 75 years of Independence about half of the population lives in unplanned areas and slums. The 2021 Niti Ayog report states that 65% of 7938 cities and towns in India do not have a Master Plan. Still, we follow the colonial model of 20 year Master Plans, which do not address urgently to the impending urban issues of pollution, water and energy shortages, joblessness, climate change, transportation, utilities and pandemics. Not much has changed in urban planning systems to engage with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Sustainable Development Goals-2030 and climate resilience

In view of threats of climate change, pollution and disasters, the sustainable development goals were adopted by the United Nations, comprising 193 countries, including India in September 2015. These focus at human wellbeing, infrastructure and conservation of natural environment (Fig. 1). These aim at sustainable and integrated social, economic and environmental development of land, water and air and reduce the carbon emission and effluents from the transport, industries, construction and power generation.

The 17 SDGs cover the gaols of Wellbeing (1, 3, 4, 5, 10 and16), Infrastructure (2, 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12) and Natural Environment (6, 13, 14 and 15) and Goal 17 deals with implementation. The goal on Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements – Goal 11 aims to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. Other goals including those on ending poverty (SDG1), food security (SDG 2), health (SDG 3), education (SDG 4), water and sanitation (SDG 6), sustainable energy (SDG 7), resilient infrastructure SDG 9), inclusive economic growth and productive employment (SDG 8), gender equality (SDG 10) and climate action (SDG 13) are intimately linked to Goal 11. These linkages aim to change the linear economy to circular economy (Fig. 2).

Climate change has become an imminent reality with a rise in global temperatures, changes in rainfall, floods, droughts and intense heat waves. A drastic increase in atmospheric concentrations of water vapours, carbon-dioxide, methane and nitro-oxide, and other greenhouse gases help trap heat near the earth’s surface. The increasing emissions, heat, fossil fuel usage, urban growth, and growing air conditioning demand are affecting health and productivity. These issues have taken the center stage at policy deliberations at COP and other platforms.

UN Conference of the Parties (COP 26 and COP 27)

The United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP 26, Glasgow, 2021) deliberated upon various measures to limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius by the year 2100. Indian delegation led by PM Narendra Modi put forward the need to scale up clean technologies and renewable energy. Under the International Solar Alliance (ISA), One Sun-One World -One Grid envisions an interconnected trans-national solar energy grid. The COP 26 agreed to reduce the use of fossil fuels and coal by new sources, such as solar voltaic, green hydrogen, green metals, carbon capture, solid state batteries, electric vehicles and ethanol blended fuels, heat pumps, electric and hydrogen powered transport and next generation solar PV.

At the COP 27 (2022, Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt), India launched its long-term Low Emission Development Strategy (LT-LEDS). It focuses on transition towards expanding renewable energy, strengthening power grid, and energy conservation, rational use of fossil fuels, nuclear energy, green hydrogen, fuelcells, and biofuels for low carbon growth. This calls for a rethinking in the urban sector, including infrastructure services.

The climate compass is closely linked with the urban processes- ecology, resources, health and wellbeing and place making. Accordingly, a project compass can be developed to establish the priorities (Fig. 3). This also needs establishment of dedicated climate centers for cities, as done by the National Institute of Urban Affairs, New Delhi (Fig. 4). This involves capacity building with social, emotional and ethics as the basis of learning and practice (Fig.5). Technology, Artificial Intelligence, Inclusive Learning and Deep Learning can help in this task (Fig.6).

Fig. 4: The Climate Centre for Cities Source: NIUA (2022) Climate Centre for Cities, New Delhi
Fig. 5: SEE Learning Integrates Social, Emotional and Ethics with Evidence based Approach in Learning and Practice Source:
Fig. 6: Components of Artificial Intelligence Source: Verma, Seema, Towards Data Science, Reproduced in Shashwat (2022), TERI, New Delhi

Towards a paradigm shift in planning

In this digital age, the 20-year model of land use-based Master Plan does not address the urgent issues of climate change, air and water pollution, public health, employment and disasters. It is also incongruent with the objectives of speed, scale and sustainability. It is necessary that the local area plans are prepared for a five-year horizon, while their vision may extend to 20 years. The Delhi Urban Art Commission, in pursuance of the Delhi Master Plan 2021, undertook the preparation of Local Area Plans at Ward Levels (about 50,000 population), which integrate the ecology, built environment, service network, transport and heritage (Fig. 7). These plans manifest innovative yet pragmatic concepts of sustainable and circular economy, low carbon energy, climate resilience, circular construction, interlinked greens, circular water systems and waste management.

