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Need of the Hour: Diagnostic Thinking, Conservative Surgery

Transport is among the major challenges that Indian cities face, given the ever increasing influx of people

indian city
indian city

By 2050, cities will be home to more than two-thirds of the world’s population. They already wield more economic power and have access to more advanced technological capabilities and ecological services than ever before. Simultaneously, cities are struggling with a wide range of challenges and threats to sustainability in their core support and governance systems, including transport, water, energy, communications, healthcare and social services. Meanwhile, multiple digital devices, connected through the Internet, are producing a vast amount of data. With this knowledge and allied to innovative physical planning and design, cities could reduce costs, cut waste and improve efficiency, productivity and quality of life for their citizens. In the face of the mammoth challenges of economic crisis and increased demand for services, ample opportunities still exist for the development of innovative solutions and interventions to produce what is termed the ‘smart city’. A number of institutions and research agencies have initiated a dialogue on how cities and towns are becoming ‘smart’. By this it meant that intelligence is becoming infused into the systems and processes that make them work — into things no one would recognise as computers: buses and cars, appliances, roadways, power sources, clothes and even natural systems such as agriculture, storm water and waterways. By creating more interconnected and intelligent systems, city leaders, policymakers, planners and citizens can harvest new trends and insights from data, providing the basis for more informed decisions. Cities in India as elsewhere have been subject to a number of intervention programmes initiated by many institutions, groups, agencies and sources with different priorities and differing ambitions. However, despite these efforts and investments, the most disadvantaged areas of cities have remained consistently disadvantaged and certainly not ‘smart’ by any stretch of the imagination. In looking for a way to capture and use information to make better decisions, I have become convinced that a more holistic approach is needed, based on ‘diagnostic thinking and conservative surgery’ derived from a humanistic approach to shaping public and private built environments and interests from a broader platform. Thus, better decision-making will allow more efficient and effective use of funding and resources as well as enable the scaling of good practices across all communities. Despite historical social events and changes in industry, population and culture, Indian cities continue to emanate a culture of pride, hospitality and potential. There is a real determination to create an environment in which all citizens have equal opportunities. Engagement with a smart cities initiative will reveal an urgent need for a solution to improve stakeholder interconnectivity and to enable metric-based collaborative decisions that consider programme effectiveness as well as an individual’s sense of empowerment and well-being. If successful, Indian cities will enjoy smart city resource and funding efficiencies, scale successful programmes and expand the impact to one that effects social as well as physical regeneration, even for the most challenged segments of the nation. A smart city uses technology to transform its core systems and optimise finite resources. At the highest levels of maturity, a smart city is a knowledge-based system that provides real-time insights to stakeholders and enables decision makers to manage the city’s subsystems proactively. Since cities grapple on a daily basis with the interaction of water, transportation, energy, public safety and many other systems, India must be committed to a vision of smart cities as a vital component of building a creative and innovative smart nation. Given the number of stakeholders and the need to leverage data from intervention programmes, smart cities must begin with a strong project management process in place. Establishing a method for regular communication with stakeholders will allow information sharing and stakeholder buy-in during the development and delivery process. Smart city planning must incorporate community-level input, in order to create a fully representative planning environment. The development of this framework is a dependency for effective decisions based on the metrics that will be made available by the community planning solution. The execution model and rollout of this framework must incorporate the type of information and analysis that will be available via the community planning solution. A lot of resources are being invested into research on behalf of the various agencies working in specific geographical areas of urban centres and city environments, with little evidence of real change. An evidence-based decision-making model would enable a composite analysis of the information currently held. This will create a collection of meaningful data to help determine the key priorities and most appropriate type of interventions required for specific geographical areas, and it will help agencies to measure the level of their success within those areas. First, we need to determine the measurements that will indicate success. It would propose the creation of two groups of new metrics: one to determine the success of similar groups of interventions and one common outcome measure that will apply to any intervention. These may be combined with other data (such as value for money) to make decisions on interventions, including (but not limited to) whether they should be scaled, provisionally funded or discontinued. Second, India’s cities need to implement a robust and consistent approach to decision-making and enabling the capture of any outcome metrics. It is imperative to the success of this model that these results (or assessments) are captured prior to the commencement of, during (when relevant) and at the end of an intervention to enable objective decision-making. Each group of related interventions, such as those targeting mobility, water supply, job creation, housing or public space, require a common set of success indicators. These success metrics will enable similar interventions to be compared and assessed on an equivalent basis. This recommendation is critical to enable city leaders to answer such questions as: Which of our public space interventions has been the most successful? Indian cities must define a common metric, which will be measured across all interventions regardless of type. All programmes should capture this metric as a way of evaluating the quality of the intervention against outcomes of other related or unrelated initiatives (such as transportation programmes, park development, or creative district programmes). In turn, this metric could be used at the city level to determine, quantitatively, the largest contributors to overall city ‘smartness’. Accordingly, the city will be able to answer questions such as: Which intervention most benefits the city’s well-being? Other data that can be captured during the execution of an individual intervention will provide further input into determining programme, or intervention success. Key in the current climate of reducing budgets and fiscal tightening would be calculating the value for money a programme delivers. In effect, it would be meaningless to look only at the individual success of a programme with regard to how well it delivers benefit either compared to its peers of the same intervention type or with regard to the city’s ambitions, if the city cannot afford to run an intervention or to scale it. In summary, the challenge of India’s smart city initiative is achievable if it is supported by the right approach, content, enablement and governance structures. If implemented, a new paradigm has the potential to enhance the planning process but will require resources and strong project management and also outstanding leadership, perseverance and commitment. In my experience, the journey will involve many challenges, however, the potential to transform India’s cities into smart cities is unparalleled — the journey, therefore, will be a worthwhile one. The article was published in BW|Businessworld