A smart Idea for urban ills

The government has provided Rs.7,060 crore to build 100 smart cities as satellite towns on the outskirts of large cities to accommodate the burgeoning urban population. Foreign direct investment norms have been relaxed to attract investors to build them. Indian cities are in need of investment and innovation, and the government’s attention to these issues is welcome. The question is whether smart satellite cities would offer a panacea for urban ills and whether the money allocated is adequate. There is no firm definition of what constitutes smart cities. The broad agreement is that places that mobilise information and communication technologies to deliver better services, reduce carbon footprint, create sustainable environments and improve living conditions are considered intelligent. Many cities abroad, realising that existing urban systems cannot cope with new challenges, have already taken this route. As a result, they are far ahead in terms of innovation. Rio de Janeiro has invested about U.S. $14 million to monitor the city in real time. Data from 30 agencies stream into an operation centre from where responses to emergencies and accidents are efficiently coordinated. Madrid plans to invest about U.S. $20 million in a technology platform to manage a range of public services such as street maintenance, lighting and waste management. Using a sophisticated supplier management model, it pays each service provider according to the level of services provided. Many cities have focussed on reducing energy consumption and offering convenient transport service. Some like Tokyo are experimenting with technology to help the visually challenged to move safely. Special white canes with embedded sensors, which pick up signals from electronic tags and markers placed at strategic places in the city, help the disabled navigate. Such smart city programmes require large investments and a thorough integration of various systems. Industry and cities have to come together and introduce innovative products. Against these complex demands, how will the proposal to set up smart cities fare? First, the sum allocated in the budget for the programme — about Rs.70 crore a city — is grossly inadequate. Unless the amount provided is only seed money to kickstart the programme, and more funds are to be sanctioned later, the smart city project would be a non-starter. Second, without the promise of good central funds, the State governments, too, may not take this initiative seriously. Since land development is a State subject, enthusiastic participation of the States is crucial.

If the plan is to enable the private sector to participate in a big way, then the State has to put in place a detailed framework to guide investment and demarcate responsibilities. Funds are only one part of the problem. The key challenge would be to overhaul urban governance and infrastructure, both physical and digital. If the state overlooks the existing city and privileges new enclaves, the cities will be split into two unequal halves, and the smart city project would turn out to be an expensive real estate meant to serve a few. Smart cities cannot only be about displaying technology and delivering services; fundamentally, they have to be inclusive and equitable places to live in. The urban future depends on making cities intelligent, and that applies equally to both new and old parts of the city. Given the fact that the existing cities, which accommodate a bulk of the population, waste a lot of resources and are energy-inefficient, they urgently require smart solutions. It would be better to treat the smart city proposal by the government as a kind of urban experiment or a prototype, whose lessons and experience could be used to develop cities in general.