Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Need to Define Smart City Before Jumping Headlong

Dr M N Buch, 
Dean, Centre for Governance and Political Studies, VIF

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced that India will set up 100 Smart Cities in the near future. Many arguments are offered in favour of smart cities, one of which is that there is a demographic shift from village to town, this trend will accelerate and we need to create the urban infrastructure which will gainfully employ the new migrants. Whilst it is a fact that between 1901 and 2011 there was a fivefold increase in the total population of India, the increase in the urban population was seventeen-fold. However, as a proportion of the total population of India, in 110 years the increase of urban population was only three-fold. This is not by itself alarming and is not indicative of skewing of the settlement pattern. Successive censuses have shown that the highest growth is taking place in the middle level towns. If we take the fifty-three metropolitan cities, they contain 19.24 percent of the total urban population of India, but as a proportion of the total population, they account for a little more than six percent. This does not suggest the kind of mass movement from rural areas to urban settlements as has been experienced, for example, in China. When we again fine slice the urban population, we find that about 7.5 percent live in class-six to class-four towns, having a population of between 3000 and 20,000 and this represents 2.5 percent of the total population. The nature of such towns in terms of employment is more akin to rural settlements and if we deduct their population from the total urban population then in fact India that is truly urban accounts for only a little more than twenty-eight percent of our total population.

There is a certain basic equilibrium of our settlement pattern, ranging from village to mega metropolis and this is one factor that our planners must take into account. This equilibrium require macro level planning which is aimed at maintaining the equilibrium, thus encouraging such economic activities in rural and small town India which helps to retain people in these settlements, where they find gainful employment. This would be an exact antithesis of the smart city concept.

I became associated with urban planning and development in early 1971 and have since then worked in this field, environmental and forest management and issues relating to watershed development. I was also Vice Chairman of the National Commission on Urbanisation and I like to at least pretend that I know something about urban planning and development. I have not been able to understand what exactly we mean by a smart city. I spoke to high officials in the Ministry of Urban Development and they told me that even they are not very clear about what is meant by smart city and they are trying to work out the parameters of such a city. About seven or eight years ago, Gujarat started work on what is termed as a global financial city. It follows the model of such a city in Shanghai. In effect it is not a new city but is a sub-city which is self contained and has the entire infrastructure of a city which provides financial services of a high order. Would La Defense in Paris be considered a smart city, or would it count as an ultra modern sub-city located in Paris? Are the new towns like Evry in the Loire Valley a smart city, or are they a new town like Milton Keynes? I suppose one could call a city which is totally technology driven as a smart city, but technology has drawbacks because human interaction eventually introduces so many elements of unpredictability and the city remains smart only in part.
India is not inexperienced in building new cities. If we take Delhi, our national capital, starting with Hastinapur there have been layers of new cities built in and around Delhi. Alauddin Khilji built the city of Siri, Feroz Tuglak built Tuglakabad, Shahjahan built the walled city, Lutyen’s built New Delhi, the Punjabi refugees built their portion of the city, there is Jagmohan’s city of DDA, there are Sanjay Gandhi’s J.J. Colonies and there is the whole National Capital Region with its own pace of urbanisation. In its own time every new city was a smart city in that if it fulfilled a particular imperial function. However, each layer impinged on the one below it and was, in turn, altered by the layer above it. None of the new cities remained in isolation and were ultimately subsumed by new development or by the countryside in which they were located.

