How to be smart

First, India must clearly articulate its vision of what constitutes a smart city.

Written by Mihir Bholey | Updated: March 19, 2015 6:01 am
Smart cities need to be designed keeping in mind our biggest objectives — sustainable inclusive development and social transformation. Smart cities need to be designed keeping in mind our biggest objectives — sustainable inclusive development and social transformation.

The idea of 100 smart cities for India feels like a dream coming true. After all, who doesn’t want our ailing cities to be rejuvenated? Demographic changes in India are alarming. Our present 410-million-strong urban population, 31 per cent of the total, is second only to China’s 758 million. But, by 2050, we will add 404 million city dwellers, whereas China will add only 292 million. Not only that, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Punjab will become more than 50 per cent urban in the next 15 years, which means they will face tremendous pressure on existing infrastructure.

That’s why the idea of smart cities excites policymakers, planners, technologists and designers. But what about the people? Do they understand what this may bring to them and how it will improve their quality of life? Will the underprivileged and marginalised be prepared to adapt to the transformation and use it as an opportunity for growth? Policymakers, planners and designers will have to find an answer to this and make the smart cities models of inclusive development.

Globally, more people live in urban areas, but in India, 69 per cent still live in villages. Many of these people are also part of the migratory and floating population in the cities. Despite this, the smart city programme catches more eyeballs than the programme for rural rejuvenation, Pura (providing urban amenities in rural areas). Pura aims to invigorate villages and make them economically empowered through physical, electronic and knowledge connectivity. However, one of the arguments given in favour of urbanisation is that providing a better quality of life comes at a lesser cost in dense urban sprawls than in the sparse rural dwellings. Is that true?

At present, cities struggle to provide even basic facilities such as water, transportation, solid waste management and sewage treatment to residents. McKinsey reports that the quality of urban services will deteriorate sharply by 2030, if present trends persist. For example, while cities required 83 billion litres of water per day in 2007, the supply was only 56 billion litres. By 2030, the supply will be 95 billion litres while the demand will rise to 189 billion litres. Similarly, while the supply of affordable housing in 2007 was five million units, the demand was 30 million units. In 2030, the supply will be 12 million units versus demand for 50 million units. The gap in other service sectors, that is solid waste management, sewage and transportation will be similar. To manage this, India will require an additional investment of $1.2 trillion, McKinsey estimates. Smart cities propose to manage these and other urban issues through technology interventions at different levels.

Our current urban policy envisions cities as the growth engines of development. So a government elected overwhelmingly on the agenda of development can’t ignore its potential. Policymakers are aware that by 2030, 70 per cent of India’s GDP will come from cities. It will also increase the national income fourfold. Hence the allocation of Rs 7,060 crore in the 2014-15 budget to develop smart cities. Post US President Barack Obama’s visit, the United States Trade and Development Agency and the ministry of urban development have agreed to set up three task forces to prepare a detailed action plan in three months. Meanwhile, Cisco, the American multinational operator in networking technology, has announced its involvement in developing Vizag into a smart city. However, cities should become neither isolated islands of excellence nor just follow the single-point agenda of creating wealth. They must also serve the larger purpose of sustainable development. How will our smart cities ensure that?

Better quality of life, opportunity of employment and investment are some of the notable promises of smart cities. IT and other technological interventions are going to play a major role. But can technology alone create cities which, by nature, comprise a complex web of interactions involving socio-cultural-spatial and other aspects? The missing link in the technology-driven approach is the intervention of design that can simplify the interface between technology and people, make it inviting and user-friendly. The user-centric approach to design can enable more creativity in the application of technology at different levels, from developing rapid transport and waste disposal systems to urban infrastructure and communication.

There are several technological solutions for smart cities. Cisco, Siemens, IBM and Hitachi — all have readymade blueprints. But at this point, what is more important is to first clearly articulate our vision for smart cities. In fact, the term “smart” may be fashionable but is just a euphemism underlining our new urban aspirations and imperatives. We also need a clearer and more comprehensive policy articulation vis-a-vis smart cities to guide the technologists, planners and designers and define their role. Smart cities need to be designed keeping in mind our biggest objectives — sustainable inclusive development and social transformation. The synergy between policy, technology and design can shape the smart cities of tomorrow. Policymakers, technologists, urban planners and designers must come together to prepare the final blueprint for the smart cities of India.

The writer is senior faculty at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

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