Will Smart Cities set off reverse migration?

By Sairam Bollapragada

The lure of emerging technologies, IoT, SMAC resulting in ‘smartening’ everything in a Smart City concept is catching a lot of attention. A typical scenario in India and perhaps in some other countries is that the smart city is planned or promised to provide all one can think of from the perspective of greater convenience, bettered facilities, and a better quality-of-life.

Earlier, when the poorer cousins of cities were devoid of earning opportunities, people rushed to cities in a bid to earn livelihood. Hordes of people would take a train to bigger developed/developing cities and the skilled population in towns started thinning to leave the towns under-developed, if not pushing them backward. The migration created a lot of divide between haves and have-nots. Thus, there emerged the social parameters of ‘earn-abilities’ and ‘learn-abilities’.

The smart city concept has compelled the state agencies, policy makers and country planners to think on which kind of smaller cities or towns can be quickly transformed into a place for getting the best of the benefits to its citizens. The cities, with the expanse of irreversible growth in infrastructure, transportation, tall buildings, depleted oxygen levels, tiring network of roadways, increasing number of vehicles, and many things supposedly defining the so called ‘Developed City”.

What people would slowly start seeing in the next decade or so, will be a reverse trend due to the same reasons for which they migrated. Roads are great but traffic snarls came in, too many people and social circle but the stigma has pricked, better buying power but the divide has increased, better education but stiffer competition and hence the upward cost of education, more buildings and losing touch with the greens, and many such things which once lured many. People in cities (big ones especially) feel the pinch of polluted air, environment, crowd, lesser interfaces with nature, increased carbon emissions, unclean and non-potable water (remember in the school we used to drink from the tap directly!), increased usage of plastics, and many such things.

The smart cities today, if well planned laced with the same facilities which once brought so many to bigger cousins, would attract population to come back to the roots. This time the wait is worth; the transformation to a smart city from a town will open up many opportunities.

The same facility with all advantages of nature, time for hobbies, wonderful work-life balance, healthier way to live, shorter traffic times, better standards of living, better education and better skilling to prepare smarter workforce, better housing facilities, innovative utilities for a smart living, better plans for optimum movement of people and goods to create a smart mobility, better plans for higher employment with more investments towards a smart economy, sustainable development, natural resource utilization like water and energy – all creating smart environment for a citizen to become part of such a balanced and content life. Not to forget – the evils of such growth will still be around – be it price rise of real estate, people flocking, opportunistic deals, etc.

However, the policy makers can quickly create policies around prevention of the same. The legislations should create a vision for the smart city with a potential future blueprint like, say, a 20-year vision keeping in view livability and environment management with tagged sources of funding for such innovative transformations. The options for delivering to the purpose, especially on the infrastructure side, will depend and include a lot of PPP models and unsolicited proposals from citizen forums/associations/societies etc., including smaller infra packages bundled into private sector development of residential and commercial hubs. Connected communities will empower and encourage more local economy. The Corporate Social Responsibility will need to play a larger role in the development of these smart cities and corporate biggies should be provided with business opportunities to establish their work places from these cities, opening employment opportunities to citizens and hence giving an economic boost to the area.

The independent entrepreneur class should be encouraged to heavily participate in the PPP models as well. The encouragement can be mostly in terms of tax holidays, infra provisioning, etc. All these initiatives will provide to better average buying power of the citizens and hence the economy uptrend. The ease of doing business will be a critical success factor offering by the policy makers to ensure smooth commissioning of new business.

Major IT companies should already plan for positioning their work packages in these tier II cities for better profitability creating local jobs. It would be a win-win for both the company and the state. The movement of jobs (and not folks) from major cities to these smart destinations would need to be very meticulously planned towards strategic business benefits. On an average, such cities promise to provide better profit-after-tax (PAT) of at least 40%, lower attrition rates (<5%), better customer satisfaction levels (CSATs>4.6) and promise to growth. The psychology of IT fraternity will move from that of clinging to complex major cities to ‘let’s embrace smart’.

Technology will be an enticing factor in smart cities, especially for the technocrats, who can find such place more interesting to reside if the planners create strong knowledge hubs around various areas, create smart communities to brainstorm and solve the most recurring issues collaboratively. Such smart and healthy communities will also increase the awareness amongst the citizens on how inclusive participation with the government agencies will create synergies.

The smart cities are expected to become environmental CoEs. Resource efficiencies (especially the natural ones) identified, tracked and reported through connected devices and sensors are expected to drive behavioral patterns through analytics and communication channels.

It is expected that the carbon footprint would reduce as more people would accept pooling or sharing and be encouraged to use public transportation reducing the owned cars numbers. The older cars ( >15+ years) can be faded from usage through policy regulations to help further. The encouragement of work from home in a connected city will lead to lesser carbon emissions, less pollution and something every employee will appreciate with the employer.

Smart information via transparency on social channels will bring in peer pressure for everybody to be aligned and citizens would be compelled to be aware.

Senior citizens would prefer smart cities while living alone would need leveraged confidence levels from connected devices like wearables and connected healthcare communications. In order to include them in this game, awareness programs for the not-so-technology-delighted senior population, must be held creatively. A well-connected neighborhood and societies will provide a level of comfort between all citizens and build a stronger society like a larger joint-family!

Energy transmission through Smart Grids will create optimized power consumption. Smart utilities will help retain unused power so that the power purchase driven by demand through the agencies can be only as per consumption and this will help in paying for what is optimally used only.

Smart building and office offering the right level of facilities usage to increase work productivity, less downtime with increased resource efficiencies will also help sustain the resources.

Each citizen will be expected to become smarter by being connected – they can report incidents, fires, traffic jams, any suspicious activities, water leakages, electricity theft, emergency response required events, and many more – in all each citizen will be a smart city manager in a way since all these exchange of information will lead to maintaining the balance between cost and standards of life.

The policy makers in Vienna, for example, have committed to publish all spend reports, while local police publish the real-time crime data. Getting citizen involvement is also one of the USPs where feedback on urban planning and city services are taken for improving facilities. Apps like EveryBlock in Chicago and CitySourced in several UK cities enable residents to report problems from potholes to broken street lights to crime anytime anywhere.

We may be setting new standards of responsive city services where citizens feel they have better sense of belonging and stake in them.

The tremendous pressure put currently on the cities due to ever increasing demand on the infrastructure and facilities, is already taking a toll.  With increased density of traffic, as an example, a person spends 25%-30% of his productive day on roads. In the next one decade, it could be seen that the reverse migration will become a reality, especially in countries like India.

Smart is not about big, smart is about intelligent technology for better lifestyles from cost and standards point-of-view. Who would not want to live in Smart & Green Cities at reduced cost of living!!

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