What are smart cities?

Smart city may simply mean a place where a smart phone can run all the errands for you. But the Indian urban challenge is not as digital and way more basic

By Avikal Somvanshi
Published: Monday 30 November -0001

Smart city may simply mean a place where a smart phone can run all the errands for you. But the Indian urban challenge is not as digital and way more basic

The Union budget earmarked 7,060 crores to set-up 100 new “smart cities” for “neo middle class”. It is beyond me how the government will make a whole city on a budget (70.6 crore) that is 65 per cent less than the money from central budget allocated for the Statue of Unity. This might be the smartest detail about the project which was left out of budgetary speech. Cynicism aside, more interesting question is what really is a “smart city”?

I asked a few of my smart friends and got these pretty amazing answers:
•  The IAS aspirant thinks they will be cities that produce both the energy resources and food it needs to keep it going.
•  The journalist thinks it is a modern urban place with modern infrastructure like the Silicon Valley or Bengaluru.
•  The Delhi university student thinks it is going to be a hi-tech city with flying cars and floating buildings.  
•  The quick wit activist thinks they ought to be cities that might get away with doing shit.
•  A London-based urban planner says smart city is sort of brand endorsement: packaging of old ideas into new boxes and copyrighting.
Insights from my friends were not very useful and forced me to research a bit deeper. This is what I found.

Smart cities as an applied technology term often refers to smart grids, smart meters, and other infrastructure for electricity, water supply, and waste. While smart cities when primarily used in civic discussions is relating to an internet-enabled, broadband, wireless and digital concept for future of cities.

Wave Infratech, a Noida-based real estate developer, is already making a smart city in Ghaziabad (Uttar Pradesh) and has engaged IBM for the project. This green field development named Wave City shall have “a central command centre will integrate and interconnect information from various systems and services within the township to improve safety, prevent and anticipate problems and improve the quality of life of residents. For example a resident’s smart device will be alerted to current traffic conditions or residents can check parking availability or changes to traffic conditions due to large sporting event or a natural disaster like flooding.”

In short, a city where people get traffic alerts and run errands like paying bills online. In more advanced stage, one will be able to get alerts that one forgot to switch off one's bathroom light and will be able to fix the problem sitting in office miles away. Or will have to feed in 20 passwords to enter one's house. Not sure what will happen when there are power outages. But broadly speaking, as a concept, it may improve service delivery which will be a positive for cities. But why funds are only for new ones? Why not make all the existing cities smart too?

Let’s move to larger picture and ask more difficult questions. How will installing a digital server help create civic infrastructure needed to house the “neo middle class”? How will this improve quality of housing and its affordability in the city? Sadly, budgetary allocation for creating affordable housing is 43 per cent lesser than this fund to put up central data command centers. How will the cities get enough electricity to power all these digital gadgetry when we cannot supply 24x7 power to run houses with just a tubelight? How will it eradicate endemic lack of sewage and water supply system? One needs infrastructure in place first to digitally manage it. Where are funds for these? Will government redefine smart cities for India?

Most of these digital facilities are already in place with Google map, flipkart, IRCTC and as more government departments move their services online via e-governance, smart city might simply mean owning a smart phone. Problem with smart phones is not that we don’t have them, issue is that “neo middle class” still can’t afford them and those who can most of the time can’t catch a strong enough signal in peri-urban regions.

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