The ILLS of Urbanization!” Is Smart Cities the Answer

Today, India is amongst the fastest growing large economies of the world, bringing with it unprecedented rates of urbanization. India’s expected urbanization of half its population, an astounding 750 million people, by 2030 is not much different from the global trend. Prompted by people’s desires to improve their quality of life through access to better urban infrastructure, such rapid urbanization is certainly a cause for concern.

Unfortunately, much of India’s urbanization in the last 7 decades has been unplanned and haphazard, resulting in slums such as Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum. This has led to immense pressure on the infrastructure not just in the mega cities but also satellites and mini metros. Stress on ecological services, arising from unplanned expansion, is becoming increasingly evident from events in the civil society – the devastating floods in Chennai and Mumbai to the alarmingly poor air quality in Delhi to tigers straying into semi urban areas.

Disconcerting as these incidents are, do they mean people should be denied the advantages of urbanization? Do we have solutions that minimize the stress on ecological services?  Can we redesign existing cities by leveraging new technologies?

All over the world cities are shaped by profound forces of technology, population and infrastructure. Thus by design cities must pave the way for constant evolution. The increasing convergence of science, technology and innovation is offering solutions and enablers for building smart sustainable cities capable of such evolution. With Internet of Things getting combined with deeper penetration of smart devices, integrated digital solutions that make infrastructure more efficient are beginning to emerge. For starters both Spain and the Netherlands are using IoT for implementing flexible street lighting systems.

Earlier this year, I visited Chrystal, the urban development center designed and constructed by Siemens in 2012.  The Chrystal shaped building is the world’s largest exhibition dedicated to sustainable urban development. It showcases how cities can create a better future and is a global benchmark for designing sustainable building. Just a couple of weeks ago, Elon Musk released rooftop solar tiles with 98 percent ray-collecting power of a conventional solar panel and with durability longer than a house. And the Powerwall he unveiled will likely store enough electricity to sustain a small house for a day by itself or indefinitely when combined with the solar roof he unveiled.

Understanding the urbanization challenges facing India, our visionary Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi has pledged to grow responsibly making “Sustainability and Inclusivity” the corner stone of the country’s growth. While growing responsibly is an imperative, the Government is well aware of its obligation to address the challenges of job creation, reaching healthcare and education to India’s remotest corners, developing basic infrastructure and ensuring citizen safety – a daunting task indeed! It is heartening to note that the Government of India has kept the citizens at the center of its ambitious 100 Smart Cities Mission under the Digital India program. The Smart Cities blue print envisions that these cities will run on a digital backbone using technologies that will lead to self learning evolution. The Atal Mission for Rejuvenation of Urban Transformation (AMRUT), another urbanization initiative of the Government, will help propel India forward on the growth path. Promoting core infrastructure as well as a clean and sustainable environment, these Missions will provide a decent quality of life to the citizens.

With 60 cities having been identified work on India’s smart cities is in progress. More than 30 countries and a large number of companies have expressed interest in partnering India in its Smart Cities Mission. Given that smart city development is not a short term project, the Government has recently appointed a CEO for every shortlisted smart city. With the Government’s keenness to create a replicable model for smart city development, this is a welcome step in ensuring that knowledge gets harnessed over a period in time.

As India grows and expands, I believe that the Smart Cities Mission will go a long way in building Brand India. These sustainable cities with smart and efficient infrastructure will throw open several opportunities for smart solutions encouraging entrepreneurship. Both USA and Israel are examples of countries where innovators have thrived as Governments directed the development of strong infrastructure and social institutions. Additionally, some of the best countries in the world are considered so based on their dependable infrastructure and sustainable resource management.

While Indian Government is pursuing its Smart Cities Mission in all earnestness, the question is whether the implementing agencies are geared up to meet the challenge? Are they taking a holistic approach towards design and development of these cities? Will they meet young India’s aspirations thus reducing the pressure on the existing mega cities?

The views expressed are personal.

















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