Making Cities Livable: M K Sunil

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M K Sunil, Head of Smart Cities platform, APAC, Autodesk

By 2050, as 800 million urbanites throng India’s cities, pushing their already-stretched and creaking infrastructure to the edge, there will be pressure on any government for better living conditions. New developments in design technology can show the way for hardpressed city administrations, writes M K Sunil, Head of Smart Cities platform, APAC, Autodesk

Having stayed in Singapore for some years, I have always been thrilled by the city’s beauty, the high degree of cleanliness, and the uber level of disciplined civic sense. All these have helped to build the city from scratch in the last 50 years and made it one of the most advanced cities in the world, with a per capita GDP just about equal to the US.

I moved back to India a few years back and since then, I have witnessed our country’s rapid urbanisation, year over year. We boast of sprawling buildings and extensive metro skylines. And, we feel proud about our milestones in architecture and marvel at infrastructure wonders like the Golden Quadrilateral highway network. The Mumbai International Airport was recently adjudged the world’s best and there are many more such reasons to cheer. Ironically, and unfortunately, we also have the world’s largest chawl (slums) in Mumbai. Almost 70 per cent of Indians still live in rural India. Urban India presents no rosy picture either, with a good deal of it steeped in poverty, homelessness, scarcity of every kind and inadequate sanitation.

With an urban population set to touch 814 million by 2050, India faces the kind of mass urbanisation only seen before in China. Many of our biggest cities are already bursting at the seams. Last year, the new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the plan for developing 100 Smart Cities in India. Cities like Varanasi, Vizag, Amaravati, Ajmer, etc., are already on the drawing board, while in Gandhinagar, work on the country’s first Smart City is already on. The government would need to cough up around $1 trillion if this plan has to take off, according to an estimate by top business advisory KPMG.

Most of these 100 cities would probably be developed as Brownfield ventures, where experts would set to work on existing cities, transforming them into smart ones. As things stand, these cities are bleeding resources and sustainability is an economic nightmare. Far from being planned urban spaces, these are breeding grounds for diseases. Drainage, damaged roads, pavements and public transport, everything is an issue. Land value is skyrocketing. Prices of commodities are up. People spend a significant part of their life on the road. What with all the traffic jams, chaos, din and bustle. Day after day, commuters trudge their way through all of this and somehow make it to their offices – at last. In the process, they lose out on quality of life, not to speak of peace of mind, something they have long since given up.

Take greenhouse emissions. Cities account for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. Add to this, combined sewage overflows and air pollution. Cities will continue to grow and their total land cover will almost double by 2050. With the current approach to managing cities, we are not very far from an economic implosion set off by severe manmade conditions. Smog, flash floods, viral diseases, polluted air and water included. It is true that cities are accommodating a population 5-10x of what their planners originally had in mind. No wonder they are so hamstrung in areas like transportation, energy, water and emergency response systems. The government has difficult task cut out for it: develop cities, attract business and top talent, make them economically sustainable, and drive quality of life for all citizens. They must also manage the influx of migrants looking for better livelihood. Sure enough, there is a real tightrope to walk, balancing digital and financial inclusion with IT-powered worldclass urban spaces.

Cities account for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. Add to this, combined sewage overflows and air pollution. With the current approach to managing cities, we are not very far from an economic implosion set off by severe man-made conditions

So, what are the options on the government’s table?

Smart Cities can help promote sustainability, resource management, energy efficiency, which dovetail into better governance. However, unlike other smart devices, which crowd our daily lives, Smart Cities can never be transplanted to the Indian landscape or copy-pasted lockstock- barrel from somewhere. There are endless challenges – technical, societal, financial and in governance, which we ourselves must resolve because only we can do it. As a first step, the government must make India’s top 100 cities livable. Smart City is a natural build out of this infrastructure. Sophisticated Greenfield projects can’t be built while giving short shrift to basic infrastructure and the renewal of the country’s cities in decline.

Technology companies see huge opportunities with the 100 Smart City projects, and are huddling up with the idea of embedding the cities with sensors, gadgets and Internet. However, it is important to give some thought to how these cities can be best designed keeping in mind the citizen’s right to a sustainable and livable (and shall I say ‘lovable’?) urban space. ‘Smart’ can come next. In this process, we should also understand what resources and entities in the proposed city need to be equipped with measuring instruments. To achieve this, we need to invite planners, designers and engineers to the table early on, so all construction parameters can be digitally visualised and manipulated before we go about with the actual construction.

Barcelona’s famed IESE business school and Stanford University have identified 150-odd smart cities globally, like Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, Kawasaki, Kitakyushu and Toyama, as pioneers in solar energy, smart waste management and smart grids that serve both households and the community at large. E-mobility, which puts light rapid transit and electronic vehicles ahead of all else, is also a key feature of these trailblazing cities. These are lessons for Indian cities as they prepare for the take-off. Sustainable design, good governance and transparent metrics combined with a putting-people at- the-heart-of-things mindset will be the key to making not just 100 but every city in India, including yours and mine, smart and livable. A city that resonates with every citizen and draws the quip – ‘I am loving it’- from each one.

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