Smartness lies in coordination

More than mere technology, the task of smartening our cities involves solving coordination problems. A failure to do so will lead to a lack of robust processes and ultimately to inefficiency, wastefulness

Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Residents of Indian cities are aware of—and quite often resigned to—the frustrating phenomenon of streets being dug up just a few weeks after they have been resurfaced. It takes years for the municipality to resurface a local street, but the joy of using the smooth road lasts no more than a few weeks at best.

Statisticians must study the curious phenomenon of how quickly water pipes, gas lines, optical fibres and sewers need to be repaired immediately after the long-damaged road surface has been redone. Oh, they do ‘repair’ the road after they are done with the digging, but this only means they cover up the hole with loose earth, debris and—if they are particularly charitable—some concrete as well. Strong wind, rains and a dozen trucks rolling over the spot quickly bring back the potholes and craters into our daily lives.

The sheer stupidity and wastefulness of this is astounding, as it goes on almost on every street of every city in our country. Streets, by the way, are just one example.

Most urban public services—parks, schools, health centres, public transport—suffer from the same underlying pathology: lack of coordination of the various public and private agencies that are engaged in delivering services to citizens.

More than mere technology, the task of smartening our cities involves solving coordination problems. Ensuring that the streets are not dug up soon after being repaired requires the different departments within the municipality to engage with the electricity board, the water supply department, the sewage board, and telecom and cable companies.

Sometimes, railways and defence entities need to be included in this mix. If it’s hard enough to bring together the ‘competent authorities’ in a dozen organizations together, it gets even harder when you consider that some of them are local bodies, others part of state and central governments. They have different interests, different budgets, different planning cycles, different hierarchies and different bosses.

Urban coordination is a wicked problem that makes our cities stupid. Lack of coordination leads to lack of robust processes and ultimately to inefficiency, wastefulness and shoddiness. It also creates despair and cynicism that allow corrupt officials and crooked politicians to thrive. Changing the Constitution to make cities self-governing is one way out of this dismal state of affairs (no pun intended).

It is unlikely that our political system will be ready for this any time soon, as no state government wants to decentralize its powers to municipalities. It is, however, possible to improve on the status quo by restructuring city governments from hierarchies to networks.

Contemporary governments mirror the industrial societies that set them up. It is no surprise that the hierarchy you would see in a traditional manufacturing industry is what you would see in a government department.

Information flows up and down the hierarchy, issues must move up while decisions move down the chain. Each step up and down the hierarchy takes time.

There are several of these hierarchies which coordinate infrequently, and only at certain levels. Even if you leave aside corruption and lack of competence for a moment, this industrial age structure of governments is slow, not very responsive and suffers from poor accountability.

Our society, on the other hand, has already entered the information age. With high and growing mobile and Internet use in our cities, people are highly networked. Information and decisions flow horizontally at a pace that is much faster than that in hierarchical governments. This means that citizens can organize themselves much better, mobilize must faster, aggregate their demands more coherently than just 10 years ago.

Internet, mobile, RTI and social media have transformed urban societies. If governments do not adapt quickly, we run the risk of driving citizens to greater dissatisfaction and finding them protesting on the streets. Technology exacerbates dissatisfaction and makes it easier to express it both online and offline.

Our city governments must become networks. Instead of a dozen disconnected officials responsible for a street, one team consisting of the same officials must ‘own’ it. The information flows and decisions must occur within the networked team, and across teams handling other responsibilities. Technologies we have today can make this happen much more easily and inexpensively. Indeed, some of the best private corporations are already adopting networked organizational structures—city governments must do the same.

Restructuring city governments does not require constitutional amendments or even drastic changes to existing legislation. State governments have the political power and administrative authority to make these changes. Chief ministers need not fear the emergence of powerful city leaders either, for it is unlikely that networked city governments will change the political landscape.

It’s easy to blame corruption, lack of funds, messy judicial processes and political partisanship for the increasing unliveability of our major cities. Yet the day-to-day life of the ordinary citizen can be significantly improved if we compel our government to coordinate better.

The author is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank and school of public policy.

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