Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision to create 100 smart cities has resonated well both in India and across the world. While each state is pitching 4-5 cities to figure in the final list, many countries have shown interest in supporting the initiative in specific states. Recently, France offered to invest in creating smart cities in Himachal Pradesh.
The idea of smart cities is timely considering that urbanisation is inevitable. Sample this: as much as 75% of population in advanced countries live in cities, and 70% of world’s population will live in cities mainly in developing countries over the next 30 years. During this period, India is projected to add about 400 million people in urban areas.
While smart city as a concept has gained popularity over the past few years, there is vagueness in the definition. Rightly so, as multiple aspects including governance, public transport and traffic, waste management, entertainment and safety, among others, need to be considered.
A recent survey by the IESE Business School, called ‘Cities in Motion’, rates Tokyo, London and New York as the top smart cities in the world. The survey considers parameters including governance, urban planning and environment. The survey indicates that these three cities have a clear vision and consistent implementation of their strategic urban plans.
Rationalising/integrating urban bodies
Should India create 100 new smart cities or improve the existing ones? India has 53 cities with over 10 lakh population and there are hundreds of smaller cities. It makes sense to improve existing cities and aim at making them ‘smart’ rather than creating new ones which are bound to take significantly longer time.
It is a given that each Indian city has different priorities. We need to rationalise the existing infrastructure and then look for improvement. Here, information and communications technology (ICT) can play an important role in the rationalisation process. For example, Mexico city’s chaotic bus service got transformed into the most dependable public transport using ICT, through demand-supply matching and providing better service to the commuters. We can also learn from other countries in improving public transport ticketing using ICT. Japan’s FeliCa or London’s Oyster card are great examples of hassle-free ticketing service.
The concept of smart cities should be incorporated in the urban planning bodies and a holistic approach is required. How about integrating transportation and traffic planning with urban planning? This will make the urban planning department completely responsible and accountable for a city’s traffic and public transportation. Why should the traffic police be responsible for traffic planning? Instead, we should let the traffic police focus on educating and improving responsible driving among the public.
How many times do we get frustrated at the utter lack of coordination between government organisations resulting in wastage of effort/money and causing public nuisance? Roads are nicely tarred and within a few days the sanitation/water supply department begins work on the same stretch of road! As a first step, can we get such simple things aligned amongst urban local bodies and fix ownership?
The government should expand on the PPP-based initiatives and replicate success stories in passport service and airports. Further, Nobel laureate Jean Tirole’s suggestion to improve the PPP model through periodic independent evaluation is worth considering in India as well. Further, e-governance must be given the right thrust as it can bring in better transparency and can reduce corruption.
Creating the right ecosystem
India needs a strategy to enable and sustain a strong smart city ecosystem. The government must embark on an initiative making innovation as an enabler for Indian smart cities. The sole aim should be realising affordable India-specific solutions.
Institutions of national importance such as the IISc, IITs and IIMs produce some of the best talent in the country. Can we utilise this talent more effectively? Also, can these institutions be held accountable in certain areas from conceptualisation to implementation?
The ministry of human resource development (MHRD) should consider adding specific aspects around smart cities such as introducing urban planning as a specialised course. Subjects such as traffic and transportation engineering should also be popularised. Students should be encouraged to pursue specialised courses by creating the right demand environment.
ICT will play a major role in enabling smart cities and India is quite uniquely positioned in terms of the IT ecosystem. We have the technology know-how, skilled and mature manpower. IT industry, often seen as export-oriented, can have a great opportunity to make significant contribution in enabling e-governance or providing high-end analytics that can help the common man.
The success of participative governance (where the government departments and the general public work closely in prioritising improvement actions for the city) has been patchy in India. Reports suggest that few cities such as Surat and Pune have performed well, but most large cities have miserably failed. There can be many ‘valid’ reasons, but we need government bodies to show much more willingness to embrace public participation.
It will take a while for Indian cities to figure among the world’s best smart cities. That’s fine and perhaps Janaagraha’s annual survey of Indian cities could be a starting point for assessing Indian cities on smart city parameters.
A holistic approach is needed in rationalising the existing systems. Making our cities ‘smart’ is a milestone, and not an end-goal in India’s quest to create top-class cities.
The author is adviser, Centre for Educational and Social Studies, Bangalore. Views are personal.