Guy Perry, president, cities & strategy, Essel Infraprojects, has definitive ideas on what makes a Smart City
By JAYASHREE MENDES
To do good, and do it right. More importantly, to do right by the people. That is Guy Perry’s motivation. As president (cities and strategy) at Essel Infraprojects (EIL), Perry believes that a good action must go somewhere and it is with this thought he moved to India early this year armed with three decades of experience in urban planning, designing and developing ‘wise’ cities.
Not for him just a smart city. It has to be wise too. A wise city, says Perry, is one that will be sustainable for generations to come. And although deployment of technology is inevitable, such a city will look at different aspects of development and movement systems, people’s well-being and the impact on the environment. He should know. In his earlier stints across Asia, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and the Americas, he has created and redeveloped and designed cities that today stand as icons that other countries could emulate.
Over the last couple of years, Essel Infraprojects Ltd has been betting big on integrating its Smart Utilities model, so that it can set the pace for building integrated smart cities in the country. At a time when the Indian government has selected 20 cities that will be the first to receive funds, of the 98 short-listed, to convert them into smart cities, EIL is looking at transforming the quality of life of citizens. And this is where Perry comes in. His novel ideas will help the company bid for and execute the projects to make a huge difference to its citizens. For starters, he affirms that “whatever we do in India has to be done on its own terms. That doesn’t mean we cannot be inspired by what has been done in other parts of the world. But there are specific challenges here. I would like to think that we will find the right balance of technological innovations that will establish a better framework of life for the people here. And this needs to be done in a short span of time”.
Implementing the vision
Perry is not here to just build smart cities. In his words, “It is about showing other parts of the world on how to live more sustainably. Today, India’s per capita carbon footprint is very low, which is admirable. The country is yet to achieve a certain level of development that other countries have already reached. However, we need to redefine achievement and aspirations. Aspirations should not only be about India catching up. It should be about finding its own way. The outcome should make people healthier, more aware and intelligent, which will then translate into the economy taking care of itself. That’s our (read EIL’s) vision of a smart city – about making people’s lives better, stronger and give them more opportunity.”
There are a few things that EIL seems sure about: the well-being of people and sustaining the planet for habitation. And the former cannot be achieved by merely offering more technology and putting more vehicles on the road. Technology must act as a sustainable framework and support the upcoming infrastructure. Under such a vision, EIL has chalked out a few things that a smart city will contain. It will assemble all the utilities — power, water, city gas distribution, solid waste management, cable & broadband — under one, remarkable and smart umbrella. And it has the wherewithal to run all these verticals. For instance, last year, the company entered into technology pacts with three German companies at Hannover Messe for solar and wind energy projects in India, and for water and waste water treatment projects. The tie-ups will give EIL an edge in terms of providing cutting-edge technologies and processes.
Creating smart cities requires a different kind of vision. And that incorporates many different infrastructures. It also raises plenty of questions. How does one scale up a city? Should it be scaled up more towards people or vehicles? What is the right mix? How does one use a street? How is it used today, and how will it be used in the future? What are the kinds of vehicles that will be driven in the future? Obviously, the solution is not in creating new roads and as many as possible, says Perry wryly. “You can build a highway, but you create other problems. We are rethinking the role of the street in Indian cities. Because, without doing that, we will not make progress. Roads need to be safe not only for vehicles but also for people,” he says with a wave of his hand.
It helps to remember that Perry derives most of his ideas from having a strong perspective of the global arena, besides being an ardent proponent of absorbing local talent to build cities (even war-ravaged ones), thus making its citizens feel at home. He brings a piece of history with him when he recalls a street scene in 1915 Manhattan that was open for residents to walk around, and how in 1927 it was ruled by vehicles. The impact on US, directly or indirectly, has resulted in a very high carbon footprint. Though he believes we must accommodate automobiles, this formula goes against the grain of a wise city. He also holds forth firmly on how non-communicable diseases (NCDs) attack people because most Indian cities have become unfriendly in their quest for development. “Cities must be hospitable and in the case of India, it is important that we find a way to stop migration thus increasing density. Indian villages or rural areas have low carbon footprint and are healthier, though they may be poorer,” he says.
