The Hot Topic: It’s time to start demanding smart solutions to battle the climate crisis
While the term ‘smart cities’ has been thrown around frequently, not everybody knows what it entails, much less if it’s actually being implemented.
The word smart has acquired a nuanced meaning in the past years in the context of internet technology but is generally understood as something which is efficient and intelligent. With limited and minimum resources at hand, it’s crucial at this stage that we use these smartly. While the term ‘smart cities’ has been thrown around frequently, not everybody knows what it entails, much less if it’s actually being implemented.
A smart city is a city, or a municipality in a city, that uses internet and information technology to improve quality of life and welfare, optimize usage of resources, and promote sustainability. A simple high-functioning public transportation system could be a feature of a smart city; a more sophisticated feature could be sensors that detect high traffic areas channel and disperse traffic accordingly. In this time of the climate crisis, smart cities can be extremely effective tools to use our resources in more effective ways. And even if we don’t live in cities which have been dubbed ‘smart’, we can still demand smart solutions from our policymakers.
The NDA government, in 2015 under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, launched the Smart Cities Mission, which aimed to set up 100 smart cities around the country. Yet the central aim of this mission has been to attract foreign investment rather than protect the environment, so critics of the mission emphasize that this will increase the inequalities in the population and push the poor further into the peripheries of the city. It needs to be backed by strong welfare measures, which doesn’t seem to be the case. Additionally, the fact of a large population outside the ambit of formal employment renders their entry to digitized procedures of banking, taxes, and other facilities absolutely null.
New York City and London top the lists for the smartest cities in the world. While NYC is using meter readings for better understanding of water consumption, London’s highly mobile public transportation push it right up the list. Singapore is already collecting important traffic information with surveillance cameras, implemented smart parking systems, and smart bins. San Francisco has over 100 public charging stations for electrical vehicles and special applications for visually impaired citizens to navigate public transport. Stockholm is named the greenest city in Europe, and on average its citizens recycle almost 100 kilograms of waste per year.
Very recently, I studied the Kalasatama neighbourhood in Helsinki, a smart neighbourhood coming up in the city, the vision of which is to save ‘one hour each day’ of its citizens. How do they do that? They take the opinions of residents to draft policies, and there has been unexpected participation. The neighbourhood is designed in a way that frees up people’s time, avoids queuing, and aims to repurpose in order to be climate positive. Example? There is an urban lab, a large space that can be used by the residents by booking a slot for a variety of things: meetings, networking events, even children’s birthday parties. The principle is that when there is less of everything, sharing is key, paving the way for a circular economy. The Varaamo app in Helsinki allows citizens to book and reserve ‘spaces’: you can enter the number of people, the municipality, the purpose, and the date and book game rooms, halls, meeting rooms, workspaces, and even kitchens, which are there in the public directory.
The purposes of ‘smart’ solutions can be many, from attracting investments to saving time and effort, but the topmost priority right now is that they should encourage sustainability and sharing. Therefore, demanding smart solutions, especially the ones that lead to sharing, is extremely important. Citizens are normally not a part of the decision-making that makes a city smart, but we can elect the people who promise to provide smart solutions.
A simple test: which parties promise to enhance public transport, instead of joining hands with automobile moguls? Which parties keep the environment as the key issue around which they plan their agenda? Which parties aim to redesign urban planning in the ways that prefer pedestrians, cyclists, and bus users at the centre, and car owners at the end? For example, stats suggest that 93 per cent of Delhi’s traffic is private vehicles, but buses that are only 2.5 per cent of the traffic transport 55-60 per cent commuters. Which political party then, in the next Delhi elections, can commit to more buses and better connectivity? Smart solutions are one of the ways that can help avert the climate crisis much faster, and to, of course, make ourselves smarter first.