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What is a ‘smart’ city?

Sameer Sharma
20 Apr 2017

“The past is often used to keep non-western cultures and civilizations in a vice-like grip and it comes in useful for imposing limits on visions for the future…”

 “…(There is) need for non-western cultures to define their own future in terms of their own categories and concepts and to articulate their vision in a language that is true to their own Self…”

The most frequently asked question is: What is a Smart City? The response is that even though the idea of a Smart City has been around for some time there is little consensus on the idea of a smart city or its definition and the way to make a city ‘smart’. A survey by the Center for Study of Science, Technology & Policy (C-STEP) has found that there are nearly four dozen ways of defining a smart city. Therefore, the Indian Smart City Mission did not start with a definition of a smart city but induced cities, through a competition, to define their idea of ‘smartness’ and the pathway to achieve it.

Figure 1. Four-fold pathway to holistic development

Typically, missions prescribe a cookie cutter model with little or no room for adaption to local conditions. This one-size-fits-all approach fails to address the varying local needs, resulting in several unintended effects. A broad framework is needed together with a method to induce local variations to be reflected in the planning for the smart city. Therefore, a ‘loose-fit, light touch’ framework was prescribed and competition was the method to bring out the local priorities and needs. The framework is the form of a four-fold pathway given in Figure 1.

Fold 1: Provides for development of core (basic) infrastructure in the city and is a must requirement for a smart city. The elements of core infrastructure are given in Figure 2 and are listed below –

o Adequate water supply,
o Assured electricity supply,
o Sanitation facilities, including solid waste management,
o Fast and efficient urban mobility,
o Governance, E-Governance and reforms, connectivity and citizen participation,
o Affordable housing for all,
o Connectivity,
o Health and Education,
o Sustainable environment, and
o Safety and security of citizens.

The Smart Cities Mission envisaged that complementary missions would provide funding for the elements of basic infrastructure through convergence.

Figure 2: Elements of core infrastructure

Fold 2: In this path Information & Communication Technology (IC&T) is applied to basic infrastructure and governance to make it better. Figure 3 gives the application of smart solutions in the smart city. Cities need not apply all solutions at the same time. The way forward is to integrate all solutions in one package and roll them out progressively as they gain confidence.

Figure 3: Applying IC&T to basic infrastructure and governance

Folds 3 & 4: This is called area based development. All facilities are developed in an identified ‘Area’ (some essential elements compulsory). The area based development is then replicated to all other Areas in the city and the whole city develops over a period of time. Figure 4 shows this is pictorial form. As Figure 4 shows area based development starts with some areas in the city, in contrast development of core infrastructure and applications of smart solutions happens happens in the full city.

Figure 4: Area-based development

There are three types of area based development – retrofitting, redevelopment and Greenfield. In retrofitting an existing area is upgraded without changing the street network, layout or plot sizes. In redevelopment an area is completely given a make-over after removing buildings and redrawing the layout. This is the most uncommon way to develop Areas and involves a great deal of citizen consultations. Greenfield developments are usually done where land is available – largely on the city periphery or lands in the possession of defunct factories, etc within the city.


In the imagination of the city dweller, the picture of a Smart City contains a wish list of infrastructure and services that describes the residents’ level of aspiration. To provide for the needs of the citizens, urban planners ideally aim to develop all the components of the urban eco-system, represented by the four pillars of holistic development – institutional, physical, social and economic infrastructure. This is a long-term goal for all cities and they work towards it by following the strategy enshrined in the four-fold pathway. Cities need not follow the four paths one after another. Based on their starting points and ambition levels, cities are free to choose their target level and work towards the same. They can leapfrog some folds or implement two folds, simultaneously. This will depend on the level of development of the city, its willingness to change and reform, resources available in the city and the aspirations of its residents.

 (Views are personal)

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