The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s COP 21 summit in 2015 marked a very positive turn of events to drive transformative initiatives on climate change across the globe. Notably, during the summit, 190 countries agreed and committed to keep climate change ‘well below 2°C’. In the follow-up events, nearly 180 countries ratified and signed up on this agreement. This development bodes well for the efforts against global climate change.
The Paris Agreement also has important implications for real estate owners, occupiers and investors, especially since buildings account for around 40 per cent of global energy consumption. Clearly, the countries that have signed up to keep ‘global warming limited to less than 2°C’ will have to keep real estate and building energy consumption central among the measures that they will need to institute to support this commitment.
The India Scenario
More than 60 per cent of the country’s 2025 vision of buildings and infrastructure are yet to be built. Over three hundred million Indians are expected to move to urban areas over the next 20 years. This will arguably represent the biggest mass migration and urbanisation drive in recorded history. Preparedness for these events needs to be backed up by positive impact developments in the fields of energy, water, transport and municipal waste management. India’s rapid scale of urbanisation is now presenting this as most pressing. Today most Indian cities are grappling with issues such as poor quality of ambient air, water scarcity or flooding, traffic snarls and challenges related to municipal solid waste disposal, amongst many other problems. For urbanisation, the key areas of focus from a sustainability and liveability perspective are energy, water, air, waste and urban transportation.
Alongside these, natural calamities such as the Chennai floods and the Nepal earthquake — and their impact on the respective cities — laid bare the dire need for resilience as a leading objective in urban planning and infrastructure design and development.
At a conceptual and implementation level, smart cities represent a convergence of many focus areas. The initiative will go a long way in alleviating the concerns thrown up by the breakneck speed of urbanisation in present-day India. Smart cities aim at optimum utilisation of infrastructure and resources, combining growth and infrastructure demands enabled by Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).
The reality is that the smart cities concept is still evolving across the globe, including in India. The mission statement and guidelines published by Ministry of Urban Development in 2015 address the following as core infrastructure elements of smart cities:
Adequate water supply
Assured electricity supply
Sanitation, including solid waste management
Efficient urban mobility and public transport
Affordable housing, especially for the poor
Robust IT connectivity and digitalisation
Good governance, especially e-governance and citizen participation
Safety and security of citizens, particularly women, children and the elderly
Health and education
There are various examples of smart cities across the globe, and each of them is unique in its geographic and social attributes, and economic engines. Examples like Barcelona clearly indicate that one does not necessarily have to build a Smart City from the ground up – it is equally possible to ‘smarten’ existing infrastructure through incremental improvements and well thought-out projects. Therefore, the initiative has to be two-pronged: Relatively younger cities get built smart since a large component of their infrastructure is yet to come up, and existing cities with well-established economic and social engines get ‘smartened’ through incremental improvements in existing infrastructure and very close planning and monitoring of expansions.
Smart cities need to develop ICT platforms at the building and city-level through a convergence of electricity, water, citizen connect, resilience, crisis management and emergency response. Such platforms will provide a key enablement of smart city programmes through agile and adaptable technology solutions to suit different economic and social environments. Importantly, customization of ICT solutions will be the key to fortifying the Smart City initiative and provide a necessary fillip to its progress.
While the Ministry of Urban Development has done its bit by providing a framework to the smart city concept and providing guidelines to define a smart city, each city will need to decipher its own customised solution and infrastucture to evolve into a smart city. The solution can, of course, draw from a framework or a guideline — but the solution must reflect the social and economic engine characteristics of the city, and take into account its geography that will determine the scale, content and pace of its urbanisation.
Urban planners and architects have to get used to an inclusive methodology of planning that involves not only the traditional dynamics but also ICT solutions and governance models, where private enterprises will increasingly partner with the government.
For example, while designing a waste management solution for a smart city, there would need to be the involvement of private enterprise involved in waste generation, disposal and consumption to recycle and reduce landfill pressures. Governance models will have to include building operators, township operators and ICT solution providers to provide the real-world inputs into plans that will one day transfer into efficiently operated and managed structures.
Smart city growth will involve public private partnerships not only for planning and development, but also in operations. In that respect, the involved planners and project specialists would benefit from looking outwards for lessons already learnt, and a view of what has worked and what hasn’t. All this must happen while keeping in mind that in the final reckoning, each city will need a customised approach to ‘Smartness’.