Live Blog: The Top-Down-Bottom-Up Smart-City (Panel discussion)

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Even as the Smart City concept evolves, the role of the citizen within it remains largely undefined, leaving room for the exploration of approaches, techniques and environments, through which a new agenda for urban India can be crafted. This panel on ‘The Top-Down-Bottom-Up Smart City’ will discuss the ways to reconcile public dialogue and citizen participation with the high-level economic and infrastructural planning that is necessary for the success of Indian cities. Panelists include Sumit D Chowdhury, Program Director for Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Initiative) with the Ministry of Urban Development; Parvathi Menon, Founder & Managing Director of Innovation Alchemy Consulting; Debashish Dutta from HP’s Future Cities; and Bharath Palavalli, Founding member at Fields of View. The Panel is moderated by Namrata Mehta, Director of Innovation at the Center for Knowledge Societies.

11:23 am: Namrata Mehta introduces the panelists and asks them to briefly share a little about their work in the Smart Cities space and their definition of a Smart City.

11:24 am: Parvathi Menon is the founder of Innovation Alchemy in Bangalore that focuses on using innovation for real applications. She believes that there is no such thing as a smart city and the concept should focus more on designing smart communities.

11:25 am: Sumit Chowdhury directs the Swacch Bharath mission at the Ministry of Urban Development. Additionally, he is also the CEO of Gaia Smart Cities that works towards modernizing city-wide services by creating scalable infrastructure for them. Right now, the company is working on creating a network of sensors to enable greater communication in the cities, and in turn, increase transparency of the government operations, the velocity of business and improve quality of life. At the MoUD, Sumit’s team is working on developing toilets while introducing a lot of technology. According to him, the smart cities concept should evolve with the systems engineering thinking, such that the focus is on solving multiple problems at a time in multiple locations. Correspondingly, he also feels that funding for smart cities should be more comprehensive. For him, a smart city is one that is constantly measuring, analyzing and learning with the ultimate goal to improve.

11:30 am: Debashish works with HPs future cities, and brings a private sector perspective on the potential for technology lead innovation in customer services in the city space. His definition of smart city highlights the safety and health components as key constituents of the smart city definition, while underlining the importance of building in the ICE into it.

11:32 am: Bharath Palavalli is a researcher at Fields of View and his recent work focuses on the perceptions of smart cities.  He highlights the importance of bridging the gap between stakeholders as the key feature in thinking about smart cities. We need to create tools that can speak even to a person who earns a few rupees a day. In general, he cautions that as soon as we talk about technology, we tend to talk about efficiency and concepts like safety and inclusion tend to get lost.

11:34 am: Namrata invites the panelists to think of a framework that can bring together these different perspectives on Smart Cities.  She asks if it is possible to arrive at a consensus in building such a framework.

11:34 am: Parvathi is the first one to respond and says that the frame of reference for thinking about urban development and smart cities has evolved over time.  People are no longer talking about any smart city but about democratically designing a deliberate city. However, no single definition of smart cities will make everyone happy.

11:38 am: Answering Namrata’s question, Sumit argues that there is, in fact, no need for a common definition of a smart city. Each perspective can contribute in a meaningful manner. He focuses on community-led development as a key element of a smart city, and cites Shivpur village in Maharshtra as a case in point. Riddled with farmer suicide and other issues, this community initiated many civic development projects in their village led by a local MLA.  This is now an established model that can be scaled to other communities. Sumit went on to highlight the need for creating a platform where people can talk about such simple but successful examples of innovative civic solutions and other community-based initiatives. We need to look at these solutions and replicate them.

11:43 am: Responding to Sumit’s comment, Namrata asks if this means there is a third model other than just bottom-up and top-down approaches.

11:43 am: Sumit points out that in such community-led projects, it is important for the nodal person/agency that initiated these innovative ideas to take them forward. Development is not a short-term undertaking. This kind of thinking needs to happen on a 10-20-year horizon. Moreover, we need to institutionalize these civic innovation processes and systems so that they can be carried forward even after the nodal person/agency leaves.

11:44 am: Bharat feels it is imperative to explore the role technology can play in supporting some of the key concerns raised by other panelists like those relating to building in sustainability in the solutions and in supporting data-driven learning communities. He also opined on the important role that the State can play in committing sustainable solutions to institutional memory. These are some of the ways in which we can benefit from different approaches to the Smart City concept.

11:48 am: Namrata poses a three-pronged question to panelists, asking them to comment on the long term aspect, the funding model and the framework for definitions of smart cities.

11:48 am: Debashish responds to the funding aspect of the question by sharing the example of HP’s technology-enabled model of offering medical services to remote locations. HP funded the initial phase through its CSR activities but 1.5 years into the project, the state government came in to help them with scaling up the idea. Debashish asserts that this not being a commercial venture for any of the involved parties is what is driving the project, and that this is a model in which top-down and bottom-up approaches are being brought together.

11:53 am: Responding with her ideas on the framework for smart cities, Parvathy believes that this evolving idea is made up of three main components. The first component corresponds to the need for a nodal agent or ‘Sootradhaar’ who owns the project and takes it forward. Second is the adopting the perspective that it is not ‘citizens-versus-the-State’ but ‘citizens and State’. The third critical element is the ability to develop hyperlocal solutions that are contextualized to the specific stakeholders. Government can raise funds and assist with initial installation and delivery of civic services, but the ultimate responsibility of maintaining these rests with the community and citizenry. This is the only way smart cities can evolve in India.

11:57 am: Adding to the comment of the other panelists, Sumit points out that if the government can guarantee financial support to promising solutions, it can help us in advancing the civic innovation ecosystem. This is an important facilitative role our governments and civic bodies can play. While Sumit feels that all parties involved in developing a solution should benefit from the collaboration, outright profiteering from such initiatives is wrong.

12:00 pm: Namrata opens the floor to questions and thoughts from the audience.

12:01 pm: Naveen poses a question to the panel about what their critique of the smart city concept would be, looking back 50-100 years from now.

12:02 pm: Parvathy feels her critique might revolve around the extent of standardization in the smart city components and that some of those elements should have been left more open.

12:05 pm: Bharat feels his evaluation would focus necessarily on whether and how the quality of life has improved in smart cities.

12:05 pm: With no further questions from the audience and responses from the panelists, the panel concludes, and Namrata invites Annurag Batra for his Key Note on The Vision of a Smart City.

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