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Socially Smart: Designing Cities with Responsibility

The Director of the National Institute of Design (NID) – India’s premier design institute – shares his thoughts on why we need to go beyond technology when talking about smart cities

smart cities
smart cities

Defining smart cities In my view, thinking about smart cities should not always be technology-centric. The human and cultural angles are important. India being such a diverse and populous country, with a multiplicity of cultural and socio-economic variations there exist interdependencies in our day-to-day life with people who may not be financially well off. We need to be inclusive in our social behaviour and in how we integrate the economically underprivileged. A smart city can’t be a ‘walled’ city and I think our cultural diversity – the soul of India – should not get diluted in the process of making a city technology savvy. The biggest fear I have lies in the way our metro cities are changing, losing their cultural essence. From a design perspective, I feel smart cities should be about humanising technology in design, right from the very beginning. An urban planning vision for India All challenges offer you opportunities, but the thinking has to be original; it can’t be borrowed. We will have to come up with our own model to meet these challenges whether it is public transport, facilities or services like health care. All stakeholders from engineers to town planners and architects to social scientists (who can decipher the behavior patterns of a society) need to sit together at the drawing board and evolve an inclusive model that benefits everyone, right from the beginning. Trickle-downs do not work. Smart designs for future cities Smart design is that which takes care of everyone. Sometimes because of the failure of systemic thinking, we are unable to make it inclusive. Right from the beginning, we must keep in mind the kind of cultural flavour we wish to bring into city planning, be it craft bazaars or multiple cuisines, street hawkers or glass facades of a market. We need to find innovative ways to turn limitations into opportunity. Integrating ‘responsible growth’ into our smart cities Social communication can help highlight the importance of two things that need to coexist – human development and ecological sustainability. Unfortunately, sometimes development hurts the environment and the opposite is also true for when environmental concerns slow down development. Can they go together? Sustainability needs to become an integral part of the smart city, right from renewable energy planning to discouraging personal transportation in favour of a public transportation plan. The problem with our cities today The slow speed of infrastructure development is certainly a major problem. We are working on incremental thinking, solving problems as they arise, rather than on anticipating issues before they arise. City transportation is another as is accountability of citizens. It is a Catch 22 situation – no good infrastructure, no responsible behaviour. Design has to help modify behaviour itself. A more proactive system that emphasises collaboration over punitive action and responsible behaviour that comes from a sense of responsible ownership of public infrastructure. Democracy and responsibility going hand in hand is a big challenge but total and seamless communication between the government and its citizens can make governance truly participatory. Putting people at the centre  I’d like to mention Japan, which has a strong national character and self-discipline in extreme situations – a kind of responsible behaviour that is as unique as it is inspiring. How many times have we seen an ambulance stuck in a traffic jam where people don’t allow it to pass? How do you deal such insensitivity? I think continuous modification of people’s behaviour is extremely important, in my view. Take the example of the Japanese tsunami that caused unimaginable destruction. It was heartening to hear how people took up the challenge – by walking instead of using public transportation, cutting down on the number of operational elevators and shedding jackets to reduce air-conditioning. People did this without politics or trading blame. What I’m saying is that with so many things dependent on them, people can’t be ignored in a smart city. The role of technology as a force multiplier Technology enables us, provides us with choices for better communication, transportation, medical and other services. It is important to understand the context within which India is growing and developing. Design is like making rasam or dal. You can’t dump all ingredients in a bowl. There is a sequence of operation with a measured quantity of each ingredient to tingle the taste buds of our cultural DNA. Design has to get everything in the right proportion, just like technology. Just because a technology is available, you cannot just push it into the system. Transforming the country with design Each one of us has experience that is unique and multidimensional. We must appreciate this diversity for a truly inclusive approach to urban and smart city planning. The most important thing is to move from apathy to empathy – with everyone who is not as privileged as, or similar to, us Thinking ahead It seems like yesterday but I’ve completed 25 years at NID already, which is 54 years old itself! So just thinking about 20 years ahead will not work. Cities have evolved over, and lived for, many hundreds of years, and will go on for many more. I’d like to share an anecdote of working on the restoration and cleaning of the Victoria Memorial Hall dome. People working on cleaning it told us that washing it with an organic instead of an abrasive material to make it look ‘cleaner’ or ‘whiter’ – while doing so three or five times in a year – will ensure that the marble lasts for another 800 years. I feel that thinking about the life cycle of a city is important and we can’t just think of 50/ 200/ 500 years alone. Due to scarcity and high cost of land, there are a number of cyclic pressures that get built into the planning of buildings and new structures. Builders want to make money so they decrease the height of the roof, which has an impact on the cost of air conditioning. It’s difficult to get out of that trap. The answer perhaps lies in setting standards – of crucial design elements, materials that can be used to ensure efficiency, affordability and sustainability that balances policy with business concerns and environmental constraints. There is much heritage and cultural wealth available. Can we build new knowledge and understanding based on that? Individuality has to be balanced with interdependence. Views expressed are personal


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