India’s smart 100: 10 cities, 10 lessons

smart citiesNarendra Modi seems serious about building 100 smart cities. Just look at how the port city of Dholera in Gujarat is shaping up. It’s might as well become an emblematic talisman of how a few handpicked men and women can build a new urban India at breakneck speed. Less than 10 years back, not even a blink in the context of urban historiography, Dholera was nothing more than a collection of villages. For those interested in precise information, the intention to turn Dholera into a smart city was made in 2007 Vibrant Gujarat summit. The first year was the usual Indian fare of red tape and bureaucratic intransigence. Fed up with problems related to land acquisition, turf wars between officials, massive undercutting and overpricing by realty majors and tendering bottlenecks Modi made two radical moves. He converted Dholera into a Special Investment Region (SIR) and gave it specific legal legitimacy through the SIR Act. He then parked the entire project under the broader umbrella of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC). These two measures simplified the approvals of development plans, land acquisition and the international airport.

The results are there to see. Major portions of the city have been constructed. The international airport is ready. A unified fibre optic cable network for all utilities — television signals, broadband connections, transport systems, electricity connection, metered water supply, electronic governance, toll collection, tax payments — are being laid even as I write this. In short the entire city is being connected with a smart grid. When completed, which is expected in as little as 18 months, the brand new Dholera will be twice the size of Mumbai covering an area of over 900 square kilometers, connected by high speed rail corridor to both Mumbai and Delhi and integrated completely with all the ports of western India. It’s an unreal achievement: if building two Mumbais in less than a decade isn’t then what is. The project, however, has not been without its share of controversies. Several environmental impact studies, for instance, have pointed out the possibility of flooding due to Dholera’s low lying coastal nature and land acquisition has not been a smooth process by any stretch. Yet Dholera is a rare working model of a new age smart city of Indian lineage and origin.

It’s quite possible that Modi and his team might look at Dholera and say that’s the way forward for the future, for a global India that will be interconnected by a layers of digital technology, for a smart India that’s will dip into the pool of real time information and knowledge and for new generation Indians intelligently empowered by electronic governance, transparency, accountability and a superior civic life. But it might not be a bad idea to take a pause, and a deep breath, see how urban centres across the world have embraced the concept of a smart city. Smart does not have one single definition. Yet all definitions have three common threads that are crucial to weaving a fabric of an overarching ‘daily smartness’, a word that I am using for a lack of better one. The first is a commonly understandable intelligibility of processes associated with civic administration and governance. Such intelligibility is the bedrock of participation and urban democracy. The second is an easy physical accessibility of a city through a combination of spatial architecture, navigation design, public transportation solutions and networking of open spaces. Integrating it all with layers of technological solutions creates a ‘daily smartness’ that empowers citizens collectively to act as a community. The third is the availability of an integrated platform for information, exchange and transaction across multiple digital devices. Such a platform creates an advanced levels of digital literacy that create an urbanism that’s at once global, local and intensely participative. It’s in this context that team Modi should look at the following ten cities from around the world and understand the nuances of ten specific lessons from each. These lessons should hold them in good stead over the years as they go about transforming India. Some cities, like Copenhagen, are usual suspects, but others, like Ekaterinburg, are surprise packages.

Lesson one: Trams are the way to go: The Russian city of Ekaterinburg teaches urban planners how to use trams to its full potential. The trams in this city, close to St Petersburg, are decidedly Soviet era and clunky. Yet they efficiently criss-cross the landscape transporting countless people to their workplaces, bus stops and metro stations. Rupee for rupee or Rouble for Rouble, a tram carries more passengers in an economical way than a bus or a suburban train since it uses existing road infrastructure. Its constant speed and use of inbound rails also make it one of the safest public transportation systems in the world today.

Lesson two: Integrated Land Transport Authority (LTA): An important lesson to learn from Singapore is to bring all urban land transportation systems under one single authority. Singapore’s Easy Link card is an extremely successful example of how one single digitally integrated swipe card can help a citizen easily navigate the city using multiple bus and metro train networks. It has become so popular that the Singapore government is actively exploring making it into an all purpose transaction and information card, a sort of a debit-cum-social security card.

