Thursday, May 28, 2015

Technologies don’t make cities smart; accountable govts, clean streets do

After waiting for a year, Union Cabinet finally approves two urban programs - Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (aka AMRUT) for 500 cities and Smart Cities Mission for 100 cities. There will central allocation of about one lakh crores rupees in next five years. On prima facie, it seems that AMRUT is the second phase of the good ol' JnNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission), which has partly financed the bus rapid transit, flyovers, water-sanitation, waste management projects in Ahmedabad and in other cities. 

AMRUT is a continuation of the past policies but the ‘Smart Cities’ has captured the imagination of many people. It is a powerful political slogan and like all political slogans, 'Smart cities' make big promises without really telling you what they are. And debates are raging in the country about what are 'Smart cities'. Some news items claim that smart cities are all about information technology, automations, remote-controls, sensors, CCTV cameras, access controls and what not. But what if these so-called smart cities end up being private townships like colonial times when there were beautiful enclaves for the Whites and dusty-dirty towns for the rest of us. Is this the new smart cities mission going to subsidize and promote these ‘white enclaves’? Lets hope not. 

Keeping our anxieties and excitement aside, let us understand what makes a person smart? Often we are misguided by the appearances but the real smartness is in using optimum resources, being fair and balanced, finding negotiated solutions, being progressive, being responsible for your actions, and being open to feedbacks. Smartness cannot be imposed as it comes from within. Smartness prospers when there is good education, health and good exposure to the world. Smartness prospers when there are ideas in abundance and choices in everything. 

If we go by this definition of smartness then what kind of cities are we aspiring to - surely, the cities with accountable governments, as they will love the feedbacks from the citizens. The smart city government will consult the citizens before spending their money. The technology in smart cities will be used to optimize resources and not for the surveillance the citizens or for useless automations. So what is a smart city - If there is a shelter over every head, clean water and toilet in every house, clean streets and ample number of buses on every road; the city with government that listens to people, which will have political and financial autonomy to run the city - that is a smart city.

A smart phone in hand doesn’t make a person smart. The smart of use of the smart features might make someone smart. A promise of technology is not a promise of smartness. While discussing smart cities, let us not confuse the ends and the means. Technologies are important means but the ends will have to be cities that take care of us, inspire us and encourage us to take a stroll and to roll on two non-polluting pedals!

(4th May, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

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