Imagine the clock waking you up in the morning, not at a fixed hour but at a time that factors in the traffic and weather conditions to calculate how long it will take to reach the airport. If the flight is delayed, the airline will inform the clock, based on which the clock may recompute the time to wake you up.

Based on your flight bookings, a driverless car assigned by the city will calculate the time it will take to reach the airport so your clock can re-calculate the time to wake you up, ensuring you get enough time to get ready for your car to pick you up.

As the car drives you to the airport you slip into a Virtual Reality (VR) conference meeting in your in-car VR conference system. The car will also provide you on its screen the details of the appointments and tasks for the day as it is personalized for you.

This is a glimpse of the kind of city we will be living in the near future—a city that senses the needs of each citizen and each city asset, analyses the context by receiving feedback from multiple systems and provides all its citizen personalized services in a proactive manner through autonomic decisions, without human intervention.

This is a cognitive city.

While cities are trying to transform into smart cities, it would be worthwhile for some cities to leapfrog and actually aspire to become a cognitive city, rather than initiate a separate transformation in the future when it will have to dismantle the systems of the smart city in order to create a cognitive city.

The premise of a smart city is a one that is safe, secure, accessible, sustainable, energy efficient and IT-enabled. In the Indian context, it also implies cities that have a robust core urban infrastructure that is IT-enabled so that they can be monitored and be made more efficient. Such cities will give a better quality of life to their citizens.

However, what does a city manager do when inundated with video feeds from 10,000 cameras, sensor signals from a million devices and electronic information that the infrastructure is breaking down? Is it humanly possible to take decisions based on the smart-city infrastructure to take appropriate mitigating actions? How can cities decide on their own, without intervention of city managers?

Thus, there is an immediate need for smart cities to rapidly evolve into cities that will “learn" from their ecosystem and fast-evolving context to autonomically respond to developing needs, taking decisions without the explicit intervention of city managers. This would be a cognitive city. Such cognition will be based on an appropriate set of information at the right time, and will lead to a proactive and personalized city—a city that can detect a visually challenged citizen and automatically get its city surveillance to monitor the person as they walk through the city and which can communicate with the on-body systems of the person in order to guide them and proactively provide for what the person needs. This is what a cognitive city will do.

However, to reach this desired state, a city will require to have the five key pillars of a cognitive city: 1) Pervasive compute and communication fabric; 2) Personalized city; 3) Participative city; 4) Outcome-based city; and 5) Informed city. These pillars would allow the city to make autonomic decisions.

Delving deeper into the pillars, a pervasive compute and communication fabric ensures that everything and everyone is connected electronically and computation is embedded wherever information is being collected and transmitted. Therefore, it’s a city that has sensors embedded in all vehicles, flyovers, bridges, gates, poles etc; has compute embedded in surveillance cameras, sewage treatment plants etc. Such a pervasive compute and communication fabric would allow a city to analyse and contextualize the needs of its citizens on a real-time basis, thus enabling it to be a personalized, outcome-based and participative city that can manage itself autonomically.

This capability is what will allow the city to allocate a time slot for the driverless car to pick up a passenger for the airport, and be able to compute accurately the time required to reach a particular destination factoring in the traffic and the weather conditions, and factoring in the delay in the flight.

It would also enable the tap to communicate with the upstream water-treatment plant and inform it about the quality of water and therefore autonomically change the treatment plant parameters in order to generate acceptable quality of water.

The pervasive compute and communication fabric also allows automatic reporting of disruptions in utility services such as water or electricity, to the concerned city government department, and meter reading of utilities will happen through smart meters. The city should create an environment for information sharing, inter-operability, collaboration and seamless experience for each citizen. This will enable seamless communication between all things and all persons, facilitating the city to take autonomic decisions for providing personalized services.

