Getting to smart needs capacity that can’t be built overnight

Jana Group co-founder Swati Ramanathan on the ‘spatial chaos’ in India that is not only creating ugly cities, but has become an urban management nightmare, resulting in enormous invisible stress

Swati Ramanathan, co-founder of the Jana Group. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Swati Ramanathan, co-founder of the Jana Group. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

New Delhi: As we anticipate the changes that the Smart City interventions will bring to our cities, Mint interviewed Swati Ramanathan, co-founder of the Jana Group, to discuss the idea of “smartness” in contemporary urban development in India. Edited excerpts:

In your opinion, how does the idea of the “Smart City” relate to wider changes in urban development discourses across the globe?

Globally, the dialogue on urban issues can be seen as falling into two broad themes: the first is the traditional mainstream theme of infrastructure and environment. This is concerned with day-to-day quality of life—water scarcity, public transport, waste management, jobs, economic growth, renewable energy, carbon emissions, etc. This “traditional” urban discourse has remained pretty much unchanged over decades.

The second theme is around technology, which has gained irreversible muscle and global momentum over this last decade. This second theme is “modern” and fundamentally altering the course of cities and society—proving to be a positive force in many ways (shared assets like cars enabled Uber; smart grids, Internet of Things, etc.), but also creating challenges of cyber-terrorism, intrusive state surveillance, and loss of individual privacy.

These two themes are reflected in differing measure of concern in nations that are developed versus those that are developing. Leaders of developed countries focus greater attention to harnessing the power of modern technology since their cities already have the traditional infrastructure in place. On the other hand, India’s leaders continue to struggle with traditional urban challenges.

The idea of Smart Cities is an urban grammar that has emerged from the second theme. However, it has a common link to the first in one sense: both themes are built on the principle of networks of differing forms. New ideas in transport, smart grids, and also cyber security require an investment in networks whose value lies in flattening asymmetries of information, and can be called “information networks”. Traditional challenges of improving urban quality of life in cities require an investment in networks of infrastructure, and can be called “physical networks”.

What can we look forward to in the Indian articulation of the Smart City ideal? Are there ‘ifs and buts’ to the success of such interventions?

The idea of “Smart Cities” can only be relevant to India if we can bring synergies between these two themes, and weave the second theme of “information networks” into the first theme of “physical networks”.

Needless to say, complex ideas like these require a great deal of discussion and debate so that we can get some coherence and consensus on what we want.

Unfortunately, we are like the proverbial blind men around the elephant, each interpreting smart cities differently. Personally, I would emphasize the first theme of physical networks, and focus on escalating improvements to our city infrastructure and services.

The physical framework provides the basic networked infrastructure, and is the basis upon which any smart city urban discourse needs to be built—compact zoning, transit-oriented growth, density allocations, re-development, etc. The developed cities around the world have by and large, withstood the test of time and change because their early physical frameworks were successfully created—unique to their form and yet highly adaptable—New York’s linear grid was laid out in year 1811, based on its narrow elongated physicality. This grid has provided the physical framework for dramatic changes in the city’s shape and form over the two centuries since, growing in the century between 1840 to 1940, from 300,000 people to over 7 million.

Paris’s renowned boulevards and avenues were designed in the 1860s, Amsterdam and Venice established their cities around frameworks of canals and bridges, London’s Tube and subway of underground utilities began 150 years ago in response to its regional growth extensions, and Singapore planned its transit networks with prescience 50 years ago, based on the limitations of space, to provide a public transport alternative to the private motor car. Each one of these cities defined their physical framework early on, and defined them well, enhancing their ability to extend, rebuild, and adapt their cities to change. This is the “ifs and buts” to becoming smart. All basic service networks—power, transport, waste systems, security networks—require putting in place the physical networks upon which smart sensors and switches can be attached. However, networked infrastructure is a disaster in all our cities.

Focusing on the physical framework provides key advantages. First, urban growth will follow development, rather than development following ad hoc growth. Second, these networks if implemented can address different types of urban growth—new cities, new extensions, and redevelopment. Third, agency budgets can be linked to an integrated networked infrastructure plan, providing financial and operational efficiency. Fourth, in planning new townships or extensions, this approach provides immediately actionable development priorities and projects.

In Bengaluru, we are beginning to undertake such integrated redevelopment. The project is called Tender SURE (Specifications for Urban Roads Execution) and has been piloted in roads in the central business district (CBD). These roads have been redesigned for what’s on, above, and below the roads, including the underground networks. Our objective is very simple—cut once but fix once-and-for-all. The end result is great, but opening the road is opening a Pandora's Box to the network mess below.

The Smart City Mission guidelines state that a typical feature of a Smart City would be ‘promoting mixed land-use in area-based development’ with ‘states enabling flexibility in land use and building bye-laws to adapt to change’. According to you, what warrants such a measure in contemporary urban planning, and how do you expect it to affect land use efficiency and land markets in the chosen cities? With changes in building bye-laws and land-use, what kinds of changes can we expect to see in the physical form of cities?

