Given our ongoing research on cities, we are keen to explore the emerging discourse on smart cities. As our work involves creating spaces for dialogue, we have planned a series of podcasts, where experts from the government, academia, industry, and civil society reflect on the idea of smart cities, especially the ways that they see this idea being shaped in the Indian context. For our first podcast, we interviewed Prof. Vinod Vyasulu.
Prof Vinod Vyasulu is an Advisor at the Centre for IT and Public Policy in IIIT-B. He was previously an Associate Professor of Economics at IIM Bangalore and then the RBI Chair Professor and Head of the Social Services Management Unit at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. He set up the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, Bangalore in 1998 and was its Director until December 2010. Here are the highlights from our discussion with him.
Prof Vyasulu asks “since when did cities become smart?” “It is citizens, and people who govern cities that make a city smart,” he says, adding that perhaps the awe around information technology makes people believe that such technologies will solve all their problems.
While there is “some truth in the fact that IT will help improve a city,” Prof Vyasulu says it is also how we use IT, how we ask questions, and pose problems that define what ‘smart’ is. Citing examples like Melbourne, often ranking high on lists such as the Economist’s list of smart cities, Prof Vyasulu explains that his conception of a Smart City is one where people can “do their ordinary businesses of life without too much trouble”. For example, Melbourne has retained trams as a means of public transport (while Kolkata has not), and uses numbered bus stops which helps easily identify them. “A Smart City is any city that meets the basic needs of everybody.”
A key issue in talking about the role of IT and the notion of Smart Cities is data. Drawing from one of his works called Essays on Bangalore, which he co-edited in 1985, Prof Vyasulu talks about the problems of different government agencies working on their own and collecting data in non-standard forms such that they are unusable across departments. These problems have not been alleviated to date, and no “city or any government can be considered smart if they collect the same data over and over again!”
Another challenge which he thinks will arise in the current implementation of the 100 Smart Cities Mission is that it was conceptualised and designed in a top-down manner. While the intentions may be good, this has created a “rigidity where it need not have existed.”
Prof Vyasulu then talks about how Bangalore was never governed as a city, but as part of a state. He briefly discusses the history of Bangalore as a city and its governance, the growth and decline of the public sector, followed by the growth of the large private sector. He unravels different threads of history which led to the rapid growth of Bangalore, leading to the creation of Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP, roughly translated as the Greater Bangalore Municipal Corporation) in 2007.
Going forward, citizen engagement is what is pivotal to making cities ‘smart,’ says Prof Vyasulu.
You can listen to the entire podcast here.
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