Creative conundrum

Technology alone won't deliver smart cities. That would require innovative design and creativity in solving problems

By Mihir Bholey
Published: Monday 31 August 2015

Creative conundrum

Illustration: Sorit

While we have allowed urbanisation to grow out of proportion, we have failed to contain the sharp decline in the quality of urban life. Maybe our contemporary approaches to urbanisation offer only short-term, quick fix solutions. No doubt, offering a permanent solution for something as complex and evolving as urbanisation is easier said than done. The need for short and long-term strategies for sustainable urbanisation cannot be ruled out. The reason is simple: by the middle of this century, nearly 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, and urbanising India will surpass all nations, even China. India will add 497 million additional people to its existing and emerging cities by then.

So for a viable solution we’re looking at smart cities. It’s a new technology-intensive approach to urban innovation, where technology monitors and drives urban systems. The Union government has cleared the Smart Cities Mission and has sanctioned Rs 48,000 crore for this initiative. There’s no looking back now.

We are excited because we think building smart cities will lead to a quantum jump towards redefining and redesigning our urban landscape, and sceptical, because we can’t safely predict how technological interventions can be assimilated in our existing urban systems. Tech giants Siemens, Hitachi, Cisco and others envision smart cities as urban agglomerations having smart buildings, intelligent parking solutions, electrical mobility supported by fast-charging solar stations, information control systems and so on.

All this sounds like science fiction. We will have to find creative ways to apply this new paradigm to rejuvenate our ailing urban systems and achieve sustainable urbanisation. Smart cities may require some strategic design interventions at different levels—from systems and products to communication. Strategic design interventions do not mean replacing technology with design, rather augmenting it to make it more user-friendly and effective in terms of solving complex urbanisation problems.

Missing interface

India’s challenges are diverse. Technology may have enhanced our urban infrastructure, but has not improved public interface. Take the Delhi Metro, for instance. It has increased mobility and speed, but in terms of providing excellent travel experience, it has a long way to go, when compared to the Shanghai, Tokyo and Singapore Metros. While Tokyo is the world’s biggest metropolis, Shanghai’s population is almost equal to Delhi. So these cities don’t enjoy any distinct advantage over Delhi in terms of demographic pressure. But their ease of access, ticketing, crowd management, pathways for physically-challenged and the elderly and navigation systems are undoubtedly superior to ours. This is not due to technology but because of creative design interface.

The concept of a smart city is a modern urban aspiration which includes environment friendliness, IT-led civic management and sustainable development as part of the urban ecology. The smart city blueprints prepared by Hitachi, Cisco and Siemens offer futuristic technological solutions to reduce public and private CO2 emissions, provide smart mobility, IT infrastructure, urban data analytics and so on. Cities in Australia, Europe, USA, Central and Southeast Asia are equipped with such features. Application of design innovation and creativity in problem-solving holds the key.

  Strategic design interventions do not mean replacing technologies with design, rather augmenting technology to make it more user-friendly and effective in terms of solving complex urbanisation problems  

For example, technology may have provided high-speed escalators to speed up mobility. But it’s the design innovation of converting the staircase into musical piano keys that changed people’s behaviour and encouraged them to use staircase in Stockholm. This intervention encouraged 66 per cent people to use the staircase, says a recent study. There are other examples, such as Legible London, which is considered a path-breaking design innovation to navigate London. This tailor-made design solution for pedestrians helps them navigate with ease. It is integrated with other means of transportation, so while changing from one mode of transport to the other, commuters can still reach their destination quickly.

Environment friendliness is a precondition for smart cities. But reducing GHG emissions and carbon footprint depends on people’s attitude towards the environment. For instance, Amsterdam and San Francisco have designed an interactive web service called Eco Map, which displays environmental footprints as a discreet reminder. Songdo, the South Korean city built over land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea, is an example of how design shapes technology. Charging stations for electric cars and water recycling system to prevent use of potable water for flushing toilets have been embedded into the city’s design. Waste is sucked directly from ducts in houses and travels through an underground network before it is sorted at a centralised location. This has reduced the movement of garbage trucks in the city.

However, innovative design interventions are not exclusive to smart cities alone. Many cities have used design to improve their urban systems such as the Ahmedabad BRTS. To avoid traffic congestion, reduce pollution and cover short distances, BRTS provides bicycles on hire at bus stops. It’s gaining popularity besides spreading awareness of environmental concerns. Simple application of design can often provide better solutions with a creative nuance, sometimes better than the technological solution itself.

Emerging gaps

The biggest problem of developing smart cities will be that of reconciling the gap between smart and laggard cities. Urban challenges in India are still very basic in nature, yet gigantic in proportion. McKinsey’s report on urbanisation reminds us that quality of urban service will deteriorate sharply by 2030 if present urbanisation levels continue. For example, while cities required 83 billion litres water per day in 2007, the supply was only 56 billion litres. By 2030, the demand will rise to 189 billion litres, while the supply will be only 95 billion litres. Similarly, by 2030, the demand for affordable housing will rise to 50 million units, the supply will be just 12 million units. The gaps in other urban services—solid waste management, sewage disposal and transportation—will be similar in proportion. To bridge these gaps, India will require an additional investment of $1.2 trillion. How will the Smart Cities Mission address such problems?

Balancing economic and ecological sustainability will be no less challenging. The Union Ministry of Urban Development states that the main feature of a smart city is the “intersect between competitiveness, capital and sustainability”. It underscores economic sustainability as the key factor, thus, envisioning smart cities that are “able to attract investments and experts and professionals”.

Yet increased economic activity has often been the source of ecological unsustainability.

Unlike Songdo, Masdar, UAE, Canberra, or Living Plan IT Valley, Portugal, which are some of world’s best examples of smart cities, we have very few cities which have been designed on the drawing board. On the contrary, Indian cities have evolved rather organically around their own unique socio-cultural and economic backdrop. So besides creating smarter 100 cities, we will have to apply smart technology and design innovation to revitalise our ailing urban systems and make them ecologically, economically and socially sustainable. For example, our challenge lies in using smart city technology to revitalise the urban infrastructure of Varanasi, without ruining its old world charm or spoiling its traditions. Design thinking can help identify the true nature of our urban problems and find creative solutions. Adopting pre-defined or readymade solutions may defeat the purpose.

The author teaches at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad

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