It takes more than just technology to make a city ‘smart’, says Ashish Tandon
India is on the threshold of becoming an economic superpower. The government fully realises the country’s enormous potential, and is promoting it globally through campaigns like Make in India and Incredible India. Eventually, this will create opportunities for India, where other countries, including Asian ones, will be looking to it for short- and long-term solutions in manufacturing, education, healthcare and wellness. However, this will require a big push in terms of urbanisation and the quality of city-level infrastructure.
Although India has made rapid strides in tourism, it attracts less than five per cent of all global tourist arrivals. In view of the sector’s huge growth potential, it is worth pondering whether India can offer hassle-free, comfortable living and travel options to global citizens, especially if tourist arrivals double or triple in the next few years.
Plainly, infrastructure is turning out to be India’s Achilles’ heel – and huge additional investments are needed to retrofit and upgrade the current systems and create new ones. So far, a number of urbaninfrastructure upgradation schemes have been implemented, notably the JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission) and RAY (Rajiv Awas Yojana). However, despite the massive infusion of funds – close to Rs 970 billion so far – the ‘liveability factor’ of Indian cities has only deteriorated.
In this scenario, the ‘Smart City’ – an efficient, sustainable and accountable ecosystem – is being flaunted as the new path to salvation. But can our cities truly become ‘Smart’?
Understanding Smart Cities
Cities in Europe face the challenge of being competitive and sustainable at the same time. Globally, ‘smart city’ development focuses on sustainable infrastructure: urban systems that minimise resource utilisation, reduce waste generation and encourage sustainable operational and maintenance practices.
Beyond building pipelines and shells, smart city initiatives are about integrated development, urban planning, transport, water supply, sanitation, waste management, architecture and heritage, renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Much more than just a tech-enable city
Clearly, then, the concept of a smart city extends well beyond techenablement. In essence, it means creating a habitation whose essential functions are optimised, modernised and made self-sustainable through the use of technology.
For its part, India should seek to adopt the innovations and technology actively being encouraged and developed in Europe. Spain and France are in the forefront of such initiatives, with Barcelona and Paris the best examples.
France’s ‘smart initiatives’ include creating a digital infrastructure, and use predictive modelling as a base for augmenting environmental sustainability measures. Strong on aesthetics as well as energy conservation, the French model of development focuses on the user.
The India Requirement
The Smart City mission is a decisive step in the right direction. The framework for institutional accountability and operational sustainability ingrained in it is likely to steer urban local bodies towards more efficient service delivery.
However, each city must adopt measures to address its own unique implementation challenges. The funds allocated to the various mission cities as seed money, must – in tandem with available publicprivate partnership (PPP) funds – be gainfully invested.
A few essential steps towards achieving these long-term goals would be to:
- Create forums for knowledge sharing and extensive citizen participation
- Aggregate a digital database with 2D and 3D spatial mapping
- Ensure exemplary project management at the ground level, given that implementation will have to be done under brownfield conditions
- Build interactive portals for city infrastructure maintenance and grievance redressal
- Foster the automation of networks and services in terms of connectivity, safety and welfare (especially health and education)
- Encourage private partnerships in citizen-friendly initiatives and programmes that improve accessibility
- Catalyse an attitudinal revolution to transform the urban service provider into an accountable, efficient, revenue-generating organisation that is sensitive to the exigencies and expectations of citizens
A Smart City has two major stakeholders: the government and the people. The process of implementation must therefore be collaborative and participative. For instance, the administration should involve citizens – who are its primary beneficiaries – in water conservation, waste management, the active production of alternative energy (including solar rooftop electricity), and in creating a greener, healthier environment by embracing non-motorised transport solutions.
The Smart City programme aims to take the city to its people. It is a tool to enhance systems, but it needs all stakeholders to rise to the challenge as planners, designers, engineers, implementation specialists and as citizens of a nation knocking on the doors of global citizenship.
During the implementation process, citizens also need to be trained to adapt to the sort of transparent, apolitical and highly accountable way of life envisaged by a smart city. The government, meanwhile, must create an environment that facilitates a systematic and smart way of life. Only then can the programme truly succeed in India.