The smart city project in Palava, India (Image: Palava City)

Red tape threatens to dumb down smart cities

Smart city deployments are well under-way across the globe, but in India some problems around cost and governmental control are starting to emerge.

The aspirations of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to push forward a smart cities programme suffered a serious setback when the country’s Congress said in December that the smart cities concept did not fit in with the country’s constitution.

The mismatch of Modi’s plans and the constitution comes because of amendments made by Rajiv Gandhi’s government in the 1980s stipulating that only municipal corporations and local bodies can make decisions on development works. Senior party leader Narayan Rane asserted that Modi’s plans involve private bodies bypassing an elected body to take decisions on redevelopment.

The decision may embarrass UK Prime Minister David Cameron whose November trade deal with India included national and state partnership between the UK’s Department of International Development and the Indian Ministry of Urban Development for national and state-led support for the development of smart and sustainable cities. Three cities were named: Indore, Pune and Amaravati.

This isn’t the only difficulty smart city development is likely to face in the coming years – with cost in particular an issue.

Also this week, the Nagpur Municipal Corporation says it will recoup more than two-thirds of its smart city development costs from citizens. In the UK, where local government finances are becoming ever tighter and local revenue raising opportunities restricted, such a move would likely be unpalatable even if it was possible. An obvious alternative – raising money from private sources, has its own difficulties in terms of, for example, ownership, revenue sharing, and priority setting.

The UK’s Centre for Cities identified key issues affecting the development of smart cities in 2014, and a year later said while progress had been made, the fundamental barriers remained unchanged. These include confusion about what ‘smart’ really means – it isn’t always about big, shiny new projects, but often about doing what we already do smarter. Smarter working includes things making better use of existing data, integrating ‘smart’ into core strategy, and more central government devolution of both decision making powers and financial control.

The good news is that real world smart city projects keep coming, and administrations do see the benefit of a more localised and integrated approach.

In the US, President Obama’s Smart Cities initiative will invest US$160 million (£108.4 million) in smart cities. One of the focus points is working with individuals, entrepreneurs, and non-profits interested in harnessing IT to tackle local problems and work directly with city governments. Meanwhile closer to home, the Manchester’s new CityVerve project , recently awarded £10 million from the UK Government’s Internet of Things competition, will use IoT to improve services for citizens in healthcare, energy and environment, culture and community across the city.