Tuesday, July 21, 2015


SMART cities is the buzzword today! Pune is hoping to be one of the 100 SMART cities under the new SMART cities mission of the Government of India, and has invited citizens to participate in the planning process. 

I have been looking at sustainability issues in urbanisation in the Indian context for a while now, so naturally I got interested in this initiative and started doing some research. So what is this SMART all about, and how do we make a city SMART, irrespective of the IQ of its citizens?

The term SMART has a very specific meaning in the context of control systems. If any process is being controlled by an engineered mechanism that is capable of taking feedback from the process, and using it to change its response appropriately, it is called a SMART mechanism. For example, the thermostat in our refrigerator is a SMART system. It senses the temperature inside the fridge, and will start the cooling process only when the temperature increases beyond a pre-programmed limit. The cooling system will be on till the temperature drops below another pre-determined limit, and then it will shut off. Thus the low temperature is constantly maintained even though the power is not consumed constantly. Thus, this mechanism improves the efficiency of the fridge without compromising on performance. This is just one of the simplest SMART mechanisms that is experienced everyday, but one can have many different types of SMART systems. 

The term as well as the concept of SMART cities first emerged from this understanding of the word. Basically, a city that uses information technology tools to allow its governance systems to be more efficient and responsive, is called a SMART city. For example, a SMART city may have street lights that change intensity of light in response to the density of traffic on the road and the intensity of ambient light (from the sun or moon, or any other light sources in the surrounding areas). 

The Government of India initiative uses the same wording, but has applied a much broader meaning to it. The idea here is to create the infrastructure suitable for SMARTness, AND deploy the IT systems to improve the efficiency and responsiveness with which various urban services are provided to the citizens. In other words we are trying to leapfrog the process of urban development to SMART cities, from current large, chaotic, and inefficiently and incompetently governed concentrations of huge population (which is what our cities at present are!)

There is nothing wrong in leapfrogging, in fact that is a right strategy for a developing country - why stumble through the same mistakes that the pioneers have done in order to reach the end goal? So, definitely aiming for the ideal directly by a shortcut is justified. The issue however is what is one's definition of 'ideal'?

The opening paragraph talks about 'why' SMART cities mission, and that is where I see a problem, from a sustainability perspective. 

To my mind, any urban development project is fully justified today simply because of the sheer number of people living in urban spaces. Across the world nearly 55% people live in cities now and the number is continually increasing. In India, the percentage of urban population is still much less, at 38% (Source: 2011 census data), but according to the last census, the population growth in urban areas over the period 2001-2011 was higher than the population growth in rural areas. It is the first time that this trend was observed in India. Even the population growth rate, while drastically dropping down in rural areas, marginally increased in urban areas. Both of these trends are a result of the combination of rural to urban migration and urbanisation of rural areas. The time is not too far in the future when even in India nearly half the population will be living in urban spaces. 

Unfortunately, 'living in urban space' does not necessarily mean 'living good'. The wellness of urban population is highly questionable in our cities, where high rise palatial buildings are cheek by jowl with slums. Therefore, in a democratic country the desire to improve the quality of life of a majority of its citizens should in itself be a sufficient reason for engaging in any activity aimed at improving the urban infrastructure - to ensure economic sufficiency and empowerment of all social strata, in an environmentally benign manner. 

The opening paragraph of the SMART city guidelines document from the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India, makes a passing reference to the population trend, but talks more about the contribution of urban areas to GDP of the country. It seems that the improvement in urban infrastructure is justified because of the high economic gains emanating from cities. Does this then mean that all the elements of improvement to be incorporated in a SMART city would also be geared towards improving GDP only? In such a scheme of things, the priority for economically unproductive needs of 'well being' such as social equity and environmental sustainability is bound to be low! 

Also the GDP logic in itself is problematic. The urban contribution to GDP would be impossible without all the resources that come into the city from outside its geographical limits. Do cities grow their own food, harvest their own water, make their own electricity and petroleum fuels, absorb their own waste?? How long will a city like Mumbai survive, let alone contribute to GDP, if it is totally cut off from the mainland? (It is actually possible to do this because Mumbai is an island in the Arabian Sea, and approached only via bridges from any side!) 

On the positive side, the guidelines are just that - guidelines. The document emphasises that every city needs to evolve its own vision of what it wants to be as a SMART city, and the vision should come not just from the city administration but also from the citizens. It is therefore imperative for us, urban citizens in India, to get involved in such dialogues within our cities, to ensure that we don't just get developed as a milk cow of GDP growth, but ensure that the vision of our SMART city encompasses inclusiveness and sustainability for our own well being. The GDP gains will then automatically come as a bonus anyway! 

Priyadarshini Karve
Samuchit Enviro Tech


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