To achieve this and more, the company is integrating each of its verticals and knowledge within them. “We are looking at building roads that will offer a secure environment. So that people can walk in the city. It is important that we shape people’s lives and make it better on any street. There is also the thought of amply shading the street so that the ambience and air quality is better,” he says.
Perry is also concerned with the airborne particulate, which is a major component of urban air pollution. Anthropogenic sources include combustion within car engines, solid-fuel combustion in households, industrial activities, quarrying and mining. Epidemiological evidence indicates a clear relationship between exposure to particulate matter and effects on health, particularly smaller particles that can reach the deep regions of the lungs. According to him, EIL has dug deep into understanding the fractions used to sample environmental pollutants: PM10 and PM2.5. “A smart city should have the capability to divert traffic if the PM2.5 gets to be too high. Mainly, because you want to protect the people,” he says with concern. One of his objectives is to start working on the right model of the street very quickly. And the timeline he gives himself is a year-and-a-half.
Speaking about exploring innovative approaches to make use of solar, wind and hydro power generation, Perry says that EIL is looking at scalability and would like to be leaders in this sector. The company realises that it needs to wean away from the grid. “We believe that renewable is the only way to produce energy for India, and this needs a two-pronged approach. India is well positioned to benefit from wind, hydro and solar, and these become the obvious choice for energy,” says Perry. The company is eyeing fabrication and ways to implement it in the communities and the streets they are going to build. “In terms of two-pronged, one is the clean energy I spoke about, and the second one is ways to reduce our need for energy. It is not just about lower consumption. But the energy reduction will come when we change our lifestyle patterns,” he adds.
Early this year, the company commissioned its 50MW solar power project in Uttar Pradesh. The Rs 450 crore project will reduce carbon footprint by 45,000 tonnes and is expected to generate 85 million units of power per year and would be connected to 132kV Sarsela-Kalpi substations. EIL plans to replicate this model in other parts of the country too. In its bid to find ways to look at clean energy, and considering it has the economies of scale, EIL expects to make better the next project. Besides this, it has already commissioned solar projects in Osmanabad (Maharashtra) and Bijapur (Karnataka). It has an upcoming solar project in Tamil Nadu and has also been awarded a solar PV project in Mansa, Punjab.
EIL strongly feels that a smart city project cannot afford to have power outages and that there should be equitable distribution of electricity. “We want to be able to track the use of electricity in a rigorous way. This is not the case in India today. Electricity doesn’t have to expensive, but it has to be logically distributed. The government must ensure that people are paying their fair share. We are trying to do that as efficiently as possible. It is for the benefit of the consumer, and the state alone cannot operate,” says Perry.
Among other things
Perry comes back to his favourite subject on how technology needs to be seamlessly integrated and made adaptable over time (because technology is a moving target), he says what a smart city needs is to adapt to the technologies effectively. All our motorised transportation, elevators, computers and gadgets are creating a sedentary lifestyle. “Unfortunately, even diets are not offsetting the NCDs because we are simply not moving enough. Our cities are instrumental in encouraging us to function and move as human beings or not. Within a certain echelon of society in Mumbai, it’s actually hard to walk around the city so as to be fit without going to the gym; whereas in a wise city, you would walk to be a part of the city and be at equilibrium as a human being. I look at the city as our gym. The street is part of our gym. And if it’s not, then our city is not wise. Maybe smart, but certainly not wise,” he says.
He is happy that various state governments are now listening to the various strategies emerging from companies like EIL. He likens the strategy to science and data collation of how accurately he can predict the health of people in Dubai as compared to Tokyo, or Delhi versus Mumbai. “And that’s when the government starts to listen. For them, it’s a long time horizon. If most people in their constituency are unwell, and if it happens to be the educated and wealthiest people (who drive the economy), then it’s a recipe for disaster. That’s why I look at NCDs. The communicable diseases in India are mainly due to lack of sanitation. But there is a high level of NCDs among the educated class of people. And that will hit the economy, unless rectified. In countries like the Middle East, they can get away with it because they are exporting what comes out of the ground. India doesn’t have that luxury. Your greatest asset is your human capital.”