EARLIER THIS year, at a conference on Smart Cities in Chennai, Union Urban Development Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu quipped that every time he walks down the Central Hall of Parliament, shuttling between the two Houses, people come up to him to ask for one of two things: accommodation in Delhi or a smart city. “As if it’s in my pocket”, he added, tongue firmly in cheek.
In his pocket they may not be, but smarter cities are firmly on the government’s radar. Last year’s budget allocation of Rs. 7060 crore – a mere fraction of the investment required, albeit one that went unutilised – and the government’s stated intention to build ‘100 smart cities by 2022’ and revitalise 500 others has created a buzz that refuses to die down. With a fresh round of detailing expected soon, there are a number of interesting dichotomies that will mark India’s arduous journey from cheerful urban chaos to the celebration of smartness.
You may be forgiven if a ‘smart city’ evokes visions of psychedelic urban landscapes with shiny, happy, tech-savvy people shuffling about well-planned spaces. Ask anyone to define a smart city and you can gauge within minutes what they do for a living. For technology enthusiasts, it’s about artificial intelligence and the limitless possibilities it offers; for those in the brick-and-mortar business, it is about creating physical infrastructure that offers state-of-the-art lifestyles. Smarter people are the key for some, while others would lay emphasis on communities. It’s easy to lose count of the number of times you hear the phrase ‘live, work and play’, second only to the word ‘smart’.
The government’s December 2014 Concept Note is comprehensive enough to cover all bases while describing a smart city, though the emphasis remains on the creation of an economically-viable value proposition for current or future residents. What direction will this vision take? Will we ever come up with a definition of smartness? Who will decide whether a city is either smart or even worthy of the title and how will this be adjudged?
Says Frédéric Martel – Senior Research Fellow at the ZHdK’s University in Zurich and Hong Kong and advisor to the European Commission who is also a member of the cultural task force of the EU President – “There are no fixed criteria or checklists to determine smartness, and cloning or copycat development is bound to end in failure. Every smart city will be different, and governments would do well to avoid a top-down approach that ignores the ‘singularity’ of cities”, he adds, having visited ‘over 50’ smart cities’ around the world. Then again, being smart is highly contextual. Someone recently drew attention to the problem of absolutes here: if all that’s smart about cities is firmly in the future, have we been dumb all along?
The Reality of Numbers
Indian Infrastructure woes are well documented, often deterring all but the bravest to set up shop in the heartland. Numbers don’t usually tell the whole story. The Urban Development Ministry’s Note states that 94 percent of Indian urban households have access to electricity, but ask a resident of any mofussil town in the heart of the country, for example, and you’d get a different picture of load shedding and lengthy power cuts. With 230 GW of installed capacity as of July 2013, the Indian power system is now the fourth largest in the world but per capita consumption of electricity in India is only about one-fourth of the world average. It is these chasms between what exists in logbooks and its translation on the ground that will be a challenge to bridge in the months and years to come.
We have 29 states and seven Union Territories with 4,041 municipalities in the country, so smartening up a 100 may seem like a modest number, but it needs to be placed within a broader reality of the fact that there are only 26 cities in the world today – according to modest estimates – that are being called ‘smart’. How then can India, well known for the craziness of its urban hangouts, aspire to four times that number in a mere seven years?
“From an engineers’ implementation perspective, and given the time it takes to build a Greenfield city like Dholera SIR, the target of 100 smart cities over the next seven years seems a little ambitious”, says Jagdish Salgaonkar, Senior Vice President, AECOM and Program Director for Dholera Special Investment Region (SIR) under the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC). Adds an official who did not want to be quoted: “We have set ourselves a task of 100 smart cities in the year 2022 to mark the 75th year of India’s Independence. What makes us think we can aspire to such a transformation in seven years, when we haven’t been able to build a single world-class city in the time it has taken for us to get here?”
Global Targets, Local Bootstraps
Innovation may be the shortest route, then, to catch up and the dynamism of exciting new startups is pushing the envelope on the availability of new products and services, digitally connected to ignore the limitations of physical infrastructure. Martel gives the example of ‘Startup Nation’ Israel, with a population of a mere 8 million that constrains local demand, forcing its innovators to look outside. India offers a completely different reality, he says, where innovation must be tailored to harness the inimitable power of the internet. Unless villages are brought into the fold of all the excitement that technology brings, cities will continue to bear the brunt.
The thought was reiterated by the Urban Development Minister at a conference when he mentioned Gandhi’s rallying cry of ‘back to villages’ metamorphosing into a situation where we seem to be turning our backs to villages. India’s current urban population is 31 percent, contributing 60 percent of GDP. It will grow to 40 percent by 2030, with 75 percent of GDP share. Rural India, which will then constitute 60 percent of the population, will contribute only 25 percent after 15 years. There’s a need to seriously plan for the broader impact of such a future mismatch.
Footing the Bill
The task at hand requires a vast infusion of capital. “No government anywhere in the world can finance infrastructure alone”, says Salgaonkar. Everyone would agree. So while no widely-expected ‘big bang’ budget announcement was made this year, the Urban Development Ministry did see a significant increase of 53 percent in its budget allocation for 2015-16, at Rs 16,832 crore up from Rs 11,013 crore earlier. It’s nowhere near enough. Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) are undoubtedly the way forward but enthusiasm of the private sector would depend on the evolution of better revenue and risk-sharing models, perhaps buttressed by user charges that citizens may have to shell out for smarter services.
