Prime Minister Narendra Modi´s headline-grabbing promise to build smart cities in India has attracted wide attention of experts in Spain’s principal city which hosts the International Smart City Expo every year. Barcelona has the distinction of being one of the world’s top 10 smart cities.
The vast potential and unique challenges posed by the Indian dream of creating 100 smart cities, outlined by Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu when he attended the Expo here last year, has excited not only experts here but also small and large agencies that offer various technology to build them. The all-round consensus amongst them however is that India has a lot of work to get done before it can actually embark on its ambitious project.
“There is no template for a smart city. A smart city is one that is more livable for its citizens. It has to be tailor-made for every city as each city has its unique problems and challenges. Each city has to have its own vision of what it wants to be for its people. India has shown that it has the required political vision but it must now begin listing its problems and priorities”, Albert Martin Torras, Account Development Consultant of the Smart City Expo World Congress that is tasked with organising the international Expo here, told IANS. His area of focus is India and Asia.
Aware that India has started to move towards smart cities, he said: “We are looking with great anticipation to India’s participation in the Expo this year ( Nov 17-19)”. The Expo, an initiative of the Barcelona City Council, is supported by the governments of Spain and Catalonia, the World Bank and UN Habitat. The first Expo was held in 2011 and 440 cities from 92 countries participated.
The broad concept of a smart city, besides being more livable, is that it should be sustainable and efficient at all levels like energy use, public transport, communication and health and education facilities. ¨Procuring technology to build a smart city is not an end in itself. It is only a means to achieve the goals a city has set for itself. It is therefore essential for a city to have its own vision and then look for technology companies that will adapt to its needs,” Torras felt.
Another essential for India before it embarks on smart city projects is to educate its people about the very concept and culture of smart cities and their required participation.
“This is a must before bringing in outside players,” Torras said. Other challenges for India include merging technology with law enforcement. There is no point in installing high tech traffic signals if following them cannot be enforced, he pointed out as an example. India will also have to find ways of encouraging private investment for infrastructure required for a smart city.
Population density, large-scale migration to cities, sprawling slums, waste management and lack of basic services compared to what is available in European cities are the unique challenges smart city builders have to contend with in India, Rosa Paradell, general manager of the Smart City Business Institute here, told IANS. The Institute, in collaboration with the Spanish Association of Smart Cities, is currently working on upgrading 60 cities in Spain to smart cities. Among them are Barcelona, Santander, Malaga and Acoruna.
Paradell, a technology expert, was extremely optimistic about the India projects. “Technology has a solution for almost everything. The challenge for India is to find a business model and put together a legal framework, as there have to be public-private participation projects, for its smart cities,” she noted.
“India is in a different situation from Europe when it comes to creating smart cities but it can be done,” Paradell added.
She held out the example of the once rat-infested city of Medellin in Columbia, which with its drug cartels, underworld, slums and lack of civic infrastructure, held the dubious distinction of being one of the worst in the world. It decided to find solutions to its own peculiar problems and two years ago was declared the Most Innovative City in the World by smart city experts.
Paradell said India would require tailor-made solutions for waste management technology as its people have yet to be educated about waste segregation and disposal. It will have to find technology to help in use of green energy, reducing energy consumption, emission reduction, upgrading public transport and bringing schools and hospitals within 20 minutes reach of its inhabitants.
India has to now take an important decision in the context of creating smart cities. It has to decide if it wants to opt for building new cities or upgrade existing ones.
“It is easier to build new ones rather than transform old ones into smart cities. But upgrading cities is also as imperative and it takes anything from two to three decades to do so. In such cases work has to be undertaken area wise. It is always work in progress as you can always keep upgrading.. For India maybe a compromise of the two would be practical,” Paradell added.
Finally, here’s a reality check: Barcelona has been at it for the last three decades.