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August 12, 2015

The Union government recently released the first blueprint to define the key elements of the 100 smart cities it plans to establish across the nation. The project was one of the revolutionary proposals by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year. The government has allocated approximately Rs 1000 crore for each city. The cities on the periphery of which a smart city would be developed would be selected on the basis of their population (i.e. between 1-4 million). Based on this method, eight cities have been identified till now. States are competing with each other in terms of getting the maximum investment, resources and employment to make the most of this opportunity. Cities are thus poised to become more attractive and intelligent by becoming more efficient, more liveable and more sustainable and they need to do all of this while ensuring resource-efficiency and socially inclusive growth.

This thought was the basis of the concept of a Smart City. The design wants to incorporate Information Communication Technology (ICT) to make an interactive ecosystem that would enable us to control our actions, eliminate undesirable aspects of our environment and help sustain growth through constant monitoring of the data being collected all the times. The prospect of 100 smart cities in India is particularly alluring with available Information Technology talent pool and innovative spirit of the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is looking at a leap in technology and optimum utilisation of resources in his plans but the fear remains that of the haves’ dominating all such spaces. With one-third of India’s population being illiterate and an even higher number being computer-illiterate, the benefits of the same are understandably going to reach that small percentage of citizens who reside in metropolitans today and are a part of the upper strata of society.

Yet for the effects to penetrate beyond social and financial boundaries, the governments have to decide on whether the country moves forward with building smart cities or by making existing cities smart.

It is here that the experiment of the first eight smart cities can turn tables. The requirement is mostly that of a broader and futuristic vision of making an entire nation ICT-friendly. The first cities can provide the ground to experiment and then form a model that can then be implemented elsewhere in the country.

Singapore, for instance, is currently following a similar bid to turn the entire country into a Smart Nation. The administration is looking ahead in terms of ensuring security of its citizens, environment friendly ecosystem and other innovations that are currently being implemented in small areas of the country particularly technology parks where a lot of these Smart City concepts are being trialled and tested.

Malaysia, on the other hand, is looking at building Smart Metropolis. Their project Iskandar Malaysia aims to be a green mega-city wherein energy will be provided from renewable sources, public transportation would be the only commutation means and waste will be diverted to other uses. The city is planned by the Malaysian government as an ideal case to be copied on a bigger scale across the region.

Aspiring countries like China have more than 120 initiatives planned to come up within the next 20 years under various titles such as Eco-Cities, Low-Carbon Cities and Smart Cities. Traffic management represents one of the key objectives in most of these projects. In fact there is an increasing demand for a more efficient public transportation and traffic management system in all metropolitans of the world.

The major intellectual challenge that we and the rest of society face, is embracing the idea that as we develop new digital technologies, we use those same technologies to study their impact on our society and then transform them accordingly. We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us said Marshall McLuhan, and this is the challenge that we need to resolve in developing truly smart cities that will benefit the quality of life of all our citizens.

In this resolve, it is likely that participation in formulating policies might be very different from the past when future was dictated by the elite, primarily because of exclusive access to information. The current and upcoming governments need to take care that both computer literacy and resources to entrepreneurs are encouraged side by side with the development of smart cities.

Smart cities, would place India on the map of the upcoming ICT industry and give the required boost to entrepreneurs in the field. However, all smart initiatives need to be implemented in all cities of the country in order to form the first smart nation in the world.