In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, then Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had made it clear that his government would look at building ‘100 smart cities’ in India – a plan that has been emphasised time and again since his government took over, and has received an allocation of Rs. 7060 crores in this year’s budget. It is, by now, amply clear that the existing medium-sized cities will be the main focus of the National Sustainable Habitat and Smart City Mission (NSHSCM), under which the smart city building initiatives are being conceived.

More deliberations, however, are in order before we crystallise thoughts on smart cities, which are expected to drive the next phase of the urban development trajectory in India. Lessons from earlier initiatives should guide the next round and in this context, the NSHSCM is an opportunity for Indian states to re-think their urbanisation strategy, as they develop liveable cities.

The issues to be kept in mind at this stage are:

1. Importance of governance reforms,

2. Building capabilities at various levels,

3. Focussing on spatial aspects of urbanisation and on small and medium cities,

4. Developing a holistic inter-sectoral framework for city development,

5. Evaluating the performance of projects towards attaining city development objectives.

The discourse on smart cities

The idea of a smart city is largely derived from previous debates on smart growth and intelligent cities.  It was in 1992 that “smart growth” emerged as a concept - a new paradigm driven by planners, architects, community activists, historic preservationists, etc., which proposed that the concentration of growth in a city take place in compact, walkable urban centres.

But much of the discourse during the same time also came from ‘smart’ enterprises (IBM, CISCO, Siemens, etc). Others like Hitachi, Microsoft, etc., also came up with ‘smart’ technologies for cities. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) laboratories contributed to this discourse.

The smart city discourse gained momentum with the break of the global economic crisis in 2008 that saw extreme cuts to urban finances and social welfare, fuelling the need for the private sector to provide public urban services.  The Smart City Model provided this interface. In 2011, the ‘smarter cities’ trademark was officially registered to IBM.

However, it is the lack of clarity on the concept of smart cities in the Indian context that has fuelled the ongoing public discourse.  At the same time, it is widely understood that backed by none less than the Prime Minister himself, there will be substantial investments in such projects, which will be locked in for the next few decades and will in turn shape India’s urban future, its life in cities. The stakes are clearly high.

What would make a city smart?

Academicians clearly put sustainability, primarily environmental sustainability, as the primary agenda to be achieved where quality of life and economy are priority. The corporate sector's definition is overwhelmingly focussed on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) with limited recognition of city efficiency, management, infrastructure, environment, and quality of life. Limited definitions from the government sector indicate orientation towards ICT, governance, people and environment.

Notably, however, there is very nominal emphasis from any quarter on equity, overall functionality, resilience and importance of city form and design.

For India, it is essential to align smart city development objectives with national/regional development goals. A city should address challenges such as equity, sustainability and climate change, to be smart. Leveraging technology options and integrated ICT systems to achieve these would be tools to become smart.

Choosing appropriate technologies are vital to avoid technological lock-ins. For example an overdependence on automobiles (with improved automobile technologies such as electric cars) will lead to urban sprawl. This will reduce options and choices for movement by modes such as walking, cycling and public transport.

Graphic: CSTEP

Pilot smart cities

The responsibility for selecting pilot smart cities has been delegated to the state agencies by the central government. But what makes a city qualified to be a potential smart city? Are there any measurable criteria for selection?

Naturally, the criteria to choose a city as a pilot city will not be the same as those for labelling a city as smart. A city becomes a ‘smart city’ in the post development stage when certain improvements have already taken place.

The selection process for choosing potential smart cities therefore poses a unique opportunity to demonstrate a transparent and comprehensive process for smart city development.

The principles behind pilot city selection should, therefore, address four aspects:

1) Prepared cities, to ensure success

2) Range of cities (type of economy, population, physical character), to ensure replicability

3) Vulnerable cities, to enhance resilience against climate change, natural or other disasters

4) Cities that can fuel growth in backward regions and/or help achieve sustainable urban development strategy

The opportunity

The process of developing smart cities comes as an opportunity to treat cities as spaces, serving an integrated agenda involving all departments/ministries.  This multi-stakeholder agenda also poses an excellent opportunity to inculcate good governance practices, which is currently a national priority.

In Karnataka’s context, for example, the urban population distribution is starkly skewed, with Bangalore having more than 8 million people, while there is no other million plus city in the state.  The city selection under NSHSCM is an opportunity to address such regional disparities.

The constitution of a multi-stakeholder working group on smart cities and conducting sensitisation workshops for government departments could be important initial steps towards translating this concept into action.

A word of caution

Current smart city models sometimes are branding-oriented marketing concepts to formally pursue city-development (Fondazione Torino Smart City, Agenzia Smart Milano, Mahindra World City).  There is nothing wrong in that as a business model but it poses the risk of promoting functionally segregated, non-profitable spaces, which will be well-endowed technological enclaves that serve only the aspirations of a minority - the well-educated middle class. 

This does not cater to the people at the margins, who also provide essential services to a city’s economy. For example, the Gondola Air Elevator (cost $74 million), running across Rio de Janeiro above the favelas (that house the poorest population) evidently did not serve their purpose.

In the final analysis, perhaps the most fundamental prerequisites for a really ‘smart’ city system would be cognizance of the complexity of urban ecosystems, and the awareness that technology is not the saviour that provides solutions to all challenges.