What is a Smart City?

The Government of India has recently launched major initiatives for building a large number of smart cities all around the country. Discussions on smart cities in India are generating a lot of debate around what it means to be a smart city.

During such discussions citizens are represented as residents who live in the city, perform various activities and are passive recipients of the city’s services. The interactions between them and the city is often reduced to an economical or a transactional one, without acknowledging the complexity of the relationship. Everyone is assumed to be a homogeneous ‘user’, and thus it becomes easy for us to imagine new cities with infrastructure, autonomous and automatic systems, regional plans, lots of glass and sensors, landscaped gardens, and various portrayals one is familiar through brochures. We are then led to estimate and imagine how existing systems would operate better by reducing the amount of time, costs, size, complexity, etc. In the race to make cities more “efficient”, we have not considered the implications of working towards a narrow definition of “efficiency”.

We fail to take into account the diversity around us, despite the popular cliché quoted about India as a highly diverse country with a diverse set of cultures, languages, and aspirations. We are diverse in terms of scale of urbanisation,  geographic size, economy and population. We also face inequality across the dimensions of economics, social stratification, and gender.

The current rhetoric on smart cities lack discussions on one or more of the above factors. Furthermore, the question of inequality and hence isolation of the poor from the city’s services is one of the problems facing established smart cities.

As we are poised at the cusp of establishing smart cities in India, we are presented with a unique opportunity. We can collectively imagine what it means to be a smart city for the Indian context, and build on that conception to design smart cities for different local Indian contexts.

What we then need is a process to elicit from citizens what their requirements and aspirations are for a smart city, which will then give us the base to design the appropriate city for a given location in the country. We may be able to use this method beyond India to define smart cities in other parts of the world or to evaluate existing ones.

Anthony Townsend in his book, Smart Cities, envisions a smart city where citizens if they wish are able to participate in the defining, design and governing of their city. What we call for are technologies that create processes that enable citizens to participate meaningfully in their city’s future.

The question then is, how do we collectively imagine what it means to be a smart city in the Indian context?

At Fields of View, we are designing initiatives for citizens to participate in defining, designing, and governing their city.

In an effort to understand how the current discourse on smart cities has shaped our understanding on Smart Cities, we have created a quick survey. The aim is to understand how we visualize a smart city and if we have a certain visual definition of the smart cities we would like to live in.

Please consider taking the survey here.

To know more, mail us at info at fieldsofview.in

References:

  1. Townsend, A. M. (2013). Smart cities: big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia. WW Norton & Company.

One Reply to “What is a Smart City?”

  1. Timely & moot discussion. The survey has only a visual element of representation–some actual & some renderings–which is a very limited uni-dimensional way of understanding a Citizen’s vision of what a Smart City should be like. I would humbly suggest that a visualization be created for a Smart City’s construction on lines of creating a living functioning human being—legs representing locomotion, arms defining work-places, eyes representing visual communication cues, the digestive system defining the entire gamut of agri/horticultural fields around a cityscape, garbage&effluent recycling&treatment plants,pipelines supplying grey-water from treatment plants for organic cultivation to the fields with tariff inversely proportional to percentage of treated input use, recycled products impinging on low-tax industrial manufacturing hubs that have a taxation inversely proportional to percentage of input that uses recycling&treatment-plant outputs,of vertical residential towers connected to non-conventional energy grids&recycled water, green spaces mandated for ensuring natural purification even atop buildings, of rainwater harvesting network that permits collection & storage of run-offs,natural spring/river/lake sources & treated water, making distances smaller through use of information-technology, a networked sensor-based hazard-proofed city control center akin to a human brain, where holistic centralized assessment and initiation of action takes place to address issues facing the City –be they issues related to either or combinations of water/sanitation/transportation/public order. Chain-linked interdependent Smart-Cities would help obtain economies of scale rather than isolated creations, as has been the mode of historical civilization spreads– feeding and growing off same resources of water & cultivable lands. Existing Cities can be modified provided offices and industry can be moved around the fixed resources–like cultivable lands & water bodies–and when opening hours of various establishments(groups of work centers, schools & colleges) can be staggered alongwith zoning regulations for control of commercial/hospital/religious institutions/public utility spaces(for co-locating Trash collation&segregation centers, communication LPG & Power nodes). Multi-modal transport, common non-cash payment methods (mobile payments that permit deep discounts, to lure a majority away from cash transactions) will go a long way in obtaining order and reducing chaotic systems. Literacy is a key ingredient to successful adaptation of an existing City into a smart one, where administrative information is shared at locality level to get existing residents on-board. Utopia? Hardly. This needs Political will-power and authority–possibly a benign dictatorship–for a diverse perversely-inclined intrigue-filled polity such as ours to acquiesce to and cooperate (under gentle duress!) with such a vision. A successful implementation of a Smart City, under a democracy as in India ? Nice movie, time we went back to our mess for another 65 yrs!

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