Tuesday, September 22, 2015

MUSINGS FROM PRIYADARSHINI KARVE: Technology-driven or Sustainability-driven?

**This blog entry is related to my musings from Sept 8, in which I have raised the question of what is more important - focusing on SMART or focusing on Sustainability.**

SMART cities are essentially technology driven. In fact the very concept of SMART cities was created by Information Technology companies as a marketing tool to sell the range of SMART technologies that they had developed and were working on. The focus of some of these technologies is to deliver various essential services efficiently and smoothly and some technologies are useful in improving governance. Of course, in order for the IT technologies to be effective, other technological inputs also need to go in. Thus, for example, if you have flyovers, traffic islands, AND a SMART network controlling the traffic lights in such a way as to minimise congestion, it will in general improve the efficiency and comfort of traveling around in the city. Problem solved, as far as some advocates of SMART cities are concerned.

When we are planning a Sustainably SMART city, we want every intervention solving every problem to also deliver two co-benefits - social equity, and environmental protection. Both of these ingredients are missing from the 'solution' described above.

The use of flyovers conveniently assumes that all transport is happening by motorised vehicles. The 'rare' bicyclist or bullock cart then has to be 'allowed' to go against the flow of traffic. The smooth functioning of such a road network depends on the number of bicyclists being small! Are the people who cannot afford or do not want to use motorised vehicles second class citizens, whose transportation needs are to be considered as 'exceptions' in the overall system?

If traffic moves smoothly, the air pollution and fuel consumption will certainly be reduced - if the number of vehicles on the road does not increase! I have worked mainly in the cooking energy sector, and an oft-seen phenomenon from that sector is worthwhile to mention here. Rural poor are given more efficient cookstoves, in an expectation that it will reduce consumption of wood for cooking and the time spend in the work of collecting fire wood. However, what actually happens is that the families start cooking more or start cooking more complex recipes, rather than actually consuming less fuel! Of course, I am not saying that this is a bad thing, but just pointing out that human nature also plays an important role in deciding the outcome of a technological intervention. I know a few people who, in spite of owning cars, actually use two wheeler vehicles for daily commute to avoid traffic snarls. But if traffic is flowing smoothly, I am sure they will be tempted to use their cars more often! Thus, one cannot say for sure what the effective impact on air pollution will be, considering how human nature reacts to the changed situation.

The challenge for us, who are thinking Sustainbly SMART then, is to come up with the solution that will solve the basic problem of traffic congestion, while addressing the issues of social equity and environmental pollution in a foolproof way. Since I am not a corporate giant wanting to create a product to sell, I am not driven by the need to incorporate my pet technology in the solution! I am also not anti-technology, so I will be happy to use technologies, IF they serve my purpose.

And where do the various public transport options fit into this discussion?

In the last week or so, I have received some interesting suggestions with respect to the urban transport issue. I also have some thoughts of my own. What about you? Please feel free to share your ideas, either in response to the blog or by email to samuchit@samuchit.com.

                                                                                           Priyadarshini Karve
Samuchit Enviro Tech

    Samuchit Enviro Tech.     samuchit@samuchit.com     www.samuchit.com