The 'Unsmart' in smart Cities

Having been exposed to high decibel noise on Smart Cities, I think one has started discerning the Unsmart in Smart here. And trust me this could be just the beginning of it. More, we, as Indians (habituated of dealing with Unsmart), discern it, louder shall be the noise. But there are plenty of reasons to love the idea as this is probably Our about time when we hit the ground and get the smart in us unleashed before the world. And in this notion itself, one would find the first thing that is not Smart.

There seems to be an undercurrent hush towards making bigger announcements, claiming bigger sizes, and almost like a reworked GDP statistics one can spot a different set of ambitious numbers on the surface. Have we actually analyzed our current Big data, how many do we really need. A'nt we all looking forward to first understand well why do we need exactly 100 such cities.

We are often encouraged to emulate China as their cities are closest and most pertinent examples of what can be done, and what we are aspiring to achieve. The recent urbanization happened in China however, has a couple of trends standing out- Urbanization has taken shape of colonization, and Buildings have been at best extension of developer's whims. Analysis of the prevailing, price to income ratio and housing debt to income ratio or debt-service ratio, are all indicators of formation of Bubble in China. In simple terms houses are unaffordable for a massive section of the society yet they have been built in a speculative spree. The bull run whether in Money or in Technology results in a pile of things that we may not need. No matter how awesome the Chinese Cities look from here, they can't really be our model for growth. In fact we need to study them hard to learn to list the things that we ought not to do. The emphasis on Technology as driver of growth of these cities is slightly misplaced. We always lacked policies that are People & consumer centric. Here again, the focus on ICT has taken the spot light away from the People. Technology as enabler is indeed a smart move, keeping the city dependent on it would be Unsmart. ICT companies are slated to make a business of 10-15% of the Smart Citie's total budget. Yet one blockade in the data flow, and the City stops. That is the dread that we are talking about. We often argue Cities are organisms, and organisms are resilient and this resilience is imparted by the people. The challenges that our City face today, Economic stagnation, Deteriorating Civic and Environmental Conditions, Lack of reliable City Transport, demographical shifts, bad governance and many more interdependent issues, these all are people centric at both ends.

Technology could be both an enabler and solution, provided it fills zillions of gaps in our infamously inefficient systems. Believing the kind of models that West and Singapore are offering, is using the ICT in this very way, still I wonder how sensitive they would be to the kind of agility that our cities require. The Imported models may lack this agility and organic behavior that we must keep intact. We are a tremendously diverse country with exceedingly diverse needs, yet we have learned to compromise a great deal. The, Our Smart city, I hope does put an end to all such compromises.

Some important aspects of Urban planning, like density, landuse allocation, resource planning, connectivity etc have to be reviewed with the lenses of technology on. The Planning exercises have historically been 2 Dimensional, making Urban planning look like a scaled up Spatial planning. We need to make a paradigm shift to Smart planning, where collaborative and integrated approach towards planning must be adopted. The City Council meet, people's participation, do work well but have a limited role to play in the whole gamut of planning. The Mindset change to a truly collaborative process is yet to happen. The Process change is suffering stiff resistance by the people who are sitting on decision making chairs in the planning bodies.

As most of the cities undergoing this transformation are the existing ones, role of Digital surveys, are going to be of paramount importance. Digital Surveys of the cities are going to be expensive affair yet unavoidable. Add to this the democratic concerns, when you may have to undertake the collection of public data for myriad of issues like, willingness to pay for certain services, socio economic behavior etc. We will fail to take off as smart if we don't undertake the digitization process of our buildings, amenities, land records, public utilities etc pretty seriously. This could be the single most important factor in delivering a workable solution for the smart Cities.

Going ahead, the challenges look naturally immense. The following five may take immediate priority-

1. Financing –Cities are long gestation period projects. The High Power Expert Committee (HPEC) on Investment Estimates in Urban Infrastructure has assessed a Per Capita Investment Cost (PCIC) of Rs 43,386 for a 20 year period. Using an average figure of 1 million people in each of the 100 smart cities, the total estimate of investment requirements for the smart city comes to Rs 7 lakh crore over 20 years (with an annual escalation of 10 percent from 2009-20 to 2014-15). This translates into an annual requirement of Rs 35,000 crore.One needs to be see how these projects need to be financed as majority of project would move through complete private investment or through PPPs (public private partnership). Both the central government as well as state governments would be interested only in Viability Gap Fund (VGF).

2. Providing clearances in a time bound manner-Too many cooks, no chef scenario is fast building up. For timely completion of project, all clearances should use online processes and should be cleared in a time bound manner. Free right of way for laying optic fiber networks, water supply lines, sewerage systems, draining systems and other utilities should be given as per the timeline and cost decided by the government. A regulatory body should be set up for all utility services so that level playing field is made available to the private sector and tariffs are set in a manner that balances financial sustainability with quality.

3. Capacity building program-Building capacity for 100 smart cities is not an easy task and most of the ambitious projects get delayed due to lack of quality manpower both at the center as well as states. In terms of fund around 5 percent of the total central allocation may be allocated for capacity building programs which focuses on training, education, contextual research, knowledge exchange and a rich database. Investments in capacity building programs have a multiplier effect as it helps in time bound completion of projects and also helps in designing programs, developing faculty, building databases as well as designing tool kits and decision support systems. And all these have a lag time so capacity building needs to be strengthened right at the beginning.

4. Retrofitting Cities-Once the cities are selected, they would either be guided to redevelop or retrofit. Retrofitting takes different dimensions for different places. For example a planned city like Noida would require a different model than an Old city like Delhi's Daryaganj.Going vertical and drastically increasing FAR also has some inherent problems. One just can not start piling up storeys on his existing building in case of increased FAR, or can't cover whatever open area ia available on the site.Certainly, you cannot rebuild the entire city. It all depends upon the criteria, willingness and preparation of those urban local bodies.

5. Defining Performance criterions-The problem with these criterions are, one size won't fit all. The performance criterions for civic amenities need to be highly contextual as well as ever improving. In this quest we need to quickly set up or choose a model that has some inbuilt dynamism. An open mind set along with validated sharing of data, will help us learn from the mistakes that we might have done in building Dholera, GIFFT, Kochi and other indigenous attempts.

Knowledge Bank