Lesson three: Keep it small: That’s the fundamental insight Lucerne in Switzerland, around 60 kilometres from Zurich, brings out quite beautifully. The city is smaller than the suburban region of Andheri in Mumbai, and yet has the highest density of civic services per square kilometre than any city in the world. From free swipe card based cycle kiosks to interactive bus stations to information booths, the city brings out that the fact that scale is not necessarily size (Please refer to: http://www.governancenow.com/views/columns/what-big-india-can-learn-tiny-lucerne)

Lesson four: Bus it everywhere: This might surprise a lot of people, but Ahmedabad today has one of the most successful Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) in the world today. The policy planners learnt their ropes from several South American cities and the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) become the nodal knowledge agency for its implementation. BRTS brings about operational efficiencies in route planning, fuel consumption, load management and, of course, speed and safety.

Lesson five: Bicycle is the future: That’s the big takeaway from Copenhagen, which has bet big on the human powered two wheelers for the last 30 years. Today the Danish capital has one of the highest numbers of bicycles in any modern city, and the urban landscape from the duration of traffic signals, road architecture to movement of cars, has evolved to accommodate cyclists. Cyclists occupy the prime position in the hierarchy of movement of people, and that in itself is an achievement (Please refer to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07o-TASvIxY andhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pX8zZdLw7cs).

Lesson six: Eliminate cars: That’s the revolutionary approach being advocated by the German city of Hamburg, which wants to go completely car free in the next ten years. The city has already started redesigning its spaces to fit in with the new philosophy. The planners now want the city’s urbanity to develop around a network of open spaces, parks and urban forests, each navigable by cycles, walking pathways and public transport. In short, they are aiming for a 100 percent walkable and cyclable urbanity. (Please refer to: http://governancenow.com/news/regular-story/old-german-city-shows-new-green-logic-lesson-india)

Lesson seven: Clean urban rivers: It’s something that the South Korean capital of Seoul has done with aplomb. Cheonggyecheon was a dirty, smelly river, nothing more than an open drain, less than 30 years back. Today, the river is an ecosystem in its own right and is one the most popular open spaces in the city. Through its sheer presence it has created a model of an ecologically sustainable urban way of life that’s changing the Korean economy in numerous ways.

Lesson eight: Organic development: There has always been a debate between letting a city develop organically and moulding every single aspect, all components of a built environment, by detailed planning, zoning, technology interventions and policy measures. Paris is an example of how a city can develop organically, while drawing the best practices of a planned city development. One example is the manner in which the French capital has dealt with waste management solutions, especially waste-to-electricity plants.

Lesson nine: Protect ways of life: This is a tricky one, and only a few cities have got it right. Murren is not a city. It’s actually a small town – some call it a mountain village — in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland. There is a lesson here. It just has 400 residents and 2000 hotel rooms. Yet in converting itself into an enclave protecting a specific way of life (the town is completely fossil fuel free for instance) the socio-economic potential of a cultural product is realised. Murren, for instance, brings in tourism revenues that not only help it keep its unique ecology safe and sound, but also makes its residents one of the richest citizens in the world.

Lesson ten: Urban farming: This is a lesser known facet of Bangalore. Surprising as it may sound, Bangalore is India’s capital for urban farming and kitchen gardens. Some of the most innovative practices have come up in Bangalore. So much so that Singapore is borrowing techniques of soil mineralization and enrichment for its nascent urban farms from Bangalore’s kitchen gardeners. Urban farming is an ecologically sustainable way of life, and brings city dwellers closer to nature.

There are specific layers, and in some cases an entire suite, of digital technology solutions in each of these examples. That’s precisely why these examples have turned into best practices for the rest of the world. Modi and his team would do well to imbibe these lessons in their conceptual and implementation frameworks for smart cities.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author. 
Courtesy ORF

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