Designing smart cities of India

Of all Indian cities Allahabad, Ajmer and Vishakhapattanam now enjoy a special privilege. They are going to be India’s first smart cities. This is following Prime Minister Modi’s vision to develop hundred smart cities across India. Current urban policy envisions cities as the growth engines of development and thus a government elected overwhelmingly on the agenda of development cannot ignore its potential. It has allocated Rs 7,060 crore in the 2014-15 budget to develop smart cities. Post US President Barack Obama’s visit, United States Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) and the Ministry of Urban Development (MOUD) have agreed to set up three task forces to prepare a detailed action plan in three months. Meanwhile, Cisco, the American multinational operator in networking technology, has announced its involvement in developing Vizag into a smart city.

Looking at its socio-economic ramifications, smart cities may become one of the flagship programmes of the government sooner than later. These cities promise to improve quality of life, create employment and investment opportunity and achieve competitiveness through IT and other technological interventions at different levels. But can technology alone create cities, which by nature are a complex web of interactions involving socio-cultural-spatial and other aspects? The missing link in the present strategy is the concurrent intervention of design, which works as an interface between technology and people. In simpler words, people must know how to use technology and take the best advantage of it. The user-centric approach of design can humanize technology at different levels - from developing rapid transport systems, waste disposal systems, power to urban infrastructure and communication.

In its twelfth plan period, the erstwhile Planning Commission envisioned smart cities as the engines of growth competing for national and international investment, even as infrastructure development for inclusive and sustainable urban development remained its priority. However, it’s under the present government that the vision has been converted into a programme with a clear mandate, budgetary allocation, identification of cities and action plans. Smart technologies, including information and communication technology (ICT), will not only become the backbone of urban infrastructure, but also expected to add value to civic services and ensure smooth service delivery.

The government plans to create smart cities as satellite towns around larger cities and by modernising the current mid-sized cities. It means, they will be developed not on acres of vacant land but in ‘statutory’ towns owned by municipalities and corporations and ‘census’ towns in the rural and peri-urban areas. Many such areas, however, may have their own socio-economic-administrative limitations.

Cities like Patna, Varanasi may be cases in point. So the real challenge here will be not only to create new state of the art infrastructure but to integrate the less techno-savvy, less smart, diverse population as well, living in the fringe areas and within the cities. After all, cities are complex network of interconnected systems; a fact which cannot be overlooked. From the design point of view the task here is about translating a policy of (inclusive) development into inclusive design by creating user friendly physical, social, institutional infrastructure for all.

Urbanization projection reveals that by 2031 the urban population in India will touch 600 million. Thus, next generation cities will be obliged to satisfy users’ needs and ensure convenience and growth, while being sensitive to issues of global ecological and environmental concerns at the same time. If we’re looking at smart cities as a response to India’s changing demography and consequent urbanization, we will have to put together the perspective of multiple stakeholders; technologists, urban planners, designers and city dwellers, besides policy makers.

The process cannot be led by anyone of them alone. Developing a successful model would thus require not only technological intervention or real time data management, which global technology leaders’ offer, but a whole lot of social innovations emanating from cultural-economic and even political understanding. This is where technology and design can work in tandem to create efficient user-friendly systems.

Sustained economic growth and competitiveness is the common agenda of smart cities world over. In India, employment, investment opportunity and competitiveness are at its core. European commission is trying to develop its model for its cities, in order to achieve socio-economic and environmental objectives. Its endeavour is to improve the quality of life of city-dwellers, enhance efficiency and competitiveness of European cities and make them environmentally sustainable through optimum use of energy and emission control. However, they are all essentially enablers for sustainable economic growth. In India, we also need cities to ensure inclusive, equitable and sustainable growth equal to developed nations. That is the biggest policy and design challenge for smart cities.

Creating smart cities in India will surely open up the floodgate of development activities. From Cisco, Siemens, IBM to Hitachi, all have their readymade blueprints of smart cities to offer. Hitachi, for example, sells its expertise of smart cities under social innovation business projects and offers to create optimal balance among people, places, prosperity, and the planet. Siemens’ solutions claim to reap full potential of urban infrastructure through IT and automation. IBM offers its data analysis expertise as the key to monitor, manage and measure urban life. Its emphasis is also on capitalizing new technologies and insight. We have south-east Asian, European and American models of smart cities. But assimilation of technology in their societies and their socio-economic indices are vastly different from ours.

We will, therefore, have to develop our own design solutions for smart cities and select the best option. Smart city may sound like a fashionable catchword. Nonetheless, its purpose cannot be anything but to design an urban environment, which embraces the needs and perspectives of different stakeholders. A harmonious balance between policy, technology and design will determine the efficacy of smart cities in India, whose challenges cannot be overlooked.

The author is a Senior Faculty of National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad
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