360° Analysis

Is There a Role for Citizens in India’s Smart Cities Challenge?


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October 30, 2015 15:18 EDT

Technology is helping India overcome its wide range of urban problems.

India faces a wide range of urban challenges—from serious air pollution and poor local governance, to badly planned cities and a lack of decent housing. India’s Smart Cities Challenge, which has now selected 98 of the 100 cities that will receive funding, could go a long way in addressing these issues.

According to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there are five key instruments that make a “smart” city: the use of clean technologies, the use of information and communications technology (ICT), private sector involvement, citizen participation and smart governance. There are good examples of new practices for each of these pillars.

For example, New Delhi recently launched a program to replace streetlights with energy efficient LEDs. The Digital India program is designed to upgrade the country’s IT infrastructure and includes plans to build “broadband highways” across the country. As for private sector participation, the Indian government is trying to encourage it by listing sectors and opportunities for public-private partnerships.

Citizen participation is one of Modi’s five key instruments, but this is an area where smart city pilots around the world have tended to perform least well on. While people are the implied beneficiaries of programs that aim to improve efficiency and reduce waste, they are rarely given a chance to participate in the design or delivery of smart city projects, which are usually implemented and managed by experts who have only a vague idea of the challenges that local communities face.

Citizen Participation

Engaging citizens is especially important in an Indian context because there have already been several striking examples of failed urban redevelopments that have blatantly lacked any type of community consultation or participation.

The Babasaheb Ambedkar Nagar area in Mumbai is a good example of these types of practices, where planning is left entirely to private developers, and solutions often make the initial problem worse. For example, a policy that allows developers to build luxury housing on slum land in exchange for providing free housing for the relocated slum-dwellers has seen many high-rise apartments built, which have the minimum legally required living space per capita. The replacement housing that slum-dwellers are offered is also usually high-rise flats.

This is extremely problematic because it does not take into the account the fact that many of them earn a living by turning the ground floor of their home into a shop or workshop.

Anticipating some of these criticisms, Union Minister of Urban Development Venkaiah Naidu recently stressed the need for every candidate Smart City plan to reflect citizens’ aspirations and be built in consultation with local communities.

A New Approach?

In practice, how can Indian cities engage residents in their smart city projects?

There are many tools available to policymakers—from traditional community engagement activities such as community meetings, to websites like Mygov.in that ask for feedback on policies. Now, there are a number of reasons to think smartphones could be an important tool to help improve collaboration between residents and city governments in Indian cities.


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First, while only around 10% of Indians currently own a smartphone, this is predicted to rise to around half by 2020, and will be much higher in urban areas. A key driver of this is local manufacturing giants like Micromax, which have revolutionized low-cost technology in India, with smartphones costing as little as $30 (compared to around $800 for the newest iPhone).

Second, smartphone apps give city governments the potential to interact directly with citizens to make the most of what they know and feel about their communities. This can happen passively, for example, the Waze Connected Citizens program, which shares user location data with city governments to help improve transport planning. It can also be more active, for example, FixMyStreet, which allows people to report maintenance issues like potholes to their city government.

Third, smartphones are one of the main ways for people to access social media, and researchers are now developing a range of new and innovative solutions to address urban challenges using these platforms. This includes Petajakarta, which creates crowdsourced maps of flooding in Jakarta by aggregating tweets that mention the word flood.

Made in India

Considering some of the above trends, it is interesting to think about the role smartphones could play in the governance of Indian cities and in better engaging communities. India is far from being behind in the field, and there are already a few really good examples of innovative smartphone applications made in India.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (translated as Clean India Initiative) is a campaign launched by Modi in October 2014, covering over 4,000 towns all over the country, with the aim to clean India’s streets. The Clean India mobile application, launched at the end of 2014 to coincide with Modi’s initiative, was developed by Mahek Shah and allows users to take pictures to report, geolocate and timestamp streets that need cleaning or problems to be fixed by the local authorities.

Similar to FixMyStreet, users are able to tag their reports with keywords to categorize problems. Today, Clean India has been downloaded over 12,000 times and has 5,000 active users. Although still at a very early stage, Clean India has great potential to facilitate the complaint and reporting process by empowering people to become the eyes and ears of municipalities on the ground, who are often completely unaware of issues that matter to residents.

