What it’ll take to make ‘Smart Cities’ ‘smart’ in the truest spirit

What the BJP is touting proudly as its Smart City development of hundred shortlisted cities across the country, the Congress had initiated during its rule by the name Urban Clusters. The ultimate objective was to judiciously use technology for intelligent planning and efficient running of urban centers in India.

This subject has been discussed by various eminent people in the field ranging from town planners to architects to civic authorities. Most are of the view that injecting technology in a contrived manner was not desirable and the need was for sustainable cities rather than ‘smart’ one’s, where the approach is more outcome based. Infrastructure by itself is of little value unless it is complemented by systems, which are efficient. The approach has to be holistic and should be in tandem with other related programs such as AMRUT and Swacch Bharat.

All such mega ventures with huge capital outlays come with their own set of impediments. To begin with, there are three bureaucratic layers to contend with, the Central Government, that holds the purse strings, the State Government where the Chief Minister could be the gateway to fund distribution and the Civic body where the implementation will be finally done. As things stand today, the CM of the state will be the overriding authority in decision making, but then political equations and differences could at times influence decisions. Also, politicians have short tenures, whereas planning and execution could be a slow laborious process.

For most major cities in the world, the city mayor is a powerful and influential authority as far as the planning and systems are concerned. Some of them have managed their cities so well that they have gone on to become national leaders. In India, mayors are but figure heads with minimal powers, at least as far spending is concerned. Should we then think of a separate body or authority to decide on city matters, especially for the metro cities of India? For instance, like the NCR region around Delhi, can we have a State Capital Authority for all the capital cities of our states?

Then, there is the tricky issue of procurement and purchase. With the proposed top down approach where the Centre releases the funds, this issue could hit road blocks. Who would decide on what and from where to procure the material? For instance, if a city needs 100 CCTV cameras for security, does one go for wired ones to stay within budget or go for wireless ones? Should purchases be made from local sources?

It will become desirable to make it a more democratized process with active citizen participation, where smart cities are run BY the citizens rather than FOR them. More involvement of citizens in varying degrees at the various stages of decision making would become a norm for the future. For this to happen, data which is under layers of bureaucratic stops is freed for the general public. The use of active API’s as envisaged by iSpirt could be put to good use. For specific problems of certain spots within a large city, accessing such data could enable residents to come up with solutions. The India Stack is a good example to follow for smart cities.

All major towns have authorities assigned with the task of systematic planning and infrastructure layout with the of 1917 serving almost as a bible; a 100 year old but meticulous document. Cities today are in disarray because vested interests, together with the collusion of authorities at times, have got away with violations in spite of a firm legislation. Smart cities could help curb such acts to a great extent since all planning has to be based on metrics and accountability and as we move to a ‘presence-less approach’ with the use of technology, the roles of these vested interests could diminish greatly.

So yes, a lot is possible with the use of technology towards the making and running of our cities, but for that a lot needs to be done other than earmarking funds and selecting cities to me made ‘smart’. From the dissolving of ward boundaries to accessing of geospatial data to free use of active API’s smart city development needs a concerted effort from more than one source.

Guest Post by Ranga Raj, Thinxtream Technologies