Smart city needs a soul. Only tech and data not enough | columns | Hindustan Times
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Smart city needs a soul. Only tech and data not enough

Smart Cities, and Smart BKC, will have to put people at the heart of the endeavour, not in a tokenistic but in a meaningful manner. Only then will BKC perhaps find its soul.

columns Updated: May 05, 2015 21:43 IST

Returning from the Bandra-Kurla Complex the other day, a group of us had what can only be called ‘the BKC experience’ Desolate streets, dim lights, empty pavements, high-end cars and private taxis vrooming by, the odd autorickshaw refusing short-distance fares, BEST bus stops that seemed too far away – an altogether un-Mumbai feeling. It took more than 30-35 minutes to find an autorickshaw to Bandra station.

It is not the absence of crowds, noise and garbage that marks out BKC, it is the absence of a lived-in feel. BKC is what its planners set it out to be way back in 1977: An alternative to Nariman Point, another hub of commerce, industry and capital, some 370 hectares of low-lying land near Mithi river and Mahim Creek redeveloped to house glitzy buildings, high-end hotels and apartments, and their paraphernalia.

In the early days of its blueprint, efforts were made to see if Kurla could somehow be dropped from the name. The reason offered was that Bandra sounded posh enough to attract global capital but Kurla brought down its value, for it was associated with slums and the like. But, it stayed on in a hyphenated way, forever reminding Mumbaiites and the world that there are inner Mumbais within Mumbai.

In 2015, the BKC is poised for its next leap to be transformed into Smart BKC. This is in keeping with the flagship urban renewal programme of the Narendra Modi government, the Smart Cities project. Turning the already well-endowed BKC into Smart BKC is, in urbanisation parlance, a brownfield project. Its parent, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, has floated tenders and renowned international consultants are on board.

What will the Smart BKC have? The first phase titled Smart BKC 1.0 will have video analytics, WiFi, intelligent streetlights, smart parking and citizen apps. The Smart BKC 2.0 will have ‘Advanced Initiatives’ such as intelligent buildings, a city command centre, smart meters, electric vehicle charging systems, pollution monitors and efficient energy and water systems. Later, the Smart BKC 3.0 will have ‘Futuristic Initiatives’, in which an urban incubation centre, congestion charging, car-pooling systems and interactive sidewalks will be added.

The project will be data-driven with ‘design architecture on an open platform’ as the note states. But what will it mean to the issue of poor connectivity that has plagued this secluded area from the beginning? This does not adequately figure in the hi-tech plan. The tech-driven Smart BKC blueprint assumes that all those who venture in will use cars. It draws up a scenario in which an imaginary Rahul – yes, Rahul, let’s not even ask why Rahul – gets up in the morning and checks his BKC App for traffic updates, reserves a parking slot on the App, does not speed because video cameras have been installed which incidentally has brought down crimes, takes an electric cart to his office and is guided by solar-powered street lights on his way back home.

That does not sound like most of us in Mumbai. Or like most of Mumbai itself. As the buzz around the Smart Cities project grows in the country, as global and national corporates jostle to bag contracts worth Rs40 lakh crore over the next 20 years, as cities compete to be in the chosen 100 under the programme, it is worth noting an over-riding experience with international smart cities: Tech and data are not sufficient to create vibrant and thriving cities.

It may be worth returning to the grand dame of urban planning, the late Jane Jacobs, who once said, “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

Smart Cities, and Smart BKC, will have to put people at the heart of the endeavour, not in a tokenistic but in a meaningful manner. Only then will BKC perhaps find its soul.