Gaps and loopholes in the Smart Cities mission statement

The Smart cities mission statement forsakes a framework for trade-offs.

The purpose of the Smart cities mission statement is to provide and construct infrastructure and technology that will lead to desirable outcomes such as better quality of life. The assumption is that installation of good physical, social and economic infrastructure will create a smart city. This is a methodological problem. The report constantly mentions the ‘what’ and not ‘how’. Among many, one example is congestion.

The report declares that the smart city will reduce congestion, and will therefore reduce commute time. However, nothing is mentioned of how this will be done: will engineering techniques be used? Will congestion pricing be installed? Will the Central Business Districts be located in one area and the resident areas all in one area, thus enabling better management and planning of traffic? As per the mission statement the outcomes are identified as: “adequate water supply including waste water recycling and storm water reuse, sanitation including solid waste management, rain water harvesting, smart metering, robust IT connectivity and digitalisation, pedestrian friendly pathways, intelligent traffic management, non-vehicle streets/zones, smart parking, energy efficient street lighting, innovative use of open spaces, visible improvement in the Area.’’

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However, the necessary inputs and their combination haven’t been worked out. The governance question is largely missing. The reasoning upon which concepts like efficiency and affordable are used are either not identified or not fleshed out.

The Smart city mission statement is rather unfocused. The mission statement seems woefully unaware of the possible trade-offs. Finance is limited: operated as a Centrally Sponsored Scheme, the Central Government proposes to give financial support to the Mission to the tune of Rs. 48,000 crore over five years i.e. on an average Rs. 100 crore per city per year (apart from equity which will likely not amount to much). Time is limited: 100 smart cities are to be built in 5 years. Both finance and time are therefore scarce resources. No framework is provided in the report on how time and capital will be allocated, given scarce resources. How does one achieve greatest benefit given these scarce inputs?

Further, the mission statement mentions that some smart cities will be a subset of a larger city (retrofitting and redeveloping). This creates a problem. The amount of rent is a function of the distance from Central Business District (CBD). Closer you are to the CBD, more will be the rent, less will be the cost you incur to reach the CBD (in terms of fuel cost, the probability of meeting with an accident, and time that is, opportunity cost). Therefore, if a smart city is built in one part of a larger city, it will increase the willingness of others to move closer to it, hence increasing rent in these areas – thus making the idea of affordable housing in the vicinity of the smart city a farce. It is therefore necessary to recognise trade-offs.

The second problem of building a smart city in just one part of the city is that development in one area will congest all the paths to it, or that lie outside it. Imagine a city which has 5 roads which go a CBD. Assume these roads are clogged, so if the government broadens one out of these five roads. What happens? It gets worse! People from the remaining 4 roads will begin using that particular road, making it even more congested. The same logic applies to the proposed smart city plan. There are real world examples as well: bad traffic at outer ring road in Bangalore because of the Manyata Embassy Business Park.

Adhip Amin and Devika Kher are Research Associates at Takshashila Institution.Adhip tweets @AdhipAmin. Devika tweets @DevikaKher

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