Also, who is going to run the agenda where change would inevitably be led at the city level?
Former Urban Development Secretary M. Ramachandran feels that since urban local bodies have a certain jurisdiction over utilities but not over things like education, health, mobility, security and safety that are essential to the smart cities universe, it remains to be seen how this will be structured and monitored. He is batting for an institutional change with an “umpire” to oversee collaboration. “There is a need to create the kind of governance that would allow revenue sharing with private players. We need to institutionalise structures that will be able to do this”, adds Salgaonkar.
Another key question is whether citizens will foot the bill for smarter services, via a user-pays model. On their part, “private players need to engage in outcome-based models that can prove that their solutions work in an Indian urban environment with its own unique challenges”, says Shaishav Dharia, Development Director, Palava, Lodha Group. A proof of concept, where everyone benefits can make for a great opening to a difficult proposition. In the end, it depends on whether the opportunity can be made attractive enough for private partners, without passing on costs that citizens are unwilling to pay.
Green versus Brown
Sketching from scratch can be as challenging as erasing the board to begin again. A question that has been asked repeatedly is what colour palette will be chosen for smart city development. Brownfield cities amid an overwhelming urban mess will be as difficult as building Greenfield ones in an equally challenging infrastructure void. “Any new smart city initiative needs to be piloted in a real city environment and not necessarily launched as a ‘big-bang’ approach”, feels Dharia.
In a country where development of urban townships has often defied logic, the mere whiff of globally-prevalent best practices is garnering interest. “All the DMIC corridor cities are fundamentally industrial townships that are being designed in a highly sustainable manner with international best practices and do fit the definition of smart cities even though that’s not how they were started”, says Salgaonkar.
Martel feels cities grow around the value propositions they offer for those who gravitate toward them. He cites the example of the Silicon Valley – which developed as people moved away from the main city – for being as well known for its hippies and the gay revolution as it now is for its entrepreneurial one. He further cites the example of Porto Digital in Brazil, where the World War II – ravaged port town’s community led the renewal, forcing the government’s attention. In India, the glaring lack of civic responsibility might make the task of the government just a little difficult.
Man Maketh the Machine
The Minister has talked about smart leadership but, more importantly, about smart people who are willing to pull their weight. “Sab kaam sarkar karega, hum bekar baithe toh chalega” can no longer work, he blandly told the audience in Chennai, at a time when greater citizen participation and higher levels of civic responsibility are key to building smarter urban communities. “No one wants a solid waste treatment plant next door, be it villages or cities”, says Ramachandran, while talking about the NIMB syndrome – Not in My Backyard.
More important than technology, buildings and perhaps even governance reforms is the need to change the Great Indian Mindset. Where else would you find someone bowing their heads in prayer in front of a holy river, right before it gets dumped with a bagful of religious detritus? Sensors that update garbage clearance in real time lose their importance in a country where people won’t use dustbins set a few feet away. The success of campaigns like ‘Swachh Bharat’ and ‘Toilets for All’ lies in being able to ensure just this, in a country less concerned with a right to the internet than with the right to defecate in the open. Technology – that helps communicate and connect – may be the answer.
The idea of smart cities also rests on the ability of systems, devices, machines, apps and data to be able to ‘talk to each other’. It also allows the government to talk to its people but what’s often lost is the dialogue within the government itself. In India, visit any state and there are enough examples of exciting tech-enabled change that hold the potential to radically transform the way we interact with the government.
Andhra Pradesh, for example, allows anyone to look up the water level in any of the state’s water reservoirs or check soil moisture for their tehsil via the CM’s Dashboard, made possible by embedded sensors that convey information in real time. However, examples of truly successful and scalable best practice sharing are few and far between. We are constrained not just by the lack of dialogue, working as we do in silos, feels Ramachandran, but also by the lack of credible data that can connect problems to solutions.
The Internet of Things – the engine that will power the smartness we seek – holds endless potential. It also provides an opportunity for technology companies to begin a serious dialogue with government on how they can help. Government officials candidly admit they are not even close to the iceberg’s tip given their lack in understanding what IoT can do.
In the end, the increased attention reserved for India’s urban renewal intentions don’t just need that one big announcement everyone seems to be waiting for. Change is already visible in the incremental ways in which our lives are getting just a little smarter every day. For that, it is important to forget the numbers for a while and pay greater attention to some of the national idiosyncrasies that are holding us back.
Says Dharia, “it is important to recognise that smart technology is an enabler to resolve urban issues but problems and their resolution need to be identified first.” Salgaonkar lauds the sarkaar for trying to do just that. “The government has sent a strong message in the past few months: tell us what is missing or show us the gaps and we will fix them. Such a strong message, right from the top bureaucracy, is unprecedented”, he says. There’s no point in planning cities no one will live in, feels Martel, citing Skolkovo in Russia with its freezing temperatures.
The goals that the government has set are ambitious, no doubt, but let’s hope that the transformation on offer – even if it takes longer than seven years – will shake things up just a little bit.
Views expressed are personal