Smart Mumbai? Forget it, let's build a resilient city
The fascination with technology-driven approach to basic urban issues tends to eclipse a fundamental point.columns Updated: Aug 06, 2014 17:49 IST
There is 'smart city' babble among the chatterati now. It is easy to indulge in this chatter because there's no agreed definition of what's a smart city. In urban studies gatherings, it's usually understood as using technology to bring efficiency into the way a city functions, but no one really bothered to ask Prime Minister Narendra Modi what his vision of a smart city was as he went about hard-selling the concept to Indians earlier this year. Finance minister Arun Jaitley allocated Rs 100 crore in the union budget to develop smart cities.
The fascination with technology-driven approach to basic urban issues tends to eclipse a fundamental point: cities are not, thankfully, controlled environments in which problems can be sorted through technological solutions. All tech can turn meaningless if people in the city and their organic urban structures are not the focus of such solutions.
Think Mumbai's perennial potholes problem. The stubborn persistence of potholes--despite all the citizen activism, media campaigns and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's online reporting system--means that the city's managers have not yet figured out a reliable way to lay roads or they are loathe to enforce existing norms on contractors. What's the tech solution here?
Let's bring on all the smart tech that's available but before that we ought to have figured out what to do with it. The emphasis then should be on people rather than on technology. This is why urban studies conversations across the world are now focussing not as much on 'smart city as on 'resilient city'. Building resilient cities is now seen as the best urban bulwark to micro and macro challenges, including climate change.
The Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities project defines resilience as "the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience…Simply put, resilience enables people to bounce back stronger after tough times, and live better in good times".
The earliest reference to the concept of building resilient cities was in 1990; the discipline has come a long way since. The idea appeared to have gained traction around four years ago in Germany and the United States. Subsequently, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction set off the 'Making Cities Resilient' campaign. The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) is hosting a series on resilience in cities.
In India, the Bangalore-based Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) is addressing the issue of building sustainable cities which will be able to adapt to the changes and challenges thrown by a rapidly globalising world. By 2050, more than half of India's population will be urbanised; urban systems will become the determinants of which cities thrive and continue to attract people.
The idea of what makes a city resilient is, at once, local and universal. This is what the Rockefeller Foundation is seeking to evolve across a hundred cities in the world: different, perhaps even contradictory, ways of addressing day-to-day challenges keeping in mind local constraints and cultures. For example, flooding is a common worldwide issue; how different cities address it and maintain regular life for its citizens will become a compendium of best practices.
The 100 Resilient Cities initiative assumes that there will be economic, social and climatic challenges to a city but evolving systems can help us to respond to these challenges, adapt to the shocks and stresses, and turn them into opportunities for growth. It lists five parameters that resilient cities would have to address micro issues and macro visions. These are constant learning, rapid rebound, limited or "safe" failure, flexibility and spare capacity. It also suggests that cities have a Chief Resilience Officer.
More than 1,000 cities applied for the project. Of the 33 chosen in the first set, Surat finds a place. Modi and his smart team would know this. It's time Mumbai's administrators and/or citizens discussed making it a resilient - instead of simply a smart--city.