The true, sustainable ‘smart’ city

In the light of various articles trying to outline what the Government of India defines as a ‘Smart City’, I’m compelled to wonder what exactly an ideal Smart City is. Under the governance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India set out to develop 24 capital cities, 24 business and industrial centres, 18 culture and tourism centres, 5 port cities and 3 healthcare hubs. Out of the 100 cities, 20 had been chosen in 2015, 40 in 2016 and 40 more in 2017 to be given huge amounts of funding to attain their goal of becoming a smart city. Each of the chosen cities were to be given around 500 Cr over the next 5 years. Whether this funding is going to come from government or from the people is yet to be seen. What’s also left to be seen is whether the public or private sector stands to benefit the most from this movement. I’ll expand on this point further in this article.

To start with, ICT is an acronym that lies at the very base of a smart city – Information and Communication technology – the city will need to use ICT to the best of its ability in order to ensure an enhanced quality of life, increased efficiency and productivity and of course, reduced time. It is clear without a doubt that the IT sector stands to benefit hugely from this mission. According to the information given on the official smart cities website, the following are the factors that a city would need to have in order to make the cut:

  1. Robust IT connectivity and digitalization
  2. Adequate water and electricity supply
  3. Safety and security, especially of women, children and elderly folk
  4. Sanitation including Solid waste management
  5. Efficient urban mobility and public transport
  6. Affordable housing, especially for the poor
  7. Good governance, especially e-governance and participatory decision making
  8. Sustainable environment
  9. Access to health and education

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An illustrative representation of the factors that make a Smart City

Every city would need to have a different idea of ‘smart’, a different goal in order to make this change beneficial for its people and economy. This would hold true anywhere in the world, and more so in India which is a hugely diverse nation where every state is like a different country. Each of the 100 cities had to list down a Smart City Vision and Mission Statement for themselves and what emerged is a range of focus areas with no 2 cities striving to achieve an identical goal. While Dahod wants to become a multi-functional activity hub for Tribals, Aligarh wants to be an economically vibrant, environment-friendly city that conserves heritage, Ludhiana wants to promote itself as a bicycle city and Tiruppur as a textile and apparel city, Saharanpur is focusing on local arts and skill and Puducherry on green tourism and industry, while some want to focus on their current areas of strength, others want to emerge as new improved entities of their erstwhile self.

Critics of the smart cities mission aptly point out that the plans for extensive growth of real estate and infrastructure will no doubt result in the takeover of farm land and forests around these cities. Ayona Datta, a university professor from Leeds highlights in an article she wrote how the smart cities movement will lead to rapid urbanization which will undoubtedly exclude those who do not fall under its vision such as farmers and tribes. Is the smart cities mission then only to benefit the large corporations and a certain segment of society? Over 50000 Cr of rupees are being invested into cities containing 35% of the country’s population. This is being done at the cost of the majority chunk of semi-urban and rural populations. Thus, it seems evident that the private sector firms have a huge amount to gain from this.

The business dictionary.com defines a Smart city as a “developed urban area that creates sustainable economic development and high quality of life by excelling in multiple key areas; economy, mobility, environment, people, living and government. Excelling in these key areas can be done so through some strong human capital, social capital and/or ICT infrastructure.” At this point, Abraham Maslow’s Need Hierarchy theory comes to mind. While many new theorists have come and made new, valid points, Maslow’s pyramid is one that will never become redundant. A human being first requires physiological needs such as food, water and shelter. A majority of the Indian population is unsure of where their next meal will come from. So smart cities would need to take into account the socio-economic statistics within themselves and then assess the needs of people based on which level of the pyramid their requirements lay at.

What according to you, makes a city, smart? This question was posed to people from various walks of life in order to get a more wholesome understanding of what people want, after all isn’t that what participatory decision making is all about! Author and entrepreneur, Meghana Chaudhary Joshi says “Smart Citizens. As in garbage segregators, rain water harvestors, carpool users, conscious consumers and of course those who don’t use plastic bags.” Manish Makhija, a consultant at Accenture stresses on public wifi zones, to him a smart city is one where “government stuff is done online such as ration card application, passport verification, etc, with no need to go to the sarkari office. Aditi Tandon, who works with the US Consulate in Mumbai says “Increased efficiency using technology which leads to things like quicker response to disasters, better traffic management, improved emergency response services, using technology for data collection and analysis which influences city planning, air quality, traffic data, and other such information.”