When Jawaharlal Nehru built steel plants in the middle of nowhere, whole new cities such as Bhilai, Durgapur and Rourkela came up almost overnight. An earlier example of a city built to serve a particular technology was Jamshedpur, built by the Tatas. Each of these was designed to serve a particular industrial technology and, therefore, in terms of form and function they also performed the role of a smart city. Then we have the new capital cities such as Chandigarh, Islamabad and Brasilia. Chandigarh was designed as a standalone capital by Le Corbusier, Brasilia by Otto Konigsberger and Islamabad by Doxiades. Brasilia is remote and located in the midst of a very sparsely populated countryside and so far it has been able to retain the stark physiognomy of a city whose sole function is government located in a country whose real soul resides in Rio de Janerio and Sao Paulo. Canberra, the capital of Australia, is also remote in its location and, perhaps, it has so far been able to retain its monofunctional form. Whereas the core of Chandigarh is still green and open, Chandigarh is now part of much larger urban complex which has all the diversity and heterogeneity of any Indian city, especially because Punjab has built Mohali and Haryana has built Panchkula adjacent to Chandigarh. This is true of New Delhi also. The experience of our planned cities is that they start as oases of planned prosperity located in desert of poverty and the very inequality of settlements draws the poor to the relatively richer city in search of livelihood. The planned city acts as a magnet, the poor are like iron filings which are drawn towards the magnet and soon the magnet wears an untidy beard of iron filings. The new city now becomes a relatively prosperous island which is planned and surrounded by a mass of unplanned settlements which grow spontaneously. Every city in India, bar none, now consists of a planned city and an unplanned non-city in close juxtaposition in which very often the unplanned city thrusts into the planned portion, thus negating whatever principles on which the planned city was constructed. The question is whether this can be avoided in the new one hundred smart cities.
I have already stated earlier, we are still not clear about the definition of a smart city. In this behalf, three different views are submitted below, that of Caragliu, Gildo Seisdedos Domínguez and Komninos. The quotation below explains three definitions
  1. A city can be defined as ‘smart’ when investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic development and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory action and engagement. (Caragliu et al. 2009). To Gildo Seisdedos Domínguez, the smart city concept essentially means efficiency. But efficiency based on the intelligent management and integrated ICTs, and active citizen participation. Then implies a new kind of governance, genuine citizen involvement in public policy.
  2. Smart cities can be identified (and ranked) along six main axes or dimensions. These six axes connect with traditional regional and neoclassical theories of urban growth and development. In particular, the axes are based - respectively - on theories of regional competitiveness, transport and ICT economics, natural resources, human and social capital, quality of life, and participation of citizens in the governance of cities.
  3. It insists that smart cities are defined by their innovation and their ability to solve problems and use of ICTs to improve this capacity. The intelligence lies in the ability to solve problems of these communities is linked to technology transfer for when a problem is solved. In this sense, intelligence is an inner quality of any territory, any place, city or region where innovation processes are facilitated by information and communication technologies. What varies is the degree of intelligence, depending on the person, the system of cooperation, and digital infrastructure and tools that a community offers its residents (Komninos 2002).”
Whether we follow the European Union view of the smart city or the Intelligent Community Forum views, smart and ICT seem to be almost interchangeable terms. However, what is a smart city is best summed up by the quotation below: - “The label smart city is still quite a fuzzy concept and is used in ways that are not always consistent”. Nothing could sum up the Indian view of what is a smart city better than this quotation. One could be excused for feeling that no one really has a clue of what is meant by a smart city.

Obviously these smart cities will be green field ventures, unless we follow the European Union model of smart urban growth within existing metropolitan city regions. The three immediately planned cities at Dholera in Gujarat, one in the State of Maharashtra and in Ujjain District of Madhya Pradesh do not give any indication of these cities being a continuation of a metropolitan region. In fact, the present philosophy seems to be to locate the smart cities as growth nodes along the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. Is there a land pool available already for the proposed smart city or will land have to be acquired? Will the land acquisition policy be uniform, cutting across political changes in the future, or will there be a stop-go situation as we have at present? Where will the smart cities get the required water for city supply? What about power, sewerage systems, waste disposal, transportation linkages, communication facilities, including IT and ICT connectivity? What other measures would be adopted to ensure that these smart cities do not become oases of prosperity within a poverty stricken hinterland whose unskilled population is drawn to the cities in search of low paid jobs? Please remember the example of Ranthambore, a tiger reserve which, because of protection, is well wooded, has vast quantities of fodder and where the water sources don’t run dry, but which is located in Bharatpur District where the countryside is parched. Whilst the reserve is green for the sake of a few tigers and their prey base, the cattle of the surrounding villages are virtually starved and are thirsty. It is but natural that the villagers should try and illegally enter Ranthambore for grazing their cattle and this leads to constant conflict between forest officials and the villagers. Will the smart cities be able to isolate themselves from the pressures exerted on them by their hinterland? Will smart cities lead to equity?

India is not only a very old civilisation but its cities go back to antiquity, with Ujjain and Varanasi being the world’s two oldest continuously inhabited cities. As already stated, the cities are multi-layered, with the medieval overlaid by the imperial, the imperial by post independence settlements and these in turn heavily inter-layered by slums, unplanned or unauthorised colonies and new colonies developed by builders which have neither character nor aesthetics. Almost every city has a major problem of physical infrastructure such as roads, water supply, sewerage and drainage, power, communication networks and transport infrastructure. In them extreme poverty impinges on extreme wealth. Let us take the case of Gurgaon, existing next to Delhi and now considered a major business hub. It has almost no urban plan, no centralised water supply system or sewerage system, with crippling power shortages. Can new smart cities in Haryana fare any better? Our existing cities need considerable investment to upgrade infrastructure, improve housing to ameliorate slums and function efficiently as centres of gainful employment. At the same time, we have very limited physical and financial resources. Do we allow the existing cities to rot because all available resources are diverted to constructing the new smart cities? My submission would be that we should not be taken in by the vision of an India consisting of smart cities without first conceptualising what such a city would be like. Would it address a dominant function and then design itself to fulfil that function? Would it create a new paradigm of city planning in which technology drives its planning, its construction and its subsequent management? Would it be smart on account of infrastructure and would it be smart on account of the skill level of its inhabitants? These are issues which need to be sorted out and the planning process itself restructured to address these questions before we jump straight into diverting capital into cities which in terms of jargon we may call smart but which, in fact, are still half baked. Right now we seem to be groping in the dark.


Published Date: 21st October 2014, Image source: http://computer.financialexpress.com
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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