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Smart cities can change the urban way of life

By M Ramachandran
August 11, 2014 16:42 IST
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Smart cities can provide more safety, better management of traffic congestion, a low-carbon environment and better services, says M Ramachandran.

Thanks to this year's Budget announcements regarding smart cities, considerable interest has been generated: What is this concept? How are we going to take it forward?

The Budget speech itself has a menu incorporated in it about this, in the sense that it is in the context of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's vision of developing 100 smart cities - through creating satellite towns of larger cities, and by modernising existing mid-sized cities. 

Green-field cities seem to be covered by the reference to a coordinated development of industrial corridors with smart cities linked to transport connectivity.

So, what is our concept of a smart city? Will it be something similar to the Songdo International Business District coming up on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land near the Incheon international airport in South Korea? 

Or will it be sector-focused like in Singapore where, with heavy investment in its public transportation infrastructure, they succeeded in creating one of the most modern, affordable and highly-used public transport networks in the world? (Close to three million people use Singapore's bus system every day; over one-and-a-half million use the train, in the process efficiently addressing the huge traffic congestion issue.)

How will we use the experience of Dubuque in Iowa, which proclaims itself to be the US' first smart city? The city of 60,000 people, which operates on a fairly limited budget, recently completed a three-year pilot project to install smart electricity and water meters. 

It reported a 6.6 per cent drop in water usage, partially driven also by an eight-fold increase in the number of households identifying and fixing a leak. This is a pointer to the fact that a smart city project does not always require a big budget.

There is no single, comprehensive definition of what a smart city means. While identifying smart cities for an award for the period 2007-11 in the Asia region, five factors were taken into consideration: broadband connectivity; a knowledge-based workforce; digital inclusion; innovation; and marketing and advocacy. 

Three Indian cities, namely Bangalore, Hyderabad and Jaipur, figured in a list of 20 cities from the region; four in China, four in Korea and three in Japan made it to the list. 

There is enough evidence to show that smart cities can change the urban way of life. They can provide more safety, better management of traffic and traffic congestion, a low-carbon environment and better human services. Cities will have to become more instrumented, inter-connected and intelligent. 

We have to recognise the fact that after roads, water and electricity, there is a fourth utility now, namely networking. Shared infrastructure, broadband, end-user services and common service centres would be key features of a smart city set-up. 

So how does one go about this process? I would suggest a road map on the following lines:

The government should come out with a clarification as to what it envisages as the basic concept of a smart city in our context. What are its components? What will be the support available from government? Will all the components get taken up simultaneously, or will we go sector by sector? 

Are we primarily talking about green-field cities, or brown-field cities, or both? There are lessons to be drawn from green-field cities like the ones coming up along the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor, the GIFT city near Ahmedabad and even private initiatives like Lavasa. 

How is resource availability to be ensured? Will it essentially be private-public partnership? If so, sufficient clarity on its components would be essential, considering the fact that urban PPPs have really not taken off in our country. What would be the role for technology providers, since it is they who would dominate that part of the work? 

What will be the role of state governments? A proper structured mechanism for their participation will have to be clearly laid out right at the beginning, as these projects cannot become victims of circumstances - as they do tend to become quite often. 

How is the process to be led and coordinated at the municipal level? Since we do not have empowered mayors, and local bodies have a limited mandate, how is the process to be taken forward in a professional manner? Especially given that it will cut across sectors within and beyond the jurisdiction of the urban body. 

A key aspect to be carefully addressed is that of inclusiveness. What systems will ensure that access is easy even for economically weaker sections, and equal participation is facilitated for them? 

Creating technical capacity at the local body level to handhold the entire process will be another important requirement. 

At a time when most e-governance initiatives at the city end have only been able to create half-baked automation of back-end processes,or the building of web sites and provision of online services, what we need today is technology integration and data generation. 

That will cater to a multiplicity of requirements - and thus make the life of each city-dweller as comfortable and hassle- free as possible. 

The writer was secretary in the Union urban development ministry.

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