Smartening up for smart cities

Updated: Nov 3 2014, 09:02am hrs
Cities in India can turn smart if and only if our rural areas are smarter and self-contained with access to opportunities and services. The age-old debate on bettering our cities has received a fresh impetus with multiple interpretations and the use of the popular phrase of smart cities. For a rapidly urbanising economy of India, it is imperative to relate the comprehension of smart to concepts such as liveable and sustainable cities that are humane to inhabitants.

The overarching strategy of good governance with coherent policy approach and emphasis on safety, quality of life and improvements in institutional, physical, social and economic infrastructure is essential for all cities in India. However, given the disparity in influence of urbanisation and globalisation, it is critical that the definition and interpretation of smart and sustainable is unique for each cityinfluenced by a degree of development, available resources and responding to its citizens local priorities.

Large metropolitan areas such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and others aiming to be competitive globally do need to counteract on the inherent challenges of optimising energy and resource consumption while capturing new growth opportunities. Growth in the value of real estate in associated metro city-region should be effectively realised and channelised to finance city services and infrastructure. Business sector should be acknowledged upfront as a resource-efficient partner and stakeholder with its strengths effectively utilised for managerial and technical competencies, thereby complementing local authorities. Focused interventions to strengthen the climate resilience of metro city-regions are critical. Technological advancement including integration of ICT should be focused for efficient delivery of services and creation of low-carbon infrastructure. Learning from and partnerships with performing cities such as Seoul, Singapore, Curitiba (Brazil) and others will be beneficial.

The upcoming million-plus urban agglomerations such as Jaipur, Lucknow, Raipur and others (a total of over 50 cities) should aggressively create enabling conditions to attract the potential for growth in the manufacturing sector. This will also facilitate in increasing the employment potential far beyond securing the outsourcing jobs. Real estate sector should facilitate establishment of new and emerging businesses while fulfilling the need for affordable housing. Targeted strategy to attract domestic investment and FDI will provide required impetus to upgradation of basic services and inclusive sustainable growth. Local authorities' partnerships with the private sector for efficient management and optimisation of resources such as energy and water is vital.

Cities challenged to deliver the basic services and amenities such as water supply, waste management, transport, health and education; cities faced with extreme circumstances such as natural disasters (as Visakhapatnam); and cities with greater heritage significance (as Agra) do urgently need a departure from conventional approaches to adopt smarter and advanced city management and planning techniques. The new cities, certain to be created to cater to potential massive growth in Indias urban population, do require a nnew set of policies and strategic approaches.

The recent smart cities initiative and initial financial commitment by the new government raises optimism for real change in cities than it being as just a political catchphrase. However, the overarching and unique city-specific strategies can be successfully advanced if the mandated institutions have the requisite capacities to adopt the radical change and deliver accordingly. There is a severe shortage of professionals with required skills for these tasks and the gap is increasing rapidly. The need for building such capacities is further aggravated with the governments renewed thrust on implementing various reforms in urban sector and to effectively cater to the massive planned public and private sector investments.

Higher education institutions have and do need to play a vital role not only in building the strengths of key institutions concerned with urban development, but also to create a new cadre of professionals to develop and manage smart and sustainable cities efficiently. The countrys premium academic institutions of national and international significance have greater potential to advance the strengths of disciplines such as management, technology including built environment and planning, policy and social sciences for developing sustainable solutions for existing and future cities by adopting interdisciplinary approaches. For example, TERI University has made a modest attempt in offering an MTech programme in urban development and management aimed at preparing a new generation of highly-skilled urban professionals having cutting-edge techno-managerial skills and understanding of social, economic, environmental and legal issues associated with cities. The uniqueness of this programme is in promoting learning through research-based teaching and engagement with practitioners. Students of this programme are currently working with city authorities in Delhi NCR to develop implementable and sustainable solutions.

With new vigour in the policy, academic and professional community, cities in India have a strong potential and an opportunity to become better. New knowledge partnerships will foster this change effectively and higher education institutions will play an important role in creating and promoting winning cities.

Shaleen Singhal

The author is head of the Department of Policy Studies at the TERI University, New Delhi