What Shade of Smart? Brownfield cities may be the way forward

Given the opposition against the Greenfield model, a majority of the 100 smart cities are expected to follow the Brownfield path. Cyberabad, a dynamic example of retrofitting, can show the way

city digital

There is heightened expectancy following the announcement of 100 new smart cities in India regarding the modalities and guidelines under which these will be rolled out. Views supporting both Greenfield and Brownfield models for developing these cities have been expressed. The Greenfield model has perhaps drawn strong, if not stronger, criticism. Developing Smart Cities: Greenfield versus Brownfield Based on the experience of ubiquitous “gated communities” that dot our metropolises and Tier-II cities, Greenfield smart cities – it is suspected – will become elitist, exclusionary islands of calm and order, completely disconnected from the larger urban macro-environment characterised by chaos, unplanned misadventures, broken and crumbling systems albeit seen as more egalitarian and accommodative. The developers’ community – with its ability to agglomerate lands in urban and peri-urban areas, and possessing the experience of developing gated communities –is bullish about Greenfield smart cities. For a section of urban planners who support them, Greenfield smart cities can be ideal laboratories to demonstrate modern concepts of planned urban spaces. On balance, given the strength of the opposition against the Greenfield model, a majority of the 100 smart cities are expected to go the Brownfield way. Cyberabad For the past nine months or so, Cyberabad – an enclave in the city of Hyderabad – has witnessed retrofitting efforts on some of the parameters usually associated with smart cities. The dynamic experience of these nine months, perhaps the only one of its kind where retrofitting is being attempted at a reasonably large scale on multiple parameters, is the closest one can get to seeing the development of a Brownfield smart city at work. In 2004, to capitalise on the knowledge economy boom, an enclave of four villages on the outskirts of Hyderabad city were merged into a mixed-use space called Cyberabad, to offer a congenial working and living environment for corporate. Spanning 30 square kilometers with 1180 buildings, it houses campuses of tech giants like Microsoft, TCS and Infosys, the Indian School of Business, Gachibowli sports stadium, a mall, a hospital and five-star hotels. With residential complexes on one end and small tenements, roadside kiosks, temples on the other, it hosts a working population of close to 3,00,000 and a resident population of about 1,40,000. Since many of the office spaces are covered as IT parks, the civic management of a large part of Cyberabad vests with the Telangana State Industrial Infrastructure Corporation (TSIIC), and the rest with the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC). Cyberabad

  • Enclave of 4 villages on outskirts of Hyderabad – merged in 2004
  • Developed as a well-planned mixed-use space
  • 30 sq km enclave
  • 1180 buildings
  • 3,00,000 – approx. working population
  • 1,40,000 – residents
Retrofitting: Five Interventions & A Plan The retrofitting programme, an initiative of TSIIC, kicked off on the occasion of World Environment Day (June 8th) last year, with five components. Included in the retrofitting programme are converting each of the large buildings within Cyberabad into green or energy-efficient, zero-waste and accessible buildings. The other two aims are to promote ‘cycle to work’ and water conservation through water harvesting structures. There are partner organisations for each of these tasks: the CII-Green Building Council is tasked with implementing the retrofitting initiative of green buildings; the NASSCOM Foundation for accessible buildings; and a local NGO SRACO with zero-waste buildings, for instance. Programmatic and technical support to TSIIC is being provided by the German agency GIZ. The implementation plan follows similar protocols. The implementing organisation puts together a team, visits each building with a checklist, identifies what needs to be retrofitted and then prepares a detailed operation plan for each building in a template that covers the tentative costing of retrofitting. Regular meetings and sensitisation of owners/operators/facilities managers of these buildings takes place in parallel. Once the plan for the building is ready, adherence to it is voluntary. These five interventions can be considered low-hanging fruits in the sphere of smart cities. There is no use of sophisticated technology in any of them. Adoption of these interventions is non-disruptive and there is proven evidence that any retrofitting costs – for instance in green and zero-waste buildings –are adequately compensated for by the short payback period. Moreover, interventions like those for accessible buildings come with a strong social and moral argument to override the cost factor. Yet, despite the sustained efforts of partner agencies, initial results have been mixed, at best. Only a handful of companies have come forward, and that too to carry out a limited number of interventions. Challenges abound in this simple retrofitting model, which is symptomatic of what lies ahead when full-scale Brownfield smart cities development will be undertaken in many similar enclaves all across the country. Preparing the ground requires readying citizens to participate in a more elaborate manner. Leased spaces instead of actual ownership lead to a sense of temporary occupation, leaving little inclination to invest in the building. Retrofitting is far removed from corporate priorities to receive any sustained attention. In residential buildings, perseverance is required to change mindsets as it is for more complex interventions like the ‘cycle to work’ campaign. Unless the proof of concept gathers critical mass, large-scale results will have to wait. Another issue is the use of incentives/disincentives against leaving the activities voluntary, which may rely on rewarding the adopters via incentives like property tax rebates. However, the problem with covering a small enclave and not the entire city itself is that rewarding a few conveys the perception of depriving the rest. While it is still early days of the Cyberabad retrofitting experiment, it is clear that Brownfield development of smart cities, although a more acceptable option, will face myriad operational challenges. Unless these are resolved, even as we think of operational guidelines, smart cities may just remain wishful thinking. Views expressed are personal.