Smart cities could result in social inequality, say experts

Navadha Pandey Visakhapatnam | Updated on January 16, 2018

Govt needs to address the digital divide and overcome the trust deficit

As the government dreams of building 100 smart cities, it parallely needs to enhance local research capabilities, overcome trust deficit, and improve access to technology in order to prevent an increase in social inequality, experts believe.

Philip Harrison, South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning, Wits University, Johanesburg, said, “There are risks that must be addressed. Smart cities may actually increase social inequality, especially given the existing digital divide. South Africa too has significant economic inequality. Cities, hence, need to invest heavily in increasing access to technology. Smart cities could result in destructive forms of inter-city competition.”

Stressing on the need to develop local research capabilities, Doutor Alvaro de Oliveira, President, Human Smart Cities Network, Portugal, said that smart cities are an opportunity to create an innovation ecosystem.

“So cities should not simply buy expensive technology from other countries and deploy it in their city. Local research is essential to sustain smart cities. The government must drive innovation to create an urban living laboratory and ensure a strong relationship between the universities and municipalities,” Oliveira added.

Research and capacity development is a crucial part of creating smart cities in the Indian perspective too, said Pradipta Banerji, Director, IIT Roorkee.

“We need to abandon the modernist approach to urban development...focus on a connected smart region rather than a smart city. We also need to overcome the trust deficit in the quality of services that exists among residents who are hesistant to pay user charges. For example, in Dharamsala, many residents have shut their smart meters. Everybody is too focussed on the technology aspect of smart cities mission,” Banerji told BusinessLine at the sidelines of the 3rd BRICS Urbanisation Forum here.

Echoing this sentiment, Harrison said that technology may become an end in itself rather than a means to an end, resulting in smart cities where governance was more technocratic and less responsive. “Moreover, investment in technology may not be supported by adequate infrastructure in soft infrastructure – skills, organisational capacity etc,” he added.

Funding challenges

Pointing out the financial challenges in developing smart cities, Philip Van Ryneveld, Former Chief Financial Officer, Cape Town Municipality, South Africa, said, “While taking loans, the city must keep in mind the cost of maintaining infrastructure as this cost could actually be higher than the benefits resulting from the project. Whether the loan will be used productively should be the city’s priority as repayment could become a challenge.”

Most cities in the first round of India’s smart cities mission are relying on land monetisation for projects.

However, high dependence on land monetisation could result in challenges in its replicability in case of area based development in other regions of the city, Brijgopal Ladda, Director Urban Practice CRISIL Infrastructure Advisory, CRISIL Risk and Infrastructure Solutions Ltd, said.

“Moreover, local bodies may not be able to recover user charges to pay for the operation and maintenance cost of the state-of-the-art infrastructure,” Ladda added.

(The writer is in Visakhapatnam at the invitation of the Ministry of Urban Development.)

Published on September 15, 2016

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