The cornerstone of making a city resilient and low carbon is to adopt a circular construction lifecycle approach (Fig. 8). It entails an integrated approach towards the nature (climate, greens and low carbon), the people (socio-economic, circular economy, culture, education, health, mobility, community participation) and fourth industrial revolution (digital planning, smart, intelligent and interconnected processes, SCADA, blockchain, discreet optimisation, algorithm, AI, big data, etc.).

Urban informatics for urban planning and infrastructure services

The ICT can be a game changer in this transition towards a green and clean economy, smart, resilient, and low carbon infrastructure services, transport and community. This needs specialised inputs in urban planning by domain experts in GIS, GPS, EIA, SDI, big data analytics, ERP solutions, digital dashboard, blockchain, AI, ML DL, etc.

Digital informatics and smart cities

The breakthrough in digital technology and informatics has multiplied space, energy and time. It is time that new forms of energy, services, construction and recycling evolved, which are characterized by online exchange of information, interactions, dynamic networks and floating nodes. Integration of land use, utilities, transport and building on a common network helps optimize space efficiency use and space configurations, eliminating unused or underperforming space. Utilities need ways to maximize the resources and equipment while minimizing “windshield time”, the spent traveling to and from sites.

By developing sector–focused, cluster– based intelligent city strategies, territories can set in motion innovation mechanisms and enhance substantially their services and systems. The ICT can help in the integration of citizen participation, governance and online consultation over plans and programmes of local development. The urban processes need to be compatible to circular economy by adoption of new technologies, such as digital blockchain, combinatorial and discrete optimisation, algorithms, complexity theory, artificial intelligence, big data, and the ubiquitous cloud.

Global positioning systems are increasingly being used for construction, laying of services by satellite-guided tools and GPS devices. By ‘on-site’ virtual system, pipe work installed in a building can be inspected by a worker. Before installation, a contractor digitally tags every pipe and electrical system; once installed the engineer can view an augmented version of reality through 3D glasses that recognizes the tags and displays exactly where a misplaced pipe should be, relaying data back to a central control unit via a handheld computer. The 3 D cameras recognise the objects and material, and whether they are being used at the right place and with accuracy. The way of measuring distances could become more accurate with ‘smart fingers’, which measure the distance between the two points.

Green and resilient buildings

A low carbon and green building aims to be resilient, sustainable and net zero. It is a synergy between various components such as energy, water, materials, wastes, land, indoor environment, etc. (Fig.9). The heating, lighting, cooling, ventilation, and powering of buildings are responsible for approximately 40% of the total energy use. As buildings are the largest energy users, incorporating energy storage into them will increase the resilience of the total energy distribution network and enable widespread use of renewable energy.

By passive design and low embodied materials, the buildings can be more climatically comfortable. Such materials include carbon-negative cements, low carbon steel, fibre, gypsum, basalt, fibre composite bars, bamboo, etc. Prefabricated and pre-engineering systems contribute to lower the carbon emissions, dust, time and costs in construction (Fig. 10).



Building Information Modelling (BIM) can simulate the entire construction sequence beforehand addressing sustainability issues and reducing carbon emissions. Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) and Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) are useful in reducing emissions, dust and GH Gases. The simulation of construction process enables better control of time, machine, expenditure and the manpower, and could reduce carbon emissions, costs and time by half to one-third. After the corona pandemic, the trend is shifting towards healthy spaces and work from home (WFH). This emphasises upon open office, biophilic design with natural light, greenery, atrium and courtyards which help in better indoor air quality. The building must conform to accessibility standards for people with disabilities. The space design must prioritise sustainability and health by way of light, ample ventilation, bionic and energy efficient equipment. A PowerOver-Ethernet (POE) lighting system enables smart lighting from a solar grid.

