Smart-cities in India

Building smart cities the Indian way

By Roopen Roy Jul 29 2014

Tags: Opinion


Today more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. The crystal ball tells us that by 2050, only 14 per cent of the people in ‘have-more’ countries will live outside urban agglomerations and the number will be only 33 per cent in ‘have-less’ countries. According to a study of the MIT Media Lab, “in the future, cities will account for 90 per cent of the global population growth, 80 per cent of the wealth creation and 60 per cent of the total energy consumption.” Developing better strategies for creation of new cities is, therefore, a global imperative.

Expanding current metropolises by just adding population or cloning old cities are not intelligent or sustainable options. The policymakers are, therefore, looking at “smart cities” of the future. Smart cities do not have a single, acceptable definition.

I particularly like the definition of “smart city” of the Vienna University of Technology: “A city well performing in a forward looking way in economy, people, governance, mobility, environment and living, built on the smart combination of endowments and activities of self-decisive, independent and aware citizens.”

This description puts intelligent and enlightened people at the heart of the vision. It does not restrict itself to the focus on its digital and connected infrastructure, which by the way is very important.

Smart cities have three enablers — the first and most obvious one is technology infrastructure. But the two other enablers are soft and less obvious — institutional and human enablers. At the end of the day, these three enablers must converge in a better life of the inhabitants of the future smart cities, which will be built on the following six pillars:

(1) Smart governance: Future cities will see a greater involvement of stakeholders in policy framing and implementation. Technology will enable greater participation and transparency. Communities will be able to keep in mind the long-term interests and make wiser choices in the use of resources.

(2) Smart inhabitants: Citizens will develop a habit of participating in the life of the community and consider participation as a smart choice and a right, rather than a burden. They will be guided by principles of pluralism and harmony. They will celebrate diversity as global mobility of the workforce increases.

(3) Smart mobility: Future cities will embed mobility in the fabric of the city’s infrastructure and weave it in its cultural ethos. Apart from the digital infrastructure, safe and efficient public transport systems will be part of the building block.

(4) Smart living: The ability to access housing, healthcare, education and leisure facilities easily and at an affordable cost will be a critical piece of the new jig-saw puzzle. At the planning stage, one will have to factor in cultural infrastructure, safety and quality of buildings and social cohesion.

(5) Smart environment: While planning, living space must be envisioned in the light of a subtle balance between built-up space and green areas, water resources, pollution control and use of resources in a responsible and environment friendly way (for example, use of renewable energy, rain-water harvesting, green initiatives and so on).

(6) Smart economy: In such an economy, innovation will be the driving force that allocates resources in the right direction.

India has started taking steps in the direction of smart cities. As part of the recently announced Union budget, finance minister Arun Jaitley allocated Rs 7,060 crore for 100 smart cities. His critics jumped at the arithmetic and dismissed this initiative as a gimmick because little can be done with Rs 70 crore per smart city.

However, the vision is more important than the dissection of this year’s budgetary allocation. It is the beginning of a long journey. Just as Rome was not built in a day, a smart city will not be completed within a fiscal year. If we are able to design a strategy for smart cities and move in that direction with a comprehensive vision, it will be real progress.

In a recent survey, Vienna emerged as the top smart city. It would be interesting to note the parameters on which it was so judged. Vienna was the only city that ranked in the top 10 in every category: innovation (5), green (4), quality of life (1) and digital governance (8). Vienna is establishing bold smart-city targets and tracking their progress to reach them, with programmes like the Smart Energy Vision 2050, Roadmap 2020 and Action Plan 2012-2015. Its planners are dovetailing stakeholder consultation processes into building and executing carbon reduction, urban transportation and land-use planning changes in the hopes of making the city a major player in the smart city movement.

As we plan new smart cities and inject smartness into our older metropolises in India, we should not fall victim to a deficit in our vision of a smart city. A smart city is just not sensors, broadband infrastructure, hot spots, water solutions and smart grids as technology vendors would like us to believe. At the heart of smart cities are smart inhabitants, smart governance, smart lifestyle and the smart economy driven by innovation.

We have a great opportunity because of our ethos of unity in diversity and our ingrained faith in a pluralistic society. If we can imagine, envision and architect the softer aspects of the smart infrastructure and weave in our own unique Indian way the cultural fabric of smart cities, we will break out from the pack and achieve real success.

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)