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Smart cities are about more than technology: Martin Rama

Interview with Chief Economist, South Asia, World Bank

Surabhi Agarwal  |  New Delhi 

As the government embarks on a detailed plan for its 'smart cities’ project, Martin Rama, the World Bank's Delhi-based chief economist for South Asia, has some suggestions. In a talk with Surabhi Agarwal, he notes the need to ensure that, more than technology, adequate urban planning is done. Also, India needs to avoid the temptation of sprawling cities, instead designing compact ones, which are more efficient. Edited excerpts:

India has just started building on the concept of smart cities. What can it learn from the mistakes made by other nations?

One should go beyond technology. When we mention smart cities, we think about information technology support, traffic, utilities – all important. However, I'm not sure if that alone will give the needed kind of productive cities.

Having an empowered city committee is very important. A lot of conversation is happening around private developers but one very important figure is of the mayor. In urban development, he/she is an empowered figure, an elected figure who is accountable. We have some of that in cities with a chief minister, etc. But my general comment is, lets look beyond technology — it is important but not everything.

From what is being discussed, 80-90 per cent of these cities will be based on existing ones, to be retrofitted. Is it possible in congested and old cities such as Delhi?

I think so. If one looks at different models, it is natural for India to look at China. Yet, there are things where India should also look at Latin America. China has built cities from scratch, which are productive but might not age very well. Latin America is a bit like India, where slums in cities are normal. And, they have retrofitted cities very successfully. For instance, Brazil has succeeded in transforming slums into neighbourhoods to provide social services. Also, if you look at the European model, the cities with the maximum character are the most liveable. So, I think Chandni Chowk (a bustling area in Delhi’s old city) will not lose its character.

You said India needs to focus on compact cities rather than sprawling ones. Could you elaborate?

When you think of what makes a good city, part of it is productivity. So, you are near other people, