Defining Smart Cities: What and What not

What is a smart city? Does anyone apart from Modi have a clue?  Technology is one component but is there anything else to a smart city?  Deciphering the smart city concept from a desi perspective.

The Ancient Indus Civilization

The Harappan City of Dholavira

Reigning Confusion

The idea of creating many smart cities has caught the imagination of a resurgent young urban India unlike anything else has ever done in recent times.   The most exciting part of the idea is that India is finally envisioning something that is at par or even ahead of the rest of the world. While the swachh bharat, garibi hatao, beti padhao, types of campaigns are about correcting the ills of the past, the concept of “smart cities” is forward-looking. It aims at setting the tone that many of us desire the most – riding the rapidly approaching and high paced world of the future.

From all available documents, it appears that the government thinks of a smart city as largely a technologically and infrastructure-ally a superior animal. Smart cities as we can gauge from informal conversations with government and political functionaries appear to be about tall buildings, broad band connectivity, low energy consumption, recycling, clean roads, garbage etc. But there is no clear vision that has been articulated beyond the PM’s own words. Globally as well there is no consensus though the Smart City Council defines it as “embedded digital technologies in all its functions”, yet the conversations in India are much more than simply incorporating digital embedded technologies in cities. Other terms that come up repeatedly in various smart city definitions found on the net are provided below:

  • High quality of life
  • Digital technologies
  • Participation of citizens
  • Resilient and sustainable development
  • Investment in human and social capital
  • Wise management of natural resources
  • Respond quicker to change
  • Regional competitiveness
  • Excels in multiple areas

In other words all aspects of a city need to be incorporated within the larger term. However India’s definition of smart city will need to be driven from the PM’s vision for it to have any tractability in today’s India.

There is one emerging city landscape in Gujarat which was supported by the PM Narendra Modi, and may even have been his brainchild. This is the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City or GIFT. The city is already functional though a large part of the construction is complete and the rest is to be completed rapidly. This vision is no doubt one that is of high technology infrastructure and includes:

  • 24×7 outage free power
  • 24×7 water
  • 24×7 district level cooling
  • 100% ICT connectivity
  • Automated Solid Waste Management
  • Public Transport: Walk to work and 90:10 Public: Private Split

As a vision of what hi-technology infrastructure is about this is an impressive vision. But this needs a definition – what a smart city is and what it is not. This author has as yet not come across any definition used by the Government of India. I came across 6 different definitions on the internet being used globally, and there may be many more, but surprisingly within India there is little consensus on even one element of what constitutes a smart city.

What India Needs

Cities are inherently feasible because they enable the functioning of markets; and markets are about interactions between a large number of buyers and sellers. In other words, cities that are designed for facilitating interaction between people are able to create a far greater value than those which are not so structured. Enabling interaction requires the creation of public spaces, public transport, footpaths etc. But merely interaction does not do the job or Karachi and Beirut could also have been labelled as smart cities.

All of economic progress is built upon the trust and faith that citizens have in the safety of their lives and property. In other words, while good urban planning, good infrastructure, and modern technology can provide the hardware of a city, the software is what defines it character and sustained growth. And the software is about how a city is run. Governance itself is an outcome of the spaces we create and the manner in which we create them. And merely creating infrastructure will not lead to sustainability. Imagine the following scenario.

When we build these smart cities, there will be a massive surge of people, rich and poor, who will desire to enter these cities, and cities will be forced to keep them out as the population pressure will override the ability to maintain such infrastructure.  There are only two ways to keep people out of any space – prices and policing. In other words, the prices will automatically be higher in such cities – the notion that they will be low-cost is flawed. Even if possible from a cost of provision perspective, they cannot be low-cost from a demand perspective. In other words, when infrastructure is very good, prices will automatically get bid up.

Even with high prices, the conventional laws in India will not enable us to exclude millions of Indians from enjoying the privileges of such great infrastructure. Hence the police will need to physically exclude people from such cities, and they will need a different set of laws from those operating in the rest of India for them to be able to do so. Creating special enclaves is the only method of doing so. And therefore GIFT is an SEZ, and so will each of these 100 smart cities need to be.

What I outline above is a scenario not very different from the movie Hunger Games. And indeed there have been many times within India’s own past when the incumbent residents of a city have used forcible means to keep people out. In the case of smart cities, since the difference in quality of infrastructure will be so high, the push of inward migration will also be high. And so will the push-back.

Safety and security are the outcomes of a city where the rule of law defines daily lives and where justice is the dominant force. But all disputes are not resolved through laws, policing or a judiciary; a well-functioning political mechanism is by far the best dispute resolution mechanism. Democracy is therefore not important simply as a first principle, but city democracy enables a whole range of counteracting forces to be resolved in a civilized manner.

There a related factor that will need to be recognized – The politics of the past favored command and control hierarchies. In other words, a prime minister ordered his ministers who ordered their secretaries who ordered their department heads who ordered the section heads and who in ordered the office in-charges. But the smart cities would be different, being totally networked and e-enabled, every file, every order, every decision of the government will be up for scrutiny. And therefore the current way of governing will just not be possible. Citizen demands and views will flood government officers who will either be forced to ignore them, or evolve a more participative approach to governance. In other words, such cities will either simply become like service centres, where democracy cannot be allowed, or be much more participative where citizens are part and parcel of every decision. This will be a new challenge for the government as well, India is not yet used to participative decision-making, especially at the local level. But participative local democracy is an idea whose time has come in India.

There are millions of examples across India of how the lack of a democratic political process impacts the growth of cities. For many decades, Kolkata ruled the commercial landscape of India, no one is sure precisely how it happened, but Mumbai rapidly took that position; today it appears that Gurgaon, Pune and Bangalore are doing to Mumbai what Mumbai did to Kolkata. There is one common element between both Mumbai and Kolkata and all major Indian cities is that their local politicians service state or national constituents. In London and New York and Moscow the bureaucracy reports to the Mayor who reports only to the citizens and not some other master.

To put it all together, smart cities will need to have a different set of laws and a much stronger policing mechanism, and also a different way to govern them than is currently operating in the country. The current problem of Indian cities is not simply lack of infrastructure but poor service delivery and lack of security of life and property.

Nevertheless, building such infrastructure is important, because only after we build will we realize that it is actually possible for India to be at the forefront, and dirty ill kept ill-governed cities is not a problem of culture but that of governance. But as mentioned, merely building infrastructure will not really do the job – the infrastructure and spatial hardware – even if done right, will need synergistic software – democracy and urban governance.

Laws, governance mechanism, policing, rules of entry and exit will need to be framed. The government will then need to decide – Continue with building such enclaves? Or use these enclaves as an example, and expand such services across all of India’s 8000 odd cities? If it is the former it will need to expand the degree of policing to make sure such enclaves are protected from the masses. If it is the latter, it will need to move forward on a spate of urban reforms – Land controls, rent control, consumer grievance and utilities, notify the 74th amendment,   empower and directly elect Mayors, and many other changes that many committees have recommended for the last five to six decades. Obviously a government that is visionary should plan not for a few enclaves, but covering all cities.

Finally, for a long time now, India has been scared of change. Most major reforms in India have occurred either in stealth mode, or the Foxtrot mode (slowly forward, quickly sideways), and they have occurred under duress. A society that refuses to change will stagnate and die.

Recall another set of smart cities about 3-5000 years back. At that time they were the smartest cities on the planet. They had running water, attached bathrooms, covered drains, clean and well maintained streets, public spaces, well-ordered public planning, garbage disposal. They also had some type of low-cost housing on the outskirts, public spaces, and protection from outsiders. We do not know how they died out. But we do now why they could not survive.

Whether it was a new group of people on horses, or rivers that dried up, or a new parasite, or an asteroid whose falling dust blocked the sun, we do not know. But we do know that a civilization that grew and prospered for 3000 years took another 1000 years to die because it could not change with changing times. Steadily time ate into its stagnant foundations and finally a great civilization disappeared from history.

And therefore, a smart city is one that can change with the times. Where laws, urban planning, rules and regulations, systems of conflict resolution, democracy and both rulers and the ruled encourage change and not hinder it. A smart city is one that is not afraid to make a mistake, but charge ahead, and correct mistakes as it moves forward.

In Conclusion

And so we finally come to India’s definition for its smart cities.

First and most important, the smart cities are an aspiration to grab the future; they are about doing things differently and being in the forefront. Smart cities are therefore those that are able to change with the times and do so rapidly.

The second is about the technology, where technology is used intensively to serve the requirements of new India. And here it is not simply digital technology, but technologies that together enhance and improve our lives and lifestyles.

The third component of smart cities is about their governance, and more specifically about how they are run. These cities need to be about inclusive and follow a participative governance process.  The only sustainable way is where the citizens can actively participate in decision-making. This is only possible when cities are run in a decentralized manner where those who run the city are responsible to the people of the city. In other words, an elected Mayor who tells the municipal commissioner what he may or may not do, and has the power to hire or transfer not just those who run municipal services but also the police.

The fourth component is about being practical and economical, how will the city address migrants? It will be good if smart cities do not keep them out, and accept them with open arms instead. Low cost of operating such cities and enhanced productivity will be a desire-able byproduct. But for all of this low-cost housing will need to become an integral part of the smart cities.

And finally, economics and value creation lie at the core of any city; this is only possible when those in charge of the city promise to uphold the rule of law for each person in an even manner, where the security of life and property are guaranteed to one and all. It is the last that is the most scary   – smart cities as per some definitions will naturally have to become enclaves if they were to retain their ‘smart’ character, and where a different set of laws will apply than the rest of the country.

Hopefully the government will rapidly seek to expand its own vision and seek to convert all of India’s 8000 odd cities to smart cities.

And so finally, I think I have my definition!

A smart city is one that continuously embraces change to enhance people’s lives. It does so by using the latest in technology and infrastructure regulated through an inclusive and democratic process. Integral to the governance of a smart city are responsive and participative means that ensure security of life and property and opportunities for all.


“[W]e define [a smart city] as a city in which ICT is merged with traditional infrastructures, coordinated and integrated using new digital technologies.” M. Batty, et. al. Smart cities of the future. The European Physical Journal Special Topics, 214, 481–518 (2012)


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