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Moving beyond Smart Cities

Moving beyond Smart Cities

An estimated 30 people will leave rural India for urban areas every minute during the next 20 years. At this rate, in the next two decades, most Indian cities are likely to double their size in terms of population and more than double in area. This scenario will throw up the need for more specialised urban dwellings, says DHWANI TALATI.

As we continue to flock to cities, it is imperative that these urban dwellings become more liveable, sustainable, smart and efficient. City administrations have to focus on the optimum use of space and resources. Given this situation and the belief by some – that the planning, design and construction of future cities requires an integrated approach to achieve successful outcomes, an alternative terminology has been suggested.

The term ‘The Living City’ refers to an approach in which technology plays an important but nevertheless supporting role As communications networks and transport connections make the planet seem ever smaller, city ‘nodes’ are becoming our economic powerhouses, competing to attract global businesses, skilled employees and eager consumers. The basis of this competition is broad and includes: access to education and jobs, personal safety and security, effective healthcare, efficient transport, an attractive physical environment and vibrant communities.

Cities strive to differentiate themselves, developing brands that emphasise their economic, cultural, physical, and even climatic advantages. Cities can enhance their desirability, and so their economic success, by the efficient design and management of core services and infrastructure as well as by enhancing their physical appearance.

Break point
While some cities in this global competition face problems arising from population shrinkage, as residents and businesses are enticed to find better opportunities elsewhere, many more are growing too rapidly for their infrastructure and services to cope. City authorities are being stretched to breaking point, simply meeting basic requirements for clean water, adequate waste treatment and the supply of energy and food.

Creating successful cities that begin to mitigate some of these impacts is a balance between social, environmental and economic opportunities delivered through smart planning, design and construction, and underpinned by smart technology.

And hence the role of a Design Advisory or Design Management becomes highly crucial in this context. A design advisor here is someone who would be able to orchestrate the equilibrium, keeping the interests of stakeholders riveted, the city’s vision intact, both quantitative and qualitative profits elevated and all of these with the precise coordination, inclusion and comprehensive layering of design, technology and citizen science.

Design advisors must operate across the complete project lifecycle, from assessing the physical opportunities and constraints of a site and considering the viability of different development options, to working with urban planners and developers to design and build the best solution.

From urban regeneration projects to creating new cities, an integrated, multi-disciplinary approach is required to ensure that all aspects of civil engineering and environmental planning are covered:

  • Ground conditions;
  • Flood risk;
  • Energy;
  • Utilities infrastructure and strategies;
  • Waste infrastructure and strategies;
  • Transport and access;

Assessments of environmental impacts, and how they can be minimised. At present, many smart systems, or smart grids linked to infrastructure, operate in functional silos, with their own specific hardware and software, operated by companies with specialist knowledge of that particular field. Each system has its own dedicated controls and networks of sensors.

Ideally a single, ‘smart’, shared control system would not only avoid duplication ù with significant cost savings – but also provide a far richer picture of what is happening, enabling more informed decision-making and more rapid deployment of measures to deal with emerging situations.

Urban operating system
This concept has given rise to the notion of an ‘urban operating system’, something akin to the operating systems utilised by the computer industry and involving a layer of ‘middleware’ which sits between the city infrastructure ‘hardware’ and the operational ‘software’ controls and (in the future) city apps.

There are a number of problems associated with the integration of individual functionally-focused systems, including the lack of common interfaces and operating systems and the ability to cope with the vast amount of data generated. However, technology businesses are alive to the potential and a number are attempting to develop integrated city or urban operating systems that aim to take advantage of enhanced, intelligent, machine-to-machine connectivity. It is clear that open IT architecture with standard interface protocols and the ability to plug & play new applications and hardware will make it much easier to link systems as well as opening the market to new entrants with valuable fresh thinking.

At present there are still very few working examples of city-wide smart ICT approaches. But despite this, advances in ICT are already making a significant contribution to city efficiency, including traffic management, building and campus management systems and the provision of utilities. Where we are lacking is this expertise to be plugged into the physical infrastructure due to the lack of academic exposure of this technology to the urban planners and thereby the systems being either afterthoughts or simply add-ons.

The biggest call is for the Design Advisors and Design Managers who may be equipped with ICT backing, advisory background and of course a design-thinking approach. It’s the time for empathy, efficiency and accuracy.

We in India can no longer afford to make experiments at the cost of poor liability. Citizen science and public participation are the keys to data sourcing. The analysis and correct usage of this data by design advisors is more crucial than just data collection through surveillance.

Design Advisors who were thought to be bottom-to-top approach seekers for whom design accuracy was the prime concern, are now becoming partners in Smart City governance. Whether they are the ‘bloom burbs’ (existing overflow of urban centres) or greenfield new cities – designing and envisioning smart governance is the first step to designing a smart city.

One can categorise the recent sprawl of Smart City initiatives into three categories: RoI-driven, carbon footprint-driven and finally, vanity-driven. As for the first category, the aim of rolling out Smart City technologies is to generate income which pays for its deployment and more. There are many cities in the western hemisphere which fall into this category, such as Los Angeles and London. As for the second category, the aim here is to reduce the carbon footprint and ideally become carbon neutral, over the long-term. These are cities in Middle and Northern Europe, such as Luxembourg, Helsinki, etc.

Finally, ‘vanity’ driven cities are mainly driven by events where the entire world is watching and they want to be perceived as ‘modern’. Most city plans today would by their mottos, fall in the third category. And eventually at some point, these projects buckle under their own weight when the PPP fails and our taxpayer’s contribution is jammed.

The right approach would be to be eligible in all three categories. This complicates the task of the design advisor, who should be able to stabilise these aspects for the success of a Smart City.

Authors: Dhwani Talati is an architect with a Masters in Urban Management from Domus-Italy and Uni of Wales. She has worked on several prestigious urban projects such as GFH’s Mega City, Reliance’s NM-SEZ, SREI’s townships and international projects with AS, Paris.

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