The second pillar of being a personalized city implies a city with the capability to solve each citizen’s problems in a personalized manner, such as the airline syncing up with the city’s driverless car transportation system and with the citizen’s clock to orchestrate a series of actions which begin with the alarm clock deciding when to wake up the citizen so that they have enough time to get ready, catch the driverless car and reach the airport to catch the delayed flight—and all in the most efficient manner, minimizing resource consumption of the city. It would also include proactively provide services to citizens, such as enrolling a child in school as soon as the child becomes eligible to go to school, rather than making the parents run around applying to various schools. And of course, all schools will be equal, as education will be provided through the same set of technological and cognitive systems.

The third pillar, participative city, allows the citizens to participate effectively in its administration and policymaking. All citizens are heard and the city morphs as per the demands of the citizens, rather than being a fossilized city which is driven by the whims and fancies of a few appointed individuals. This would also ensure that the city stays relevant for its people and that it does not lose its vibrancy.

The fourth pillar is that of an outcome-based city. A city that is focused on outcomes—and not outputs—is an outcome-based city. Should the city focus on buying air conditioners for its offices or should it focus on ensuring 24-degree centigrade temperature for its offices? If it focuses on the former, it would do traditional purchasing and might end up with a sub-optimal solution of having an electricity guzzling air conditioner that requires heavy maintenance. If it focuses on the latter, then it might spend on upgrading the insulation of the walls and the windows and installing a district cooling system that is far more efficient and dramatically reduces energy consumption. This would be an outcome-based city.

Similarly, an outcome-based city will focus on ensuring people reach their offices and therefore plan to keep offices close to homes, and provide pedestrian and non-motorized transportation connections as well as appropriate public transportation, rather than ensuring that cars can travel smoothly from homes to distant offices.

The fifth and last pillar for a cognitive city is an informed city. For a city to take autonomic decisions supported by cognitive technologies, it will require accurate and real-time information about the status of urban infrastructure and urban services provided to each citizen, in order to understand and analyse the requirements of each citizen in terms of health, safety, education, infrastructure-based services such as safe drinking water, reliable electricity and sustainable, safe and reliable transportation and communication.

The information-centric city should ideally have three interconnected areas of focus—technology, human, institutional. It should know the time of your first meeting of the day so that it can get the city to ensure that you attend it on time; it should know when your daughter is ready to enrol in a school and automatically register her in the most appropriate school; it should know that air pollution levels are going up and start shutting down pollution-generating machines; it should detect which citizen needs psychiatric help and proactively provide that; who is having a heart attack as the embedded pacemaker sends out the information to the smart watch that connects to the city’s real-time medical system that autonomically instructs the patient to rush to the nearest hospital and also order a driverless ambulance to take the patient to the nearest hospital while sending the patient’s records to the available cardiac specialist and instructing the specialist to also rush to the hospital to attend to the incoming patient.

The city will also be able to find out if a flyover is going to fall, using information from strain gauges embedded in the flyovers, find that the water getting into a specific home is unfit for consumption as the pipe has developed a leak and rain water has mixed with the potable water, or tell people to avoid going to a particular part of the city because of rising air pollution, hence reduce the air pollution in the targeted locality. An informed city is a key pillar of the cognitive city.

Finally to enable these fundamentals of a cognitive city, the role of the government, the relationship between government agencies, non-government agencies and the citizens and their governance mechanisms are fundamental to the design and implementation of these initiatives and are considered institutional factors of an information-centric city.

A cognitive city will allow every citizen and business to receive services proactively from the city without needing to log in and request the service, have access to world-class education sitting at home, have their health monitored on a continuous basis, have their health problems detected prior to the occurrence, allow automatic reporting and remedial of household issues related to water, electricity, gas and waste through smart meters. Sensors in cars will detect and report potholes on the road which will trigger the road-bots to step in and fix the potholes. The possibilities are limitless.

But a city needs to be ‘architected’ to be a cognitive city. It would be interesting to note which city becomes the first Cognitive City.

The author is partner, government and infrastructure, at KPMG Advisory Services Pvt. Ltd.

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