Monday, September 7, 2015

Becoming a Smart City

Most of the recent articles about smart cities have originated recently, where the Prime Minister has vowed to create 100 smart cities. Unlike projects aimed at creating smart cities from the ground up, India’s efforts are focusing on turning existing cities into smart cities. It’s an ambitious plan and big companies like IBM and Cisco are scrambling to be part of it.

The transformation from a ‘normal’ city to a ‘smart city’ is more evolution than revolution. That is both good and bad news for the smart cities movement. It’s good news because evolutionary transformations are generally more affordable than revolutionary ones. It’s bad news because revolutions inspire a lot more emotion and commitment than evolutionary changes. Given that smart cities aim to improve the lives of all their residents, it may be somewhat surprising to find that the people who know the least about them are the ones who stand to gain the most.

When considering the future of cities, there are lots of areas in need of optimisation: Climate-neutrality, Multi-Modality, Sustainability etc. The term ‘smart city’ encompasses all these aspects and has become synonymous for many people with the dynamically interconnected city of tomorrow. This vision can now become reality in the not too distant future! Already, large companies such as Cisco and IBM are working with universities and civic planning authorities to develop data-driven systems for transport, waste management, law enforcement, and energy use to make them more efficient and improve the lives of citizens. We will interact and get information from these smart systems using our smart phones, watches and other wearables, and crucially, the machines will also speak to each other. Garbage trucks will be alerted to the location of refuse that needs collecting, and sensors in our cars will direct us towards available parking spaces.

No single urban plan is right for every city. Just as every city is unique, its path to becoming a smart city is unique. Every city has to determine how it envisions its future as a smart city and chart out the journey towards it. That’s why all stakeholders need to be involved in the planning and implementation of that vision. The ultimate goal is to make technologies that improve our lives such an intimate part of our daily activities that we can’t imagine how we ever lived without them. The transformation from a normal to a smart city is likely to be evolutionary not revolutionary. The transformation may be so slow that people don’t really feel the change in their daily lives until all of the pieces are in place. Even then, residents are unlikely to wake one morning with the startling realization that city they live in is smart. They’ll probably appreciate how much easier life is in a connected and optimized city; but, for them, it won’t be a brave, new world but a new normalized environment.

A successful smart city strategy requires a strong vision, effective governance, long-term political commitment, new funding arrangements and most importantly ‘connectivity’ and ‘collaboration’ within the transport sector and with other city services. Public transport plays the central role in smart cities. The Smart Cities Mission is the vision of our Prime Minister to change the face of urban India. A change that not only brings prestige to the nation, but also induces national growth and prosperity. The Smart Cities Mission complemented by AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation) and PMAY(Pradhan Mantri Was Yojana) has the potential to make the Indian experience a global model of good practice and further augment prestige and national pride. To fulfill Modi’s vision, two main processes go hand in hand. Action at the national level, which including leading and coordinating activities of the Smart Cities Mission, AMRUT and PMAY, and creating an enabling environment for implementation.

It is widely expected that the process at the national level will move ahead under the leadership of the PM and his team, including the Ministries of Finance and Urban Development. Also crucial is providing leadership in collaboration with State Governments to build capacity at the local level. Action at the local level is, however, the single most important factor responsible for fulfilment of Modi’s vision. Although there exists considerable amount of good intention at the local level, implementation requires more than just good intention. It needs effective local leadership, managerial and technical capacity and skills to push the process through. Thus for municipalities to play their role effectively in implementation, their capacity must be built professionally, systematically and quickly in order to keep pace with the speed the PM wishes the implementation to proceed. Although local urban bodies need national and State leadership and assistance to build local capacity, equally important is local commitment and initiatives to build their own capacity significantly. Thus, if there is an expectation that the selected municipalities will implement the projects at the speed the PM wants, then building municipal capacity needs to begin now. Building local capacity is much more than training, it entails development of local elected representatives, officials of urban local bodies and stakeholders at the state level; the organisation of municipalities and; the environment within which municipalities operate.

The Government decision to appoint CEOs for Smart Cities, who will drive the concept and execute the programme rather than leave these tasks to municipal bodies alone, is an attempt to import capacity at the level of the organisation of municipalities. Appointment of CEOs is a good decision, however, it can’t completely fill the capacity gap. CEOs need the cooperation of many more stakeholders within and without municipalities for successful implementation. Capacity building should not stop with appointment of CEOs. Further, CEOs will be appointed only for 100 Smart Cities. The Smart Cities Mission presents a golden opportunity to improve the beauty of our cities and promote national prosperity. Never before has there been such volume of commitment at the highest level of Government to change the face of urban India. We are also anxious because we do not yet see an adequate level of capacity in urban local bodies to implement the vision, or an adequate level of commitment at the national level for building the capacity of local Governments. No doubt there is awareness and good intention, but a clear strategy and action plan are missing. A few sporadic programmes of training would be of little consequence.

India is not a small country, it is a continent. Thus the volume of capacity building must match its size. Urban India has been provided with a golden opportunity not only with the support of the most powerful man in the nation — PM Modi — but also with his strong commitment to the mission. Whether India will make use of this opportunity adequately or not is to be seen in the years to come. It will mainly depend on how seriously we take the capacity of urban local bodies in the context of the mission.

1 comment:

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