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Developing smart cities? The answer may lie in the soft skills and not technology alone

Developing smart cities? The answer may lie in the soft skills and not technology alone

The mission on 'Smart City' aims towards strengthening sustainable growth of cities, which now, in near future and long term would ensure environmental sustainability, energy security, social inclusivity, economic growth, cultural integration, inter and intra generational equity in quality of life through technological interventions, citizen centric development, participatory decision making, and efficient delivery systems. The concept, in process, is a step towards improving the practice of urban planning, development, management and governance.

'SMART' is a management term used to achieve a goal, and the objectives, which are, 'specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound". Applying it here, we should view the development of cities to be specific, however, not in isolation when it comes to retain a certain level of its potential for scaling-up through replication. The activities under these goals, while execution are ultimately measurable, in quantitative and qualitative terms - how much and how many; how realistic, how achievable, and how relevant; and which would efficiently ground interventions in time bound manner that answer the question - when?.

Experiences in municipal services, show that the hard part i.e. deployment of technological infrastructure hasn't been difficult, rather the soft part i.e. management of institutions and people during pre-project conceptualization, post implementation and maintenance phase, has been difficult, due to several resource constraints, shifting of priorities for development, lack of responsible leadership, attitudinal and behavioral aspects at both ends – the push and pull players i.e. the government and the citizens while negotiating at developmental crossroads.

Several decades ago, township-development and cantonment board concepts have ensured a better service delivery than the urban local bodies, which have developed naturally, through several phases of their growth. In simple terms we can say that we are good at new development rather than retrofit /renewal or redevelopment. We are unable to manage situations which are dynamic that involve a number of factors that play a role and do not have the capacity to accommodate increasing needs in the cities due to several of such phenomenon. Social mobility and income group population shift, structural transformation that define the rural –urban migration and population influx have been the pivotal factor that change the behavioral and attitudinal aspects among citizens and their approach to life in the changing urban dynamics. Townships, defense camp/centres - cantonments boards, provide more-so kind of homogenous characteristics which can distinctly decipher income and socio-cultural groups and a cosmopolitan "Indian culture" vis-à-vis the unorganized urban local body populace which is very heterogeneous in nature falling across a wide spectrum of income and socio-cultural characteristics. To strengthen this argument, the recent new area developments in major metros viz. the Cyberabad or High Tech City Area in Hyderabad or the Magarpatta Area in Pune are examples where the concept of SMART city can be easily practiced vis-à-vis any redevelopment of existing utility systems in the Old City areas of Pune or Hyderabad metropolis.

Looking into the various proposed smart solutions, each and every intervention, which may come up as sub-projects are already successful and proven urban solutions, technologies, procedures and methods implemented and practiced across several Indian cities or at most few of them already successfully implemented in the first world. For instance 'Decentralized Waste Management Systems' have been successful in Pune Municipal Corporation, which have not only reduced wastes that goes to the landfill, at the same time reduced cost of transportation and also produces to some extent off-grid power being used in the immediate vicinity. Energy efficiency in terms of 'Energy Efficient Water and Sewage Pumping' and 'Street lighting' or 'Green Buildings' are another examples with most of them already going for energy efficiency lighting systems, auto timers etc. 'Smart Metering' has been a proven technology in distributive – incoming and outgoing power management with roof-top solar applications first in Kolkata and later across major corporate houses in Gurgaon. 'Skill Development Centres' have been set up to provide urban household services such as security, laundry, housekeeping etc, and has been very much successful with the Government of Andhra Pradesh's Municipal Administration department. 'Waste-to-Energy' projects have come up at many locations, while 'Sewage Treatment Plant based Biogas-to-power' has been since long being operated by Surat Municipal Corporation. Not only, 'Smart Parking' is an active technology adopted in most of the airports, it's also being operated by a private party at the Secunderabad Railway Station. 'Station Area Transport Improvement System (SATIS)' have been very successful, wherein clustered vendors in station areas now don't become a hindrance to train commuters in Mumbai. 'Integrated Multimodal transport' has seen the rise of Metrorail' and 'Skybus' in Indian cities. 'Incubation Centres' are established for hand-holding new SMBUs and are promoted by the Department of Science and technology with the Local Industrial Associations in urban areas. 'Tourism Facilitation Centres' are developed by the tourism departments and 'Paryatak Bhavans' have come up in many capital cities. 'Electricity, State & City Transport Booking' and 'Water Billing' are online services in operation since more than a decade through E-Sewa facilitation centres. Thus, individual projects are already seen the light of the day, While, 'Integrated Urban Solutions' are yet to be developed. The concept of smart city is rather a 'Super Market Solution' proposed to be provided by the government's national mission through the ULBs to citizens as its main customers. On one hand projects are successful on individual basis, the feasibility and scope of services of smart cities is still a doubt and is specific and dependent on local situations.