In Bangalore, an initiative by the MOD Institute, a local nongovernmental organization, enabled residents to come together, online and offline, to create a community vision for the redevelopment of Shanthinagar, a neighborhood of the city. The project, Next Bengaluru, used new technologies to engage local residents in urban planning and tap into their knowledge of the area to promote a vision matching their real needs.

The initiative was very successful. In just three months, between December 2014 and March 2015, over 1,200 neighbors and residents visited the on-site community space, and the team crowdsourced more than 600 ideas for redevelopment and planning both on-site and through the Next Bangalore website.

The MOD Institute now intends to work with local urban planners to try get these ideas adopted by the city government. The project has also developed a pilot app that will enable people to map abandoned urban spaces via smartphone and messaging service in the future.

Finally, Safecity India is a nonprofit organization providing a platform for anyone to share, anonymously or not, personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces. Men and women can report different types of abuses—from ogling, whistles and comments, to stalking, groping and sexual assault. The aggregated data is then mapped, allowing citizens and governments to better understand crime trends at hyper-local levels.

Since its launch in 2012, SafeCity has received more than 4,000 reports of sexual crime and harassment in over 50 cities across India and Nepal. SafeCity helps generate greater awareness, breaks the cultural stigma associated with reporting sexual abuse and gives voice to grassroots movements and campaigns such as Sayfty, Protsahan or Stop Street Harassment, forcing authorities to take action.

Some Issues and Possible Solutions

It would be wrong to believe that smartphone applications have the ability to radically transform participation. Research from MySociety on who uses its technology, including FixMyStreet, found that digital tools usually help the most affluent, educated and connected segment of a city’s population engage with their city government, rather than broadening engagement to new communities. Below are some of the most obvious issues which, if not resolved, might seriously hamper the effectiveness or impact of new methods for participation in an Indian context.

First of all, there is a certain aspect of hype behind any new technology, in the way it can deliver positive impact for processes like citizen engagement, or their potential in resolving market or government failures, particularly in the developing world. This is to be put in perspective against the visible impact these apps have had so far. Studies show that in fact the number of app downloads or active users remain too low to achieve any real impact.

On top of this, there has been a failure in linking up these apps, often created by citizens or small businesses, with the government services in charge. As Eric Bellman justly underlines in his article, of what use is an app to report sexual abuse if it fails to be connected to local police services?

There is also the danger of substituting offline, traditional participation methods, to exclusively online ones, especially in a country such as India, where one out of five citizens (22% of the population) live under the poverty line. These citizens, forming the “bottom of the pyramid” (BoP) are deprived from accessing new technologies, including smartphones, computers or the Internet. In 2014, only 19.1% of the total population had access to the Internet, regardless of the device.

New Delhi Subway

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These BoP communities often rely on low-tech or frugal solutions. A good illustration of this is the large numbers of text messages exchanged each year in India: over 332 billion in 2013 alone. These communities in particular are the ones who risk being left out by digital and smartphone-enabled consultations, but whose needs in reshaping their cities and communities are the most pressing.

So, how can Indian cities make the most of citizen participation in their Smart Cities Challenge projects?

First of all, municipal governments across India need to make sure traditional channels for participation (public consultations, forums) are in place and ensure citizens are consistently informed of what is happening in their neighborhood and are given the opportunity to have a say in it.

This needs to happen before local governments even start daydreaming about the novelty smartphones could bring. City officials could also start thinking about combining online and offline citizen engagement tools, such as what Next Bangalore has been doing, to enhance citizen engagement, ensuring the inclusivity of the process while modernizing it and improving its reach.

Additionally, municipalities, in their effort to develop a smart city vision, must build on the unique advantages of Indian cities and the great work that citizens, community groups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) are already doing, rather than starting from scratch or adopting “best practice” from developed world cities.

Finally, to enable a move toward a greater share of online participation channels, such as through smartphone applications and social media, municipalities need to make sure they invest in smart people and not only in smart technologies. A recent Nesta report on bottom-up smart cities highlighted the necessity for city government employees and citizens to develop a better understanding of data and technology in order to make the most of the new opportunities they offer.

Only then will tools like smartphones and mobile applications have the potential to revolutionize city governance and contribute to the making of a people-centric smart city.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: AsiaTravel / Oleksiy Mark / Gritsana P. / Shutterstock.com

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