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Breathing 'Soul' Into Smart Cities

19/10/2016 4:54 PM IST | Updated 21/10/2016 8:20 AM IST
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Amit Dave / Reuters

Co-authored by Revathi KL, Research Associate at the Parliamentary Office of Prof. Rajeev Gowda (M.P., Rajya Sabha)

In recent times, there's been an evident rise in the number of urban centres. Additionally, urbanization is also seen as a yardstick of development. At this juncture, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development has set out "The New Urban Agenda" to elaborate on a model to promote development that is both sustainable and inclusive.

The theme of the conference leaves us with a few questions. Does a city mean the same to everyone? Is it a mere engine of growth, or a place for development beyond growth—a commune of multifarious dreams and aspirations? While a city per se could mean so much and more, what should a "Smart City" —the Indian solution to the development agenda—entail?

The Smart City we are trying to imagine should have a soul blended in its framework—one that realizes an interplay between the people and the resources they are provided...

A city should revolve around the provision of equality of opportunity to each and every inhabitant. With an increasing number of people entering urban spaces, expectations from a city are gradually shrinking. Though, for now, survival seems to be the driving force behind the expectations of a city, with passing time and expanding frontiers, civic amenities, recreation and syncretic living spaces, among other things, will become the essential characteristics of life in a city. Such a need cannot be unequivocally met in the future if it is not a part of our envisioning process today. Thus, the Smart City we are trying to imagine should have a soul blended in its framework—one which would realize an interplay between the people of a city and the resources they are provided to fulfill their aspirations.

Currently, Smart Cities are driven by the idea of technology with a special emphasis on sustainability. While technology will provide the convenient tech-oriented lifestyle for the globalized working class, i.e., the framework, the sustainability aspect, will essentially weave the soul into the city. We wish to delve into three vital aspects of a city and make a case for an ecosystem beyond technological advancement.

Housing

India has been following the orthodox fashion of house building for the masses, in contrast to the industrial house production concept of the West. This process results in standardization for starters. The other merits include reduction in cost of construction owing to the scale of production, thereby making the end products highly affordable. On the social front, this promotes a sense of commonality, which most of the international cities hold up as a distinctive trait. On the periphery, this would tap tens of industries that have forward and backward linkages to the housing sector, thus providing employment to many people both skilled and unskilled.

On the other hand we also have people from a different school of thought, such as Laurie Baker, a pioneer of building cost-effective, energy efficient houses. His vision was inclined more towards using locally available, cheap and renewable materials to build houses. If viable, adopting such a strategy could break down the garbage and waste problems of India by a number of means such as organic composting, electricity from waste and higher levels of reusing materials. In fact, Costford, an organization in India has successfully implemented Baker's idea on a small scale by collaborating with the local government in Kerala.

Transportation

Another deliverable that a city should provide is a quick, safe, cost-effective and extensive commutation framework.

A Smart City cannot be "one grand affair" but "a hundred self-sustaining mechanisms."

The fact that metro rail projects are more viable in the bigger cities and involve a lot of money warrants an alternative. This could be in the form of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system on the lines of Curitibas BRT of Brazil, which transports around 2.3 million people a day. Planning early would come in handy, especially to plan the roads of a given city. Once numbers are achieved in terms of commuters, the infrastructure— i.e. buses and stations—could be used as avenues of advertisements and generate revenue perpetually, thus stimulating self-sustaining tendencies.

Wealth-making

The third vital aspect of a city that needs attention is the opportunities it provides to its people. As a city grows, informal economies begin to mushroom as a natural consequence. For example, street vending as a sector is growing at a steady pace in India. Street vending constitutes one of the largest occupations in informal economies in Indian cities. It is a complete system by itself that provides employment as well as products or services at affordable prices at once. However, this sector took much flak until the Street Vendors Act, 2014 came to existence. The act legally recognized the right of street vendors and calls for local governance to actively involve street vendors in constructing or redesigning public spaces in the city. A few cities have started the implementation process with a lot of zeal. To the other cities, the consultation with street vendors and accommodating them in the larger picture should form an essential part of the planning process, for if envisioned well, these can be the micro-enterprises that help in assuring financial consistency among the lower strata.

It is important to formulate multiple programmes to cater to the growing urban population. New policy interventions should ensure better urban planning which will create equal employment opportunities and social solidarity. Thus any policy catering to enhance the urbanization process should link economic development and social transformation at all levels.

In other words, a Smart City cannot be "one grand affair" but "a hundred self-sustaining mechanisms." For, that is when a city would be perpetual in its existence and dynamic in its development.

Lastly, a Smart City's evaluation should have social equality with a thriving ecosystem as a parameter too. That is when the objective could be considered achieved.

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