We have been burdened by our planning past. The British separated their housing areas from those of the natives. They lived in cantonments with bungalows that were laid out with deep setbacks in wide streets, with sewage and water and power lines. Schools, clubs, parks, and civic services were built in the British quarters. The Indian natives on the other hand lived in squalid unhygienic pockets, with ever-expanding joint families crowding into small homes. There were no civic services or civic amenities.

Fast forward to modern India—our gated developments intertwined with our slums reflect this colonial hangover. We cannot deliver social justice in India without addressing spatial justice. Mixed income housing neighbourhoods is important because it provides equitable access to housing and quality infrastructure for all.

A second legacy from the British-era is the separation of work life from home life. In fact, central business districts in many global cities become deserted after work and during weekends. They become unsafe and unattractive. Mixed use on the other hand, promotes local business, shopping, restaurants, markets, public services, etc. ensuring continuous activity in neighbourhoods that make them safe while providing local jobs and convenience. Mixing work with living is part of India’s original social DNA.

The irony is that British planning itself has changed over time to promote mixed use and mixed income neighbourhoods. These are zoning tools that encourage vibrancy in neighbourhoods. But they cannot be used indiscriminately without detailed area planning.

Improving land efficiency and land markets requires structural re-thinking and reform. For example, land banks are prevalent in many parts of the world, but is a concept under-explored in India. Land banks are public authorities that can acquire, hold, develop or manage vacant, abandoned, derelict or tax-foreclosed properties. Not only are such private (or government) properties a loss of tax revenue generation, they attract land grabbing, crime, become garbage dumps, and reduce the overall property valuation and micro-environment in which they are located. In several global examples, land bank authorities have effectively transformed such land. They are redeveloped for affordable housing stock, for re-energizing blighted economies, re-vitalizing dilapidated neighbourhoods. In cases of crumbling heritage buildings, land banks can rescue, restore, and manage these.

As to the Area-based Development Plans (ABDs) stated in the Smart Cities mission, my assessment is that the cup is half-full. The half-empty part is that the planning for ABDs should flow holistically from an integrated approach to spatial planning, i.e. the regional plan, to the city plan, to the wards plan. Their plans should be defined firmly in the context of an overall spatial development plan (master plan) framework. The risk here is that ABDs may end up as isolated and local plans. Further, they may be allowed their own land use zoning and building regulations in these locally planned pockets. This would undermine the master plan regulations in determining an overall form and function for the city.

The half-full aspect is that ABDs have the potential to bring new focus and energy to planning in our cities. Given our enormous challenges, any reasonable innovation to addressing them is to be encouraged—a purist approach at this point in our urban journey seems to be a chimera. However, this will require nuance and care to ensure that we implement such ABDs with care.

The Smart City proposals seem likely to promote concentrated development in compact areas (ABDs). Would this exacerbate inequities within cities, or is such development capable of radiating outward to cover wider zones?

Area-based plans are to be encouraged for all parts of the city, but need not result in concentrated development everywhere.

The most important document in development is the master plan of the city that regulates the use of all plots of land, what it can be used for, and what can be built on it. Unfortunately, across our cities, this document is complicated and unclear, needing interpretation from a technical cabal.

But the more important point is that our current regulations lack any sensitivity to the overall city form. You asked me about the form of cities earlier. If we look at our cities today, the form is completely random. We have close to 8,000 cities and towns—name one well-regulated Indian city that has a clear transition visible in its form? There is no distinguishing a city centre from the city periphery, no distinguishing the city periphery from the rural boundary. Tall buildings are juxtaposed against huts. Hospitals, hotels, and businesses are suddenly found congesting narrow streets in residential neighbourhoods. This “spatial chaos” is not just creating ugly cities, but is also an urban management nightmare, creating enormous invisible stress. What we desperately need are better regulations that define areas for promoting higher density re-development, new extension areas for development with regulatory limitations, and areas that are to be protected as natural or heritage zones.

What role do you envision technological interventions to play in urban revival in Indian cities, which are known for their chaotic dysfunction, fiscally and administratively challenged municipalities, and deeply embedded inequalities?

The retrofitting ABD in the Smart City mission is focused on improving existing infrastructure—pan-city, in central districts, old town precincts. Intelligent, automated technologies can drive the next generation of “smart solutions” to improve these areas—innovations in smart power grids, energy saving building systems, integrated transport systems, regularized water and waste management. Like telecom, technology could provide us with an opportunity to skip a generation of development pain across sectors. Assuming we get our physical networks right, embedding “information networks” onto “physical networks” is still a considerable challenge. Getting to smart is not so simple—it requires the kind of capacity in the system that cannot be built overnight.