Systems-level thinking for cities

Besides advances in technology and big data, a higher order systems-level thinking is necessary to enable infrastructure transition in Indian cities


India’s Smart City Mission espouses a visionary platform for explicitly connecting infrastructure and environment with human health and well-being. Photo: Mayank Austen Soofi/Mint
India’s Smart City Mission espouses a visionary platform for explicitly connecting infrastructure and environment with human health and well-being. Photo: Mayank Austen Soofi/Mint

We all know what a smartphone is, but do we know how to build a smart city that provides critical infrastructure services to urban residents while also enhancing the health of people and the environment?

The Smart Cities Mission in India was launched in 2015, and aims to develop 100 smart cities, with the goal of enhancing core infrastructure, creating a clean and sustainable environment and improving the quality of life of city inhabitants through the use of smart solutions.

India’s Smart City Mission espouses a visionary platform for explicitly connecting infrastructure and environment with human health and well-being.

To achieve these three goals, new advances in information technology and big data are clearly going to be important ingredients, but data advances and technology by themselves will not do the job.

A higher order systems-level thinking is necessary to enable infrastructure transition in Indian cities to radically new levels of service provision that enhance the health of people and the planet, as was outlined by the authors in a commentary featured in the Urban Planet special issue of the journal Science.

The commentary outlines eight meta-principles for developing smart, sustainable and healthy cities that are relevant to the 100 cities covered by India’s Smart Cities Mission, as well as India’s 4,041 statutory towns and 3,894 census towns, a majority of which are deficient in basic services, weak financially and lacking the capacity required for planning and implementing change.

Growing at a decadal rate of 31.76% (2001-2011), these urban areas house almost 377 million people and are expected to accommodate 590 million people by 2030.

Engines of economic growth, India’s urban areas are suffering from inadequate infrastructure that has not kept up with the fast pace of urbanization, resulting in polluted air and water that are adversely affecting the health of urban dwellers and stressing the carrying capacity of our land, our mines, fields and rivers that sustain urban life through seven key provisions—of water, food, electricity, construction materials, transportation services, waste management and green spaces.

And these seven sectors, taken together, in fact, represent almost all the water withdrawals and the fossil energy used by humanity—thus the importance of considering all seven key services (including food supply) as essential infrastructures in smart cities.

Urban dwellers themselves empowered by two decades of globalization, and made aware by media and advanced communication channels, are beginning to demand access and equity to high quality services like never before.

As we build new urban infrastructure in India, we articulate eight meta-principles that take the Smart Cities Mission out of the box of conventional urban planning and engineering to a broader canvas that connects cities with their hinterlands, and links the seven essential infrastructure sectors with human and planetary well-being.

One of the first principles prioritizes basic infrastructure services for all, which is crucial in India, where census data show that essential services such as water, sanitation, electricity and waste management are not adequately available to a large proportion of urban residents.

While “smart” can often connote high-technology solutions, the principle of blending high technology with the vernacular can yield new visions of infrastructure in India, combining low-tech and high-tech in innovative ways, such as promoting pedestrian and bicycle traffic while leveraging car-sharing data systems, and using electric rickshaws for last-mile connectivity in well-planned transit systems.

Diverse solutions may emerge in different city types, that will be important to document and learn from.

Thinking and planning for multiple infrastructure sectors in a compact urban form is another critical principle that can help India retain the immense resource efficiency of her cities.

Recognizing efficiency and smartness in our existing practices and retaining them by improving them further is very important.

Indian cities presently have a high percentage of non-motorized trips, a very efficient waste recycling informal sector, and extremely lively and vibrant public streets and squares with high levels of inclusivity.

Going into the future, this compact mixed use design with diverse activities can be a critical asset to be sustained, rather than becoming fragmented in gated townships built upon the ever-expanding urban fringe that segregate people from their everyday jobs and errands.

Furthermore, our infrastructure sectors can become more efficient and high performing when they are co-located, promoting environmental sustainability.

Efficiency can come from single-sector interventions such as more energy-efficient cars or buildings, as well as from innovative cross-sectoral integration of infrastructure that has seen much success in EU and Japan, such as energy micro-grids that connect solar energy, energy storage in water-wastewater systems, and waste-to-energy solutions.

India’s smart city frame allows for cross-sectoral integration, and it must be pursued as a key strategy going forward, complementing the current focus on single-sector interventions.

Likewise, decisions about the scale of infrastructure—the extent to which community-scale energy, water and food supply is possible and environmentally friendly—will have to be made understanding each city with its trans-boundary supply chains to understand the trade-offs between going more local and distributed versus drawing on large external networks.

New distributed infrastructure solutions—district energy, community-scale sanitation and water supply, walkable neighbourhoods, easing of motorized travel and well-managed neighbourhood collection of wastes rather than burning of wastes on the streets—can significantly contribute to better infrastructure services and improved urban public health.

Air pollution is now becoming one of the largest killers in urban India, as well as in urban China.

Urban public health departments in India will soon have to think not only about vaccination and prevention of communicable diseases, but about non-communicable diseases—such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure—that are exacerbated by air pollution, and by sedentary habits, as well as diseases of poverty including malnutrition, and the obesity epidemic among the wealthy.

Cities must also think about seasonal climate-related health risk factors such as heatwaves and flooding; as an example, the city of Ahmedabad has created an urban heat plan to deal with heat-related health emergencies in summer.

Connecting physical urban infrastructure and the environment with public health is a key meta principle for developing smart, sustainable and healthy cities.

The potential shift from traditional centralized infrastructure to multiple decentralized options that improve air and water quality will require new ways of thinking about monitoring and governance—these can be facilitated by smart technologies.

As we think about managing smart electricity grids, better water and food supply systems, air and water sensing networks, our governance system will need to adapt to functioning across multiple levels of government, including involving residential neighbourhood associations that are already managing water and waste in several colonies and townships.

While private sector involvement in smart cities is inevitable, it should be carefully managed to ensure transparency and democratized ownership of infrastructure; and a move towards more equitable smart cities, rather than islands of smart infrastructure available only to high-income residents.

Thus applying the eight meta-principles, and promoting integration across all seven key physical flows in cities with innovative infrastructure design and governance arrangements, has the potential to transform Indian cities.

India is at an exciting cusp, where learning by doing from each new innovation in each of our smart cities can pave the way to a smart, sustainable and healthy urban future.

Eight principles for developing smart cities

—Focus on providing and innovating basic infrastructure for all.

—Pursue dynamic multisector and multiscalar urban health improvements, with attention to inequities.

—Focus on urban form and multisector synergies for resource efficiency.

—Recognize diverse strategies for resource efficiency in different city types.

—Integrate high and vernacular technologies.

—Apply transboundary systems analysis to inform decisions about localized versus larger-scale infrastructure.

—Recognize co-evolution of infrastructures and institutions.

—Create capacity and transparent infrastructure governance across sectors and scales.

Source: ‘Meta-principles for developing smart, sustainable, and healthy cities’, a report by Anu Ramaswami, Armistead G. Russell, Patricia J. Culligan, K. Rahul Sharma, Emani Kumar, which first appeared in the Science magazine on 20 May 2016, Vol. 352, Issue 6288

Anu Ramaswami is the Charles M. Denny, Jr., Chair of Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and a professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

K. Rahul Sharma is a PhD student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. Ashish Rao Ghorpade is regional executive manager/programme coordinator (urban) at ICLEI South Asia.

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