Innovate to address urban issues

Chennai beats Delhi in pollution, records ‘very poor’ air quality’ read a headline early this month. Clearly the issue of air pollution is catching up and now affects cities beyond Delhi. While causes for the pollution in Delhi have been analysed for some years, a lasting solution has evaded us. Causes for the menace of poor, or rather dangerous air quality may differ across cities and thus call for customized measures to mitigate the problem.

Solid waste management, choked roads and weak service delivery are among other issues of our cities crying for urgent attention. Effective solutions to these have eluded us for long. Why? A famous saying goes that if you do the same things you will get the same results. Therefore we must do different things or do things differently. To put it differently, our cities need large doses of innovation in what we do and the way we do things. Take the case of waste management; almost all the focus is on waste management and hardly any on waste reduction. For example, in the case of toothpaste (and cosmetics) tubes, the carton in which the tube comes is completely useless once we open it. Millions of such cartons end up in landfills every single day. Manufacturers need to pack and transport goods in ways that eliminate such unnecessary packaging; it will reduce waste and also save huge amounts of money for producers and consumers. This calls for innovation. And for packaging that is necessary, there is huge scope for creating new materials which are benign and harmless when disposed. Our attempts at proper segregation of waste at source will continue to fail unless we do things differently.

Urban mobility too offers great scope for doing things differently. How can public transport be funded to make it the most affordable means of travel for all citizens? Can some roads near suburban rail stations and bus terminuses be reserved for public transport? Can non-motorized modes like pedicabs play a role in last mile connectivity (short distances)? Can staggered office/business timings reduce congestion on roads and rush in suburban trains? Can battery swapping be the solution for charging infrastructure for electric vehicles? Unless we look at some such possibilities, urban mobility could remain in the poor state that it currently is. Science and technology are valuable inputs for building innovations to deliver sustainable solutions for urban problems. For example developing a host of inexpensive, bio-degradable materials. Improved design of water faucets, cisterns and bathroom fittings can save us millions of litres of water (now a critical resource) each day. However innovation can also come from changes in lifestyle and the way we perform daily chores. Urban local bodies could devise programmes to engage with students and housewives to suggest new ways of doing things particularly in areas like road safety and waste management / elimination. While there could be several approaches to each of the challenges our cities face, one common thread runs through. We must discard the ‘business as usual’ approach.

This issue of Urban Update deals with the subject of innovation in addressing urban problems. We shall be happy to receive your feedback and suggestions.

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