Urban heat mitigation and climate resilience

In a dense built-up area, the hot air dome i.e. heat island, affects the microclimate. There are irregular rains or dry spells or flash floods. The greenery and open space in windward direction and cooler surface materials (roads, parking, buildings, roofs, etc.) help in mitigating the effects of climate change and urban heat island. This needs preparation of a city-wide Heat Mitigation Plan and mandatory use of heat reflective and permeable materials for rooftops, pavements and roads, insulated with white paint and cavity walls. Water fountains, vegetation and cross ventilation can also mitigate the urban heat.

Air quality

Air quality data is significant to gaining a thorough understanding of local air pollution. Recent technological advancements have made it possible to gather data, with low-cost monitoring devices and advanced methods of collating and analysing it. This helps to gain an understanding of pollution levels, their causes and effect.

Now-a-days smart electricity poles with sensors are available to monitor pollution parameters along with light, CCTV, wi-fi, etc. The New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) has been using them in New Delhi (Fig. 11) . Citywide air quality monitoring networks can provide data of air quality.

The Google plans to map street by street air pollution that will be available to the common man. The active sensors will measure CO2 , CO, NOx, NO2 , ozone and particulate matter. CEMS and Air quality Data can be used to identify major components, sources, quantification and projects. It can also help the government to apply monetary incentives and penalties for polluting companies. This can also be used to introduce a cap-andtrade system, instead of the existing ‘command-and-control’ regulations. The data can be used to analyse the issues, sources and project various options and actively schedule to assign the responsibilities, project management, including timelines and monitoring.

Airshed planning, use of cooler and light shaded surfaces/materials are some other methods to reduce urban heat and air pollution. The use of prefabricated and recycled materials, including construction and demolition wastes in construction and repair of roads and buildings can help in reducing urban heat, air pollution and dust.

Green energy

Low carbon energy can be derived from renewable sources, such as biofuels, wind, tidal and solar power (Figs. 12, 13). The concept of energy efficiency, renewable energy and Zerofossil Energy Development (ZED) can reduce the energy demand and consequential pollution. Smart MicroGrids, Distributed Energy Systems (DES), Micro-Districts and Anchor Microgrids should be linked with renewable energy network and energy efficiency. A series of low carbon zones across the city with co-located tri-generation energy systems (combining power, cooling and heating), can lead to ‘green energy.


The energy guzzling air-conditioning can be avoided by innovative methods like Net Zero Energy Design, variable refrigerant volume (VRV) system, earth air tunnel (EAT), thermal storage and Passive Evaporative Draught Cooling (PEDC) systems. Lower ambient lighting with bionic controls and integration of natural light with high performance glazing combined with light sensors can save energy use in a building.

Synchronized lighting control systems can be designed to match building loads and schedules, which are segmented into multiple zones to allow intelligent controllability. The Energy Conservation Building Code (2017) provides clues for low carbon energy efficient building design with green roof, light coloured finishes and insulation (Figs. 14 & 15).

Water conservation and management

With increasing river pollution and drying of water bodies, several cities in India have become water stressed. Only 18% of the renewable water resource is being recycled, and only 10% of the annual rainfall is being harvested in India. To overcome these problems, water sources need to be planned and managed as the circular systems (Fig. 16). The water bodies and the rivers need to be protected by sanitation/sewerage interception, and by recycling and treatment of wastewater (Fig. 17). Zero run-off drainage needs the provision of swales, retention ponds, etc. (Fig. 18). Besides the conservation of rivers and water bodies, water efficient taps/fittings, dual plumbing, recycling of wastewater by DEWATS (Fig. 19) and adoption of new technologies, such as Blockchain and SCADA systems, can help in a more efficient water supply. A city should be able to grow its own food and minimize its footprint. This is possible by vertical farms, rooftop and household agriculture and by using wastewater for irrigation. Satellite controlled park and lawn micro-irrigation system cuts water consumption and pumping power. Wastewater recycling, with dual piping would reduce water demand. Vertical farms could reduce fertilizer and freshwater use, shorten transport and recycle gray water otherwise dumped by treatment plants (Fig. 20). Collecting rainwater and growing food locally in urban areas can respond to the challenges of transport, urbanrural divide, biodiversity, social equity, waste minimization, and energy.

