What Defines a Smart City?
Afew decades ago, the supporting physical, social and bureaucratic infrastructure —everything from town planning to education to policing—could develop organically at the same pace. That is no longer the case. Leapfrogging straight from the rice paddy to the digital economy successfully requires planning, forethought, and consultation with prospective employers.
The key to success lies not in the hardware or software, which are widely available, but peopleware: Creating an environment that will attract and retain the sort of educated workers needed to staff the facilities. Ultimately, the physical attributes of the smart city environment mirror the mindset of the participants— forward-looking, modernist and open to new opportunities. And that means the young, urban and aspirational. Empowered by their belief that the availability of cheap technology will make the future more meritocratic, they want to work in environments that support their ambition and allow them a canvas to express their new self-confidence. About 13 mn young boys and girls join India’s work force every year, who are aspirational, demanding and open to work with the latest technology.
Governments across the emerging markets have long understood the theoretical value of smart cities, but their interpretation of what constitutes a smart city is becoming exponentially more ambitious. A concept that started out looking like Cyberjaya in Malaysia— a wired community with a science park at its heart—has grown in ambition and now looks like the plans for the city of Visakhapatnam or Vizag in India.
During the latest visit of US President Barack Obama, India and the US have agreed for taking quick measures to build three smart cities—Vizag, Allahabad and Ajmer.
A new smart city today embraces not just technology, but education, security, culture, and particularly environment in all its senses. The panel of experts discussing the ‘smart city’ concept in case of Vizag talked of green power generation distributed without power poles and “scientific pruning of trees, and (a) walkable city built for people and not for cars”.
In the past, urban business planning in emerging markets was too often a case of creating a bleak ‘industrial zone’ on a city outskirts, haunted by carts serving indifferent food, unsupported by any coherent public transport system during the day and intimidating at night, especially for female workers.
But knowledge workers seek a short, safe commute from carefully planned and well-lit residential spaces to environmentally responsible offices in green surroundings with restaurants and retail nearby; they want the electricity that drives their wireless devices to come from power stations that are not poisoning the air they breathe; and they want a cultural existence that reflects and feeds their connected international outlook.
The youngsters want cab services being tracked by GPS mechanism, WiFi zones connecting them to the world through smartphones, readily available healthcare support systems for them and their families and web-enabled emergency help request services.
Although it is possible to build a single call center or a document processing facility almost anywhere, building a selfsustaining set-up remains a challenge. Increasingly, planners are looking at green- or brown-field sites on the edge of existing urban centres to start anew, building a modern commercial center that complements an existing city.
For planners, that means thinking on a city-sized scale, a multi-dimensional challenge that brings in elements of residential and commercial development, health infrastructure; environmental protection, policing, power, roads, transport, retail, and many other fields.
And finally, education is critical, not just to attract high-quality staff that can demand the best for their children, but also to equip the next generation with the languages and skills that will allow them to grow up to take over the baton of growth from their parents.
The Electronic City outside Bengaluru, Gurgaon and Noida outside Delhi, Hinjewadi in Pune or Cyberabad outside Hyderabad could also work as case studies to build modern or smart habitats.
The nations and cities that can create environments that cater to the needs of the young and the aspirational will attract both the new entrepreneurs and the international employers who can together create self-sustaining cycles of growth—through investments and job opportunities.