Role of Citizens in India’s Smart Cities Challenge

Florence Engasser and Tom Saunders at the World Policy Blog: “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….

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.

First, while only around 10 percent 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 crowd-sourced 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, geo-locate, 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 crowd-sourced 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 SayftyProtsahan, or Stop Street Harassment, forcing authorities to take action….(More)

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