Building Smart Cities in the AI Era; Seizing Opportunities


Aalok Kumar, Corporate Officer & Senior VP - Head of the Global Smart City Business at NEC Corporation, and President & CEO of NEC Corporation IndiaWhile living in an era of artificial intelligence, a populous country like India can’t afford to miss out on the potential of AI Technology. AI powered smart cities and green buildings represent the future of our cities. According to data, Indian cities are home to more than 35 percent of the country’s population. By 2023, urban areas are expected to accommodate 40 percent of India's population. For a country with 140 crore people, these numbers indicate acute infrastructure management and service delivery challenges. The government of India launched the Smart Cities Mission in 2015—an initiative that aims to efficiently and effectively tackle these challenges. 

After eight years, the technology landscape in the country has undergone further, dramatic transformations. “What’s the status of the smart cities mission in 2023, and where it is headed” are two questions that resonate constantly. Aalok Kumar, Corporate Officer & Senior VP—Head of the Global Smart City Business at NEC Corporation, and President & CEO of NEC Corporation India, engages in an exclusive interview with CEO Insights to walk through the latest challenges and opportunities across the smart city projects in the country. An alumnus of St. Stephens College, Delhi, and Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, Kumar possesses around three decades of professional experience. 

In Conversation with Aalok Kumar, Corporate Officer & Senior VP - Head of the Global Smart City Business at NEC Corporation, and President & CEO of NEC Corporation India

NEC’s recognition as one of the top three Master System Integrators (MSIs) at the India Smart Cities Award Contest (ISAC) 2022 is a notable achievement. What propelled the company to this commendable position?

At the heart of this accomplishment lies a deliberate strategy that combines cutting-edge technology with a deep understanding of the unique needs of the Indian demographic. Our journey began with the Surat project in 2017 when sustainability and advanced public transportation were emerging concepts in India.

Surat's transformation into a smart city showcases NEC's commitment to turning urban mobility into a reality that benefits its residents. Beyond innovation, our success is also attributed to over 70 years of collaboration with Indian government bodies, local authorities, public sector officials, and industry stakeholders. For instance, the Surat Bus Automated Fare Collection System (AFCS), thanks to our contactless RuPay-based smart cards, seamlessly integrated Surat's public transit systems, promoting environmental sustainability and increasing daily ridership from 28,000 in 2014 to an impressive 210,000 in 2022 through the Surat Money Card (SMC).

AFCS is a SMART solution implemented in Surat's smart city to achieve SMART goals. NEC, having set up the system, now manages its operations and maintenance for seven years. The solution helped people to commute throughout the city with a single ticket, regardless of their choice of transportation mode. This initiative has empowered the Surat Municipal Corporation to integrate its various transit offerings, including the BRTS city bus service and the high mobility corridor. The Surat Money Card (SMC) integrates multiple AFCS features, ensuring seamless operations across 157 BRTS stations and spanning 166 BRTS and 575 city buses.

Navigating through the realms of leadership, could you elucidate your guiding principles and strategic approaches?

We place tremendous value on human resources, acknowledging the abundant talent pool nurtured by accessible education in India. Our relentless dedication to talent acquisition has brought some of the brightest minds into our fold, propelling global growth. Our 'people-first strategy at NEC' champions upskilling, reskilling, employee well-being, and productivity-focused rewards, nurturing a culture of perpetual learning. We strive to instill leadership at various organizational levels, including contextual, situational, and visionary leadership, fostering a fair, transparent, and trustworthy workplace culture based on meritocracy.

In the last one-and-a-half years, many employees have benefited from Learning and Development (L&D) initiatives. This commitment extended to over 84,000 hours of upskilling by our India workforce during the lockdown in 2020 alone. The launch of the Leadership Academy - LEAP - empowers senior leaders and managers to navigate an ever-evolving landscape while inspiring each employee to unlock their full potential. NEC has launched several initiatives in collaboration with various universities in India to foster talent and skill development, particularly in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, High-Performance Computing, and emerging technologies. These initiatives aim to equip India’s young population with the skills needed to thrive in the technology-driven job market.

Through industry-academia partnerships with universities such as Chitkara University, Ganesh Lal Agrawal University (GLA), and Aarupadai Veedu Institute of Technology (AVIT), NEC is contributing to the development of a highly skilled workforce who have practical experience even before they join the formal workforce. These collaborations involve the establishment of dedicated AI/ML and HPC labs on university campuses, where students and researchers receive hands-on training.

