In India, it is execution, not aspiration that will build smart cities

New Delhi

The world that we live in is evolving rapidly and changing at a dizzying pace. With an estimated 70 percent of global population expected to live in cities by the year 2050, a renewed focus on cities in general and smart cities in particular, is inevitable. Viewed in this backdrop, the Indian Government’s Smart City program is an ambitious one and comes at the right time. 

From a smart city perspective, India has conceived a mix of Greenfield and Brownfield projects with a majority of smart city projects being Brownfield. This brings in some added challenges as converting existing cities into smart cities is way more difficult than setting up a smart city in a limited area from the scratch.

Added to this is the fact that different cities are going about creating smart cities in their own ways. One of the things intrinsic to smart cities is standardization. By standardization, I am referring to predictability in what you expect from the city. There have to be some standards for green transportation.

Similarly there have to be standards for clean energy and citizen safety. For instance, one of the standards for citizen safety could be in the form of response time within which law enforcement officials will reach the citizen in the event of an emergency.

The current approach

The current approach to smart cities is somewhat fragmented and there is no assurance that the targeted cities will end up being smart cities in the real sense. Think of it, having a very good public safety mechanism without adequate green energy or efficient transportation would not make the city a smart city no matter how good the public safety system is.

Having the required service levels across a wide range of services is essential for smart cities. Do remember that smart cities are expected to provide citizens a better life and more efficient services using underlying technology as an enabler.

With the existing approach that has been dictated partly by the mechanism of selecting smart cities, most of these cities have evolved their own limited areas of focus ranging from urban mobility to utilities and eGovernance.

When you add to this the financial constraints that city planners are experiencing the likelihood of work being done in other areas becomes very limited.

So how do you then get world-class smart cities in India?

If every city has different features, infrastructure and varying levels of services because of their differing focus then the likelihood of a set of world-class smart cities is remote.

1. Need For A Strong Institutional Mechanism

Building a smart city calls for, among others, a strong institutional mechanism that will drive all the efforts of a multiple disparate agencies that are often working on their own without an overarching vision of what they are really creating.

Think of institutional mechanism as something that enabled two different countries, England and France to build an undersea tunnel that they could join precisely undersea and complete the tunnel.

The Channel Tunnel is a rail tunnel linking London and Paris beneath the English Channel at the Strait of Dover. At its lowest point, it is 250 feet deep and at 23.5 miles long, the tunnel has the longest undersea portion of any in the world. The project cost £4.65 billion, 80 per cent more than expected. Construction took six years (1988-1994).

Imagine if the two countries worked on their own, with no coordination would the undersea tunnel ever have met below the sea? What made it possible was the institutional mechanism that ensured every little effort was totally coordinated.

In India, Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) have been set up in several cities. However, there has been very limited progress beyond it. Even the utilization of funds and the progress of contracts for smart city projects have been limited.

Keep in mind that SPVs alone are inadequate to steer smart cities.

There is a need to set up a robust institutional mechanism that will have city leaders, government functionaries, consultants, technology providers, town planners and several other key stakeholders as a part of it.

According to an Economic Times report earlier this year:

“Only 11 projects worth Rs 935.93 crore (USD 141 million) of the 167 projects amounting to Rs 12,000 crore (USD 1.80 billion) under public-private partnership model have taken off so far, according to urban development ministry data.

Another 21 PPP projects worth Rs 2622.23 crore (USD 349 million) are at various stages of tendering process. Half of the projects being implemented are in Gujarat– two in Ahmedabad and three in Surat. Three are in Delhi and one each in Bhubaneswar, Belagavi and Pune.

The ministry has attributed the slow progress to the overall “negative environment in which the urban local bodies are viewed”. Additional secretary Sameer Sharma, who is spearheading the mission, told ET, “We consider it good progress as PPP projects take a long time in taking off.”

2. Private Sector Participation

Smart cities typically entail sustained investments in high value projects that are required for such cities. Quite often the investments are required to set up facilities from the grassroots since the existing infrastructure and facilities may be grossly inadequate to begin with.

In this scenario it is unfair to expect the government to make all the investment. Hence, the best option is to enlist the support and participation of the private sector in such a way that the private sector not only invests in the projects but also benefits from it from a revenue and return standpoint.

World over, successful smart cities have launched themselves relying on public private partnership projects (PPP). PPP projects bring in the best of private sector financing, staffing, resourcing, technology and processes to merge it with government support and participation.

This in turn leads to execution of large-scale projects that do not need to wait for government funding. At the same time the mechanism itself provides for key stakeholder participation, which is an added plus.

In the Indian context, the private sector is still reticent to embark on large-scale PPP projects in partnership with the government. This is because of several factors such as lack of maturity in conceptualization of PPP projects and one sided clauses that sometimes enter PP contracts and do not offer sufficient safeguards to the private sector participants to protect their interests.

It is imperative that an enabling environment is created in the country to put PPP projects on a fast track and resolve differences in existing PPP projects that are holding up project implementation.

3. Shift Focus From Justifying Inadequate Progress On The Ground To Activating Mechanisms To Expedite Projects

Slow progress on smart city projects is reported in the media quite regularly. The immediate response by the government is to offer reasons why the current progress is adequate.

It doesn’t really have to be this way.

The government alone cannot be held responsible for the slow pace of smart city projects.

Ultimately it is the collective responsibility of the government, the private sector and all the stakeholders put together. So the need of the hour is to look at smart cities individually and collectively to explore what can be done to make it a reality quickly and eventually benefit citizens.

There is a whole lot of international experience that we can take a cue from.

City of Palo Alto

Take the case of Palo Alto, California, a small city of about 67,000 residents. This city is developing an innovation strategy that could be the way forward for other cities grappling with resource constraints for smart city projects.

So far, more than 25 smart city projects have been completed or are in-progress and another five experimental projects are underway. These include deploying a sensor dashboard tracking real-time data, installing a smart grid for electricity and a traffic platform monitoring vehicle flow.

The city relies on an innovative approach, a willingness to experiment and partnerships with entities outside the government to fast track its smart city projects. More importantly there is total commitment of the city leadership.

If you look at the India experience, it all boils down to the fact that we need to recognize the flaws in our execution model and make a start in correcting it right-away.

Anything else will be too little and too late!

*) Recommended read: Urban Development Recommendations for the Government of India


About the Author: Srinivasan is an independent consultant working in the area of strategy and technology interventions in the public sector domain. He has worked in companies like IBM and TCS and has over 30 years of experience spanning 24 countries.


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