Sunday Anchor

Small & Smart


The Budget vision of 100 Smart Cities envisages transforming chosen cities into drivers of a new intelligent economy, raising the quality of life for millions of affluent Indians. But will they just be what all Indian cities should have been, as many of them have so far left even long-hanging fruits untouched. Or will they be walled gardens, cutting out the dirt and grime for the affluent.

Small and smart. With that ideal, the Narendra Modi government has outlined its vision of building a network of 100 smart cities — highly efficient micropolises for India’s expanding neo-middle class.

Budget 2014 promises urban residents in these select places deliverance from the daily struggles of city life. The chosen cities will be transformed into havens, evoking images of Singapore or Barcelona. Cutting through entrenched low-quality systems, these nodes will become drivers of a new intelligent economy, raising the quality of life for millions of affluent Indians and expanding the market for goods and services. The corruption, bureaucratic sloth and rickety infrastructure that characterise big cities will be a thing of the past. Transparent, automated transactions and a culture of seamless working will be the new norm.

If State governments deliver on their side, the new smart cities will come up as high-performance satellites of existing large ones; even some big cities will be upgraded.

Yet, the stark inequality that characterises life in the country makes it debatable whether there is something in it for everyone. There could be, if the plan has its roots in universality of access, and does not turn these spaces into walled gardens. The idea also assumes that everyone has the ability to connect to the Internet or a network using at least the cellphone.

Globally, the definition of a ‘smart’ city remains fuzzy. But in the Indian context, there are some low hanging fruit to achieve a reasonable level of efficiency. These are the neglected basic services that cater to all. They include dependable supply of electricity, creation of vast commons and facilities for walking, improved public transport networks, affordable housing and good systems to manage waste.

India’s big cities have failed to address these needs satisfactorily so far. Their ecological footprint is expanding as they pursue a 20th century western model of resource-hungry development, characterised by dispersed suburban living, dependence on cars for long commutes, and profligate use of water. In other words, they have relatively small political boundaries, but their negative impact is spread much wider in terms of pollution and resource demand, often to surrounding villages.

It is this phenomenon that has led to the confrontation between the city managers of Bangalore, India’s shiny IT metro, and the residents of Mandur who objected to the dumping of thousands of tonnes of waste from the big city on their land.

Given the unregulated patterns of development, the new smart cities must set priorities that lead to the convergence of technology and civic services. Gathering and analysing data is key. The data must help the government respond to challenges, while solutions have to come from efficient, low-cost technologies. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab in the U.S. which researches the future of cities, says streams of data on “economic activity, human behaviour, mobility patterns, and resource consumption” help evidence-based planning.

Technology giant IBM, which has been engaged by several cities internationally to study urban data, says mobile phones can be turned into sensors to determine the flow and concentration of people along different parts of a city. The data from cellphone towers can help tackle congestion by mapping the movements. Sound sensors can detect unusual activity in public spaces and buildings could be embedded with sensors to set off fire alarms; such data are monitored by different agencies in control rooms. From a cost perspective, a small ‘smart grid’ pilot spread over 2,000 to 10,000 square metres requires an investment of about Rs. 50 crores.

Interestingly, Coimbatore is the first city to adopt an 80-point scorecard of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction drawn up by IBM and AECOM, to prepare for natural disasters. The textile city’s effort to turn ‘smarter’ using a system of assessments and ratings was announced at the World Cities Summit in Singapore in June.

A smart city’s goal is also to become competitive. This requires investment not just in physical infrastructure, but in “creative capital” — a skilled labour force that is attracted to it, and also drives its growth. The question arises whether such a model city can remain “small” as it continues to draw more people.

How will such a smart city coexist with a less sophisticated neighbour? Will it be an intelligent ‘gated’ enclave where access is controlled, physically or virtually through electronic IDs for all transactions? If it is not a freely accessible space, it could lead to feelings of alienation and exclusion among ‘outsiders’.

As Gautam Bhatia wrote in an article in The Hindu titled Current practicality, future idealism (July 17) “...if the new package fails to carry with it the larger cast of the urban dispossessed, and the millions of rural poor who continue to become the urban dispossessed, the future will see more daily battles over resources — water, electricity, land and air rights.”

Fortunately, there are some models in the global South that India can study for its own idea of smart cities. Curitiba in Brazil is famed both for its Bus Rapid Transit System, and its ‘lighthouse’ electronic libraries for poorer residents, achieved without loss of equity.

Talking about its best-known project, Enrique Penalosa, who was the emblematic Mayor of Curitiba, said, “Urban transport is a political and not a technical issue. The technical aspects are very simple. The difficult decisions relate to who is going to benefit from the models adopted.” That should be the takeaway thought for the planners of India’s smart cities.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 3:48:48 PM |

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