We prioritize transparency, meritocracy, diversity, and an open culture. We invest in our employees, promote inclusivity, and nurture leadership at all levels to empower lives, leaving a lasting legacy across various sectors in alignment with our ethos, 'Orchestrating a Brighter World.'

Our aspiration is to cultivate a talent pool that takes immense pride in our shared commitment to empowering lives and building a better tomorrow across diverse sectors such as smart cities, transportation, logistics, digital governance, citizen services, and process automation by fundamentally transforming the experiences of our customers and end-users. It transcends the realm of mere employment; it's about leaving a lasting legacy.

In light of your robust professional experience, what would be your advice to young entrepreneurs in the transportation technology solutions industry?

For entrepreneurs in transportation technology, my advice is to embrace innovation, prioritize user-centric solutions, consider sustainability, seek partnerships, utilize data effectively, be resilient, comply with regulations, listen to customer feedback, invest in your team, and maintain a long-term perspective focused on making a positive impact on how people and goods move. We live in a complex and connected world where we might face some momentary challenges. A responsible attitude goes a long way in supporting the collective organizational leadership agenda. Change starts from within!

NEC India has played a significant role in the Aadhar program, one of the world's largest and most complex biometric identification systems

Beyond transportation, how does NEC envision contributing to the holistic development of smart cities in India, particularly in domains like healthcare, public safety, and utility management?

NEC is working closely with the Indian Government on their vision for their flagship smart cities initiative. Our commitment is to provide advanced, customized solutions that seamlessly integrate technology into India's smart cities, contributing to the nation's digital transformation. Our extensive infrastructure-focused portfolio reflects this commitment. NEC has created its integrated command and control center as a core platform that gives access to the cities by interconnecting the embedded sensors around city surveillance and city management.

Over the years, NEC transformed smart city control centers in Gurugram Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) and Kalyan Dombivli Smart City (SKDCL) into operational hubs to counteract the coronavirus spread. In both Saharanpur City and Thiruvananthapuram, NEC executed Integrated Command and Control Centers and incorporated smart elements. Additionally, NEC's Automated Fingerprint Identification System supports law enforcement in Karnataka and Kerala. One of our recent initiatives is the Tirupati Smart City project, where NEC integrates ICT solutions citywide and establishes a City Operations Centre (COC).

NEC India has played a significant role in the Aadhar program, one of the world's largest and most complex biometric identification systems. Further, NEC introduced biometric boarding at four major airports: Varanasi, Kolkata, Pune, and Vijayawada. Our advanced facial recognition system streamlines airport operations, enhances passenger experience, and cuts down wait time. As a global technology leader, NEC has set up submarine cables linking the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the mainland and the wider digital realm. This connectivity not only allows Island residents to access data but also supports voice and data bandwidth sufficient for e-governance initiatives, fostering new enterprises and e-commerce facilities.

So NEC Corporation India's Smart City initiatives have gained momentum globally, but these cannot be viewed in isolation. At NEC, from satellites to submarines, we have been silent crusaders in shaping India's digital transformation journey, and it is a matter of great pride that NEC Corporation remains invested in powering a billion Indian dreams through its cutting-edge technologies.

Looking ahead, what do you envision for NEC India, and how do you see the India team contributing to that vision?

With our 124-year global legacy, NEC India uniquely addresses India's sector-specific challenges, from transportation and logistics to public safety, citizen services, smart cities, and agriculture.

NEC India's strategy, “In India-for India” and “from India-for global,” drives our mission to pioneer technology that tackles real-world challenges. We fuse cutting-edge technology with our time-honored expertise, resulting in world-class solutions.

We aim to make a substantial impact globally out of India. We are in the process of developing innovative products that are not only relevant in the Indian context but also have the potential for global scalability. This includes creating product suites that add daily value to individuals' lives. This will be a significant win for our talent in India, who will have the phenomenal opportunity to lead global projects from India with a ‘Made in India’ product suite.

NEC Corporation India is on a path of significant growth and innovation. We focus on creating impactful solutions, both locally and globally. With a talented and diverse team, unwavering commitment to innovation, and a clear roadmap, we envision a future where NEC India plays a pivotal role in shaping how technology enhances lives.