Decentralised and Intelligent Utilities

Surveys reveal that approximately 40% of urban population in India is not covered by sewerage, sanitation, drainage and solid waste disposal. Various alternative technologies, based on the use of IT, simulation, blockchain and automation can make the services smart and intelligent. The common method of land filling for solid waste disposal is an environmental disaster. Instead, decentralized systems based on 5 R strategy of reduce, refuse, reuse, recovery and recycling should be explored (Fig. 21). Three bins provide separate bins for trash, recyclables and compost (Figs. 22 & 23). Biotechnology, enzyme based STP, bio-remedial treatment, vessel system, sludge gas/energy recovery, vermiculture, fossilization and compositing options can be adopted for solid and liquid waste management. Underground pneumatic conveying systems can be adopted, which are more hygienic, economical and avoid movement of trucks for transportation of wastes.

Clean transport and transit oriented development

As urban transport contributes nearly two-thirds of the total suspended particulate matter and 18 per cent of carbon emissions, it is necessary to provide sustainable modes of transit run by alternative fuels, like electric batteries, green hydrogen, ethanol blended gasoline, etc. Integrated Transit Corridors (ITC), integrating BRT, Metro, and trains, together with pedestrian and cycle lanes, can be flanked by high-density developments. In existing Indian cities, the 15 minutes Paris model, can be adapted, which means maximum 15 km distance by metro/trams, 8 to 10 km by bus/car/2 wheelers, 2 km by cycle and 1 km by walk.(Fig. 24).

Existing roads need to be revamped and landscaped to enhance space for pedestrians, cyclists and public transit systems (Figs 25, 26 &27). All highways and railway/metro lines should provide safe crossings for pedestrians, wheelchairs, prams and animals (Fig. 28). Multi-modal integration, last mile connectivity and e-governance are the pillars of sustainable urban mobility. It is necessary to digitise all the parking space including under stilts, multi-level structures, on roofs and in underground spaces. Seamless multimodal public transport system would work better by adoption of single ticketing and restructuring of land uses by transit-oriented development. Digital parking meters tell mobile phone when a space opens, reducing traffic caused by drivers trolling for parking.

An Intelligent community network

An intelligent geo-portal can bring together various line departments and communities on a platform for e-service delivery. The system is mobile and internet based, dynamically scalable. It helps in technology enabled management of land and infrastructure, planning and development. This yields better co-ordination and exchange of information, cost and time management. Citizen engagement becomes much easier and viable by virtual town halls.

Smart chips and systems can be embedded almost in every urban service and structure, making them smart and intelligent. These enable selfdiagnosis and self- repair. The future is already upon us. With digital chips getting embedded in a city’s epidermal and exoskeletal level and its connective tissues, cities are increasingly getting digitally scripted and coded.

The Parametric Model allows the users to adjust building parameters while the tool calculates the manifestation of these changes on the total carbon impact of individual buildings and the city. Designers, planners and building owners can take advantage of this tool to inform their decisions about energy, water, mechanical, facade or lighting systems. Where the Data Model is designed to shed light on the performance of urban environment, the Parametric Model is a crucial tool to enable their integrated performance in terms of green and sustainable built environment. This manifests the ‘‘smart nodes on a smart grid’’ concept. Information technology can be used to provide services to enhance users experience, such as high-speed communication and data management, carbon-emission accounting and performance objectives. This implies integration of green concepts with smart, ICT based technology to optimise their performance, monitoring and maintenance.


There is a need for a paradigm shift in urban planning and infrastructure services which addresses the impending issues of climate change, air and water pollution. For a city to be resilient and low carbon, it is necessary to promote conservation of transport, energy and water, nature and resources. Net zero urban development not only gives an environmental benefit, but also promotes jobs, urban variety, gender equity and socio-economic transition by invoking digital planning and governance. Optimum use of land and natural resources, lifestyle for environment and new partnerships are critical elements of a sustainable habitat, which connect the nature with the people. This involves integrating a long term, telescopic vision with microscopic local plans by new technologies, innovative financing and speedy institutions. A vision without a strategic action plan and how to get there would remain just a dream.


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