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How Smart is the Smart City?

Fri, 16/02/2018 - 09:50

When the Government of India introduced its Smart City Mission back in 2015, it was met with widespread approval, fist pumps and the feeling of quantifiable development all highlighted by a background score of ‘Swachh Bharat’ and ‘Make in India’ chants. The general consensus was that India would soon be home to bigger, better, suave cities.  Fast forward to the end of 2017 and while cities have gotten bigger, the better and suave part remains to be seen.

The smart city mission has experienced mixed levels of success.   

What exactly is the definition of a smart city? The government of India website takes the definition found on Wikipedia that roughly states that a smart city has no definite interpretation or formula but varies in accordance to the city it is applied to.  This is a very generalised definition that does not really portray a straightforward vision or goal.  


Image 1: Smart City Elements

To quote the Smart Cities Mission brief, “under the SCM, Smart Cities are to feature but are not centered exclusively on technology; and the cities will include emphasis on area-based development, citizen preferences, and basic infrastructure and services.

The pillars of development of Smart Cities being:

1. Physical Infrastructure – includes access to utilities such as water, electricity, sewerage, and connectivity;

2. Institutional Infrastructure – refers to the activities that relate to governance, planning, and management of a city;

3. Social Infrastructure – includes infrastructure for performance and creative arts, sports, theatres, concert halls, open spaces, children’s parks and gardens; and

4. Economic Infrastructure – strives to ensure that urbanization leads to economic development of cities by establishing the required infrastructure to attract investment and create employment.

As an urban designer, I am more inclined to define a smart city as an amalgamation of well-planned public ‘urbanscape’ with sustainable principles and technologies, which together, solve a range of urban issues. This includes things such as the reduction of the carbon footprint and energy consumption of our cities, the implementation of smarter infrastructure and services, and the ability to adapt to future needs and requirements. Furthermore, I would prefer to depend on properties of scale and medium to quantify or assess the progress of the smart Cities Mission.

With this in mind, I decided to look up the success stories related to the SCM across the country, provided by the Ministry of Urban Development. This document highlights the progressive success of the SCM, and contains 22 projects, across 12 cities. This is in stark contrast to the expected number of projects set be completed, which was 731 projects across 60 cities as of January 2017. In June 2017, 30 more cities were added to that roster with roughly 111 additional projects. The total amounts to 842 projects of which a meagre 22 (2.61 %) projects have been completed. Among these 22 projects, Udaipur was the highest achieving city with three successful projects.

The only city to feature from Tamil Nadu was Coimbatore with two projects. The first of those projects focuses on ‘smart roads’ and involves the upgradation of 49 km of roads in the city, with better pedestrian and non-motorised transport facilities and improved footpaths that included street vending and parking zones (Image 1). The second project is dubbed ‘smart solutions’ and covers the digital infrastructure network being put into place across the city. This includes various forms of data collection, analysis, and monitoring such as  (a) technology solutions for improvement of water supply, SWM, sanitation etc.; (b) Intelligent Transport System (ITS); (c) online ambient air quality monitoring; (d) energy efficient street lighting (e) GIS Mapping and Spatial Information Centre; (f) integrated CCTV surveillance; (g) web-enabled e-governance application; and (h) mobile-governance and citizen engagement platform.


Image 2: Coimbatore Smart streets proposal

All these proposals echo the vision and goals of our very own city, Chennai. But in reality, Chennai is the only city of the first 30 selected cities that has not submitted any concrete proposals, plan of action or detailed project reports (DPR). For the capital city of the state with the second largest GDP, the intent and progress of the SCM project are lacking. The biggest worriment regarding the Chennai SCM is the lack of transparency between the SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) and the public. Apart from a few initial tenders and a slew of news articles vaguely referring to the programme, there is no data available to the public. This leads to conflicting information on various projects, which leads the public to wonder if there will ever be any progress.

So far the only concrete piece of information available about the Chennai SCM is that Thyagaraya Nagar has been selected as the point of focus for the project. Beyond that, the only other information available is through word of mouth and newspaper articles. Information such as the installation of water meters, the conversion of 23 asphalt roads into concrete roads, smart streetlights, restoration of eight parks, and the implementation of a new pedestrian plaza to facilitate existing street vendors. While all this sounds excellent on paper and in articles, there is a severe lack of the quantifiable measure of progress and process, that is generally associated with such a large-scale urban redevelopment project. While there was an open public event to ‘test run’ the Thyagaraya Pedestrian Plaza (Image 2), that was a unilateral decision and was opposed by the local store owners and residents. Post that, there has been no update on any further plans.


Image 3: Thyagaraya Nagar Pedestrian plaza trial run

While the smart city movement is a welcome and much-needed uplift to the urbanisation of our country and our cities, the process of people-based planning often gets neglected in the bid to push for more glamorous and worldly goals. In the world of urban design, this can be explained as the conflict between ‘top-down’ planning and ‘bottom-up’ planning. Top-down planning starts with a vision in place, irrespective of the need and works its way down to force that vision onto the lower elements, i.e. the people. Bottom-up planning, on the other hand, starts with the people, the community, the neighbourhood and builds itself upwards in that manner. It requires interaction, ownership, and transparency on all levels.

Image 4: Tactical Urbanism

The city’s municipal organisations need to recognise this as a form of adaptive ‘tactical urbanism’. Tactical urbanism is the principle that citizens can undertake direct low-cost, high-reward actions that immediately improve some aspect of a community's public life, to take short-term action that precipitates long-term change and are informed by vision, local context, agility, value, and community engagement* (Image 3).  This is the kind of planning the SCM of Chennai city needs to strive for if the goal is a progressive, smart yet sustainable city. The growth of the city is no more a case of ‘que sera, sera’, but is in the hands of its people.   

*Source: - Special Report: Tactical Urbanism, City crackdown on tactical urbanism.


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