Rapid urbanization will adversely affect several factors that impact our quality of life, such as healthcare, education, public safety, trust in governance, ability to govern, and there needs to be deliberation around how to address these challenges through solutions that are more than “good enough,” says Jeby Cherian, describing IBM’s approach to Smarter Cities. How to approach the design of ‘Smarter Cities’ will be one of the key areas of brainstorming in our upcoming Design Public conclave, exploring issues of Trust, Participation, and Innovation. As we began planning this breakout session we realized that a discussion on defining smarter cities is needed, before meditating on how to approach the innovation of such cities, as it may hold different meanings for representatives of various fields. More importantly, a common ground needs to be achieved as the vision of urban planners and other stakeholders involved in decision making may be different from what the denizens of cities imagine smarter cities to do for them.
From designing cities based on planning norms and guidelines to thinking about aspects that impact quality of life, urban planners have come a long way in thinking about the design of Indian cities. As we begin thinking more deeply about what a smarter city means in the Indian context, we realize that the components may differ from one city to another, considering the challenges faced by the residents vary based on the size and population, environmental conditions, and culture. Urban mobility challenges may not seem to be as grave for inhabitants of Tier 2 cities compared to Metropolitan cities, who juggle with large distances and volume of traffic to commute on a daily basis. While access to healthcare facilities may be more challenging in smaller cities as opposed to larger cities, reaching a hospital in emergency situations may be more problematic in larger cities due to frequent traffic jams. Even within the same classification of cities, these challenges can vary owing to the inherent culture and climate of the city. Delhi NCR may be rapidly developing with world class transport and housing systems, but women of the region are not able to travel as safely as in Mumbai and other Metropolitan cities. Extreme climatic conditions of the city hinder pedestrian movement, increasing the volume of vehicular traffic as people cannot avoid using a vehicle even for shorter commutes (e.g., traveling from Metro stations to places of work or stay).
The challenge of arriving at a definition of a smarter city in the Indian context however, may not be as daunting as other challenges that exist in designing and implementing solutions. As Jeby Cherian points out that “while as a country we understand the challenges at an intellectual level, our efforts to solve them are piece meal, fragmented, and often tend to be just enough is good enough solutions.” Dr. Aditya Dev Sood describes some of these challenges as “wicked problems” with multiple competing definitions of both the problem and solution provided by the various stakeholders involved in the system. Even if out-of-the box solutions are devised, another roadblock would be implementing them. Rakesh Ranjan, the Director of Housing and Urban Affairs at the Planning Commission, says that prior attempts to reform India’s urban systems have not been very successful as urban administrators want to avoid making unorthodox decisions for the fear that they may result in a court case, a civil suit, or the perception of impartiality.
Many efforts are being made across the world to adopt a more participatory approach to urban design that allows stakeholders to visualize the implications of their decisions (e.g., Urban ISM by Urban Initiatives, London). However, in the diverse and complex Indian context, involving civil society in the participatory process may facilitate decision making by urban administrators by helping them overcome the fear of impartiality. Public participation in planning of cities would not only build trust between various planners, stakeholders, and local denizens, but would also allow practitioners to draw on the knowledge apparent only to inhabitants of cities. It may help in arriving at a more realistic picture of highly “over determined, wicked problems,” which may eventually yield more than “good enough” solutions.
A fundamental challenge for designing a smarter city in the Indian context would then be to design platforms that would allow for civil society participation. We will attempt to acquire a deeper understanding of some of these barriers to designing and implementing smarter cities and how they can be effectively addressed in our upcoming Design Public conclave, a platform through which we hope to build effective partnerships for the design of smarter cities.