India File

Smart cities: A concerned citizen’s guide

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on February 25, 2019 Published on February 25, 2019

They are a work in progress across the globe

What is it?

In fact, the idea of a smart city goes back to the period where automated traffic lights were first introduced; that was in 1922 in Houston, Texas. Ever since, planner and builders have been looking for smart solutions to run cities. The advent of digital technologies expedited the search. But there is no consensus on what exactly is a smart city.


India’s Smart Cities Mission says it means different things to different people... varies from city to city and country to country, depending on the level of development, willingness to change and reform, resources and aspirations of the city residents. It, says the mission, can be an “entire urban ecosystem, which is represented by the four pillars of comprehensive development — institutional, physical, social and economic infrastructure. This can be a long-term goal and cities can work towards developing such comprehensive infrastructure incrementally, adding on layers of ‘smartness’.” Confused? Well, that’s exactly how most discussions end with smart cities.

But the role of IT is a common factor.

Technically speaking, a smart city is where smart solutions powered by information technologies play a vital role in areas such as governance, trade, transport, infrastructure maintenance, civic services. That said, there is no idea smart city existing anywhere in the world and that explains why different countries and planners have different yardsticks for defining and creating smart cities. To be fair, what’s smart for Botswana may not be smart for, say, Belgium.

Still, no globally accepted norms?

Not many. The use of digital technologies is the most accepted factor. Songdo, in South Korea, arguably the world’s first ‘smart’ city once looked like a ghost town where nobody wanted to live. While votaries of smart cities say it will enhance living standards of cities even though the investments that go into providing such solutions could be very high (cost of which will get evened out in the long term), critics say smart cities where surveillance solutions powered by artificial intelligence, big data and IoT (Internet of Things, which means a networks of gadgets and equipment always on and connected to the web and controlled in real time by algorithmic solutions) do not augur well for democracies as they push such cities into authoritarian tendencies.

You mean data control concerns?

That and more. Take India, for instance. Considering how concerns erupted the way the government and certain private companies handled biometrics-enabled unique identification number and the (sill raging) controversy over the way personal data of citizens is used by companies, the first smart thing any smart city planner must do is to define the parameters clearly, set guidelines on who will have access to and control the data collected and how much of algorithmic governance is required and, then, create a national policy on the same in consultation with data scientists, IT experts, civil society groups, planners, builders and policymakers.

Published on February 25, 2019

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