Recent experiences also show that execution of 'Green Cities' or 'Solar-Cities' have not been much progressed, which is much similar in concept, wherein successful cases in energy efficiency, renewable energy, waste management etc. have been factored as individual sub-projects of a comprehensive master planning process. Such concepts are evolutionary in nature and require a continuous engagement with various stakeholders coupled with a combination of business models that are deemed to be fit right in the specific situation for a part of a city or at individual sub-project level intervention. The linking of projects with several schemes of various ministries though provided a platform for integration, has taken up a lot of time to pool in all resources. The idea of convergence of schemes has not truly in a sense been pragmatic due to procedural limitations, allocation and selection of projects under various schemes of such ministries. Further, business models of bringing in private players in the form of SPV or development under corporate social responsibility programmes have also been tried, though to not a large extent. The project design should include viable economic alternatives of projects, phasing projects and returns need to be ensured for the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) while designing the project structure to make it a viable proposition. SMART should go with 'Start-ups' as well for providing opportunities for innovative ideas and entrepreneurs in urban services.

Can smart cities be an achievable goal? 'Yes' would be my answer - I have two strong reasons.

First is, new development with all the smart solutions is not at all a far cry, as it would be in zones that invite capital investment ability as well as purchasing power of prospective citizens. Secondly – smart solutions in project mode basis have already been implemented under several schemes of the government and are proven to be successful. Several efforts have been put under development aided programmes by multilateral organizations during their association with several central ministries and state departments. Technical cooperation, and multi-lateral trade arrangements of Indian Industry and Government with international counterparts across the globe have not only bought in latest and emerging technologies but has attracted new investments. Indigenous technologies have proven to be successful and which are mainly deployed by engineers and scientists. Yet the big arm of the government research institute such as the CSIR, universities and institutions of higher learning viz. the IITs and IISc, have not entered on a business mode. This high talent pool is yet to be exploited for local level solutions. When the nation can place a series of satellites pay-loaded with indigenous rocket technology, is SMART city a difficult proposition at least from the context of technology is concerned?

What we require are more managers, business enterprise who take up the SMART management responsibility for technology transfer and scale-up. Next aspect is the role of banks & financing institutions that can provide customized schemes for extending term loans to such SPVs/BMOs/business entrepreneurs or players in the entire supply chain of the deploying smart solutions. Innovation in financial linkages is important whereby markets can be created for technologies both indigenous as well as foreign bringing growth of the economy. Here-again I would advocate 'Start-up for SMART cities'. When e-commerce has been so successful, with the latest innovation in accommodation booking, online utility payments, and not less even the disaster preparedness systems deployed down up-to village level, why urban utility services for e-governance and citizen services be made. Can't the existing infrastructure and network of postal services be utilized in e-governance and citizen services, while on one hand courier services have overtaken postal markets, and on the other the telecommunication industry has seen a major revolution in India.

Paradoxically, there are several pitfalls that one may say – acceptability by the citizens, feasibility of projects, technological obsolescence, monopoly markets, recurring costs of services specifically in e-commerce solutions or software solutions that provide smart transactional solutions are huge etc. The questions asked are – are we ready for reliable, relevant technological solutions and absorb the shock of technological obsolescence. Are our indigenous service providers capable of providing software solutions at reliable costs and for a long time during the duration of concessionaire agreements? Are we ready to shift and adapt to technological migration on software and hardware driven solutions and who will bear the costs? Is there scope of mid-term technological revival? Will technological obsolescence vis-à-vis costs be the major game changer? Are monopolistic markets going to be dominated due to technological choice or financial business models? Are the tastes of people and citizens totally in line with absorption of smart technological solutions, as they are the users who would pay and ensure the cash flow for the service providers to function on a sustained manner?

In a country where toll roads user fees are stopped due to inferior services or poor maintenance, how do we ensure project sustainability in case of smart cities? It's easy to work on piece-meal basis, while with scale up of activities there could be monopolistic market attitudes that may affect the services or there could be lack of wherewithal of the service provider to sustain the services.

Though several difficult situations and questions are ahead in front of decision makers and service providers about the acceptability and implementation of smart cities, government's should be first focused on new urban development to answer most of the solutions, which may trigger the development of re-development or renewal projects in old cities. While most of the urban services were provided by municipal corporations including local transport, power, even during the formation days of many cities and towns, later have been of loaded to private parties: Bombay Electricity Sub-urban Transport (BEST) stands as a major testimony, a cue we can take from, that the business community stand to take up for the growth of cities.

Smart cities development is a very much reality. Taking care of incorporation of stakeholder concerns right in the beginning stage, absorbing growing flux of users, appropriate financial and business models, managing technological obsolescence through leapfrogging, Start-ups for SMART Cities, indigenous technological development, proper project structuring, capacity building, project management and stakeholder engagement at various stages of evolution for sustained service, are solutions to overcome most of the issues

Srinivas Rao

Srinivas Rao

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