Can Cities be Smart without Smart Citizens?

It is nearly four years since the launch of the Smart Cities Mission, one of India’s most ambitious urban transformation projects. It is, therefore, time to introspect and see where we are and where we are heading. Newspaper reports and official statements offer insights into the progress of the scheme. To summarize briefly, in the first couple of years, the mission was slow to take off. The first year was more or less spent on selecting the cities eligible for central funding support. Then the formation of SPVs took some time. But thereafter there has been reasonably good progress; with a big implementation surge in 2018-19 by when a large number of projects worth nearly one lakh crore were tendered out. Of these about 72 per cent worth over 50,000 crore were either under implementation or completed. So many cities are well under way to ‘smartening’ themselves up. But here we wish to take stock of other issues.
What kind of responses or citizen behaviour are we witnessing in our ‘smart’ cities? A look at some examples around us paints a discouraging picture. Is just ‘smart’ infrastructure enough to make a city ‘smart’? Can cities become truly ‘smart’ without ‘smart’ citizens? When we upgrade infrastructure and technology, is it not necessary citizens also ‘upgrade’ and update themselves, their attitudes and behaviour? Can our cities be ‘future ready’ without citizen participation?
Take for example the efforts to make our streets and public spaces more pedestrian friendly. Cities in their Area-based development initiative have widened walkways giving more space to pedestrians and set up bicycle lanes to encourage cycling. Both these, the sidewalks as well as cycle tracks are used by scooterists/motorcyclists to ride vehicles. It is a sore sight and one is pained at such behaviour. While one may expect law-enforcement personnel to punish these offenders, it is a sad commentary that our citizens are not willing to voluntarily participate in making our cities better.
Another example form one of the top-ranking cities. The local body, using MPLAD funds provided by the local law-maker, built high-tech e-toilets across the city. While several of these are earmarked for use by women, men were found using these freely, even the ones on busy thoroughfares in broad daylight. In order to ensure women’s security, the Local body is now forced to deploy security personnel. Such a great waste of effort and money; just because some citizens won’t follow the law.
Well-designed and well-illuminated bus shelters with good seating have been erected for the benefit of bus-riders (these could encourage more to use public transport). These are defaced with posters, lights stolen, and seats damaged. High quality rubber speed-breakers which enhance road safety while reducing shocks are now in use in our cities. But these are cut up by unscrupulous citizens to provide uninterrupted riding. Road signage and other road furniture so critical to safety are defaced by posters and often simply uprooted and stolen.
Authorities can introduce several smart technologies and equipment to ‘smarten’ our cities. But unless citizens integrate efficiently and responsibly with these smart solutions, there can be no smart cities. Take for example, technology-driven smart electricity metering. The technology needs to be supplemented with appropriate citizen behaviour like minimizing electricity waste, shifting to energy efficient gadgets, switching off gadgets when not required.
The success of the smart cities mission is firmly vested in the smart citizen – one who respects the law, respects other citizens and respects his city. Compliance cannot only be enforcement driven; voluntary, participative compliance is key for lasting solutions.
Urban Update is organising the next edition of Urban Dialogues in Bhopal. This event, ‘Reimagining Bhopal’ will be one more platform for the best minds among urban planners, policy makers and other stakeholders to discuss and debate the smart cities mission among others.

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