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A New Curve In The Smart City Story: Where Tradition Meets Technology

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The Smart City Story Where Tradition Meets Technology

Three years back, in Chennai, when residents and civic authorities got together to deliberate on ideas on how their cities could be made ‘smart’, tradition and not technology, was looked upon as the solution. It was noticed by the authorities that path to the future was through the past.

Most of the smart city ideas have been borrowed from the ancient practices which focused on conservation, a look at several proposals made it clear. The planners found that a number of solutions for the betterment of life were rooted in the traditional lifestyle, which comprised of an increased used of non-motorised transit options via bicycle sharing system, or the conservation of water bodies through lake restoration programs or reclamation of public spaces by developing parks. The 11 corporations selected under the ‘Smart City’ mission follow these long-established ideas.

Kiran Rajashekariah, a researcher at the Oxford University’s Centre for Environment, says that India took the other way round with regard to smart cities, contrary to other cities across the globe, where ‘smart’ translates to technology. “All cities have rapidly urbanized and there is immense pressure on land and its resources. Since property rights were not clearly defined, almost everyone staked claim to land and exploited it. The government too also did little to control it. But now, under the smart city mission, the government has helped create incentives for conservation,” he said.

People have admitted the importance of an ecosystem that is sustainable. For instance, the plunging groundwater levels have made people recognize the need for an effective rainwater harvesting system, one that replenishes groundwater and diminish storm water runoff, thus reducing local flooding. “Around the world, the smart city endeavour is not to conserve wetlands. It is to make life easy through technology. But in India, we are talking about conservation of water bodies, forests unlike anywhere else in the world because these solutions fit us,” said the researcher.

At the core of the smart city model is the combination of technology and conservation. Raj Cherubai, CEO of Chennai Smart City Limited, says that the focus of most of the projects is on the environment, so recycling resources recharging groundwater, lake rejuvenation and improving public spaces is a priority. By using technology, we will be enhancing these projects. A few tech-related projects include the renovation of parks, which are updated as green spaces with pollution sensors and solar panels for lighting. The pedestrian plazas use app-based parking systems for clever space usage, apart from having walkways. Inside homes, smart metres will prevent leakage and water loss as well as help in rainwater harvesting.

Sarfaraz Syed Yaseen, an architect hailing from Coimbatore, said that when the concept of model roads was proposed under the smart cities mission, they followed the fundamental principles and made sure that trees were not felled for any of these projects. He said that when they studied the city, they found that the groundwater reserves had dried up. So, he and other like-minded people utilized their traditional knowledge to set up rainwater harvesting systems and adding to the greenery of the area.

However, experts are of the view that though the government is trying to replicate the tradition, it is doing so only in a superficial way. Jayshree Vencatesan, Managing trustee of Care Earth, a non-profit organization, said that despite we are moving in the right direction, we cannot return to what we were. She says that much of the damage has been done, which is pretty irreversible. The only thing left with us is to minimize the effect. She is glad that the next generation is driving for conservation, unlike her generation that only indulged in exploiting nature.

This initiative of smart cities is unlike any other ambitious government project, and thus it needs active participation from the people. The epicentre of the problems troubling urban cities are encroachment and exploitation, and unless the people take a strong stance against this, the clean-up drive that’s a part of this mission shall lose its significance in a few years. “Cities need to sustain this change by setting up right processes including citizen engagement,” said Ashwathy Dilip of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

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