Internet Apps or websites based on crowd-sourced data showing locations of high incidence of harassment of women, thefts or areas of high pollution and garbage are becoming increasingly popular. While small scale, citizen-initiated measures are well on their way, we need larger, more wholesome data collection and analysis to take place for a ‘smart city’. Majority of people talked about infrastructure, connectivity, public transport and waste management when asked about the factors they deem most important in a smart city. To me, the question at hand is no longer ‘What is a Smart City?’, it is ‘What do we want it to be?’ If we could let all our dreams off their leashes and put down all the points that would make our city perfect, I would imagine them to be the factors that would involve the creation of a new philosophy of life rather than trying to repair the one we already live by.

People lie at the heart of the city, they’re what makes up the city, its desires, its vibe and its economy. Equality in all forms needs to be prevalent in a city for it to be the birthing place of great citizens and ideas – gender quality, equality of all castes and creeds. The state should set a healthy minimum wage and all employers should abide by this. Political and other decision-making needs to be participatory and convenient through online forums as well as area-based meetings and action. Sharing and helping our peers grow would be the way to grow as a society without ego, competition, hypocrisy and malpractice taking the stage. If the State Government of some states sets education as the minimum entry requirement to contesting elections, then they need to ensure that education is provided as an equal opportunity for all. That is the kind of freedom and fairness that needs to be maintained for people.

A civil society cannot really flourish without being rooted in its culture and heritage. Art, design and creativity flow hand in hand with technology and globalization. The focus also needs to be on developing smart citizens through their personal and spiritual growth cultivated through LOHAS – lifestyles of health and sustainability. LOHAS is now making way for certain people that are following LOVOS – Lifestyles of voluntary simplicity. These people concentrate on the simple things in life such as food, nutrition, nature, gardening, meditation, yoga, love and more. TO develop effective individuals, an excellent schooling for children is a must. Schooling and education for kids needs to have an equal emphasis on sport, creativity and text-based learning. In the words of Arup Soans, a sports business consultant, “Education comes in multiple forms, though to me education through sports is an easy, fun and effective way of getting the right message across. Ensuring a city has accessible public areas to play sports is a good start to building a smart city. Using existing institutions to engage the youth and school children through sport and instill values on the field of play like discipline, leadership and responsibility.”

“An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.” This statement made by Enrique Penalosa in his Ted talk goes deeper than its relevance to transport and mobility. It indicates a healthy society, one that understands the importance as well as the potential scarcity of resources and the need for their judicial use. For public transport to be used openly by all citizens, it needs to be efficient and safe. None of the factors that make a smart city are isolated from one another. In India, in most urban cities, the usage of public transport does not come without certain hazards which lie between the extremes of running late for a meeting and falling off an overcrowded local train. Safety needs to be a given on local public transport. Even for car sharing or car-pooling to work effectively, the law needs to be in place for those that might face issues. Hybrid or electric vehicles need to over a period of time completely replace petrol and diesel vehicles. Cycle tracks that do not share the main roads need to be in place so that cycling as a mode of effective and non-polluting transport can prosper. All this and more would need to be done for a good traffic sense to prevail in all urban cities.

When we speak of people and mobility, both walking and cycling become very important, not just in maintaining the health of the people but also the health of the planet. Today our planet is suffering and at every step when we speak of increased real estate and infrastructure, we’re moving slightly further away from our roots and the well-being of our eco-system. Climate change is real, the world is facing natural disasters at a higher rate than ever before. Smart cities need to respect nature in all her glory (and fury) and conserve bio diversity. Localization, and not glocalization is the way forward because an improved environment will result from a complete focus on the local market – both demand (needs of the people) and supply (locally available resources).

I am not saying that we completely devalue money. Business can be done with an increased emphasis on Corporate Social Responsibility. Larger businesses can think of adopting and supporting a social enterprise that relates to their field. If collaboration replaces competition, and story-telling by word of mouth replaces advertising, then the rise of freeganism is unstoppable. Freegans are people who reject consumerism, a freegan uses only as much as is absolutely essential and thrives on experiences and learnings, not on materials. Smart citizens don’t fall prey to propaganda and marketing and smart cities help maintain transparency and authenticity in all kinds of communication. Products developed with the Cradle to Cradle approach, Sustainable growth and ethical investment will pave the way for fair trade. A smart city should focus on Conscious consumption.

Last but not the least, I will return to the point of Information technology since that is a primary point as regards sustainability and the future. Green IT or Green tech and not just ICT should be looked at. Green technology is that which analyses the sources of energy it is using and reduces its impact on the environment. Internationally there are search engines that plant trees to offset their impact while there are hosting providers that are completely powered by energy from windmills. In India, these are a far cry. Development of energy efficient appliances, identifying alternative sources of fuel and finding renewable energy sources should very much be part of the mandate of a smart city.

If everything I’ve said sounds like an ideal world, then maybe that’s what we need to strife for, and not just a few smart cities. To me, a smart city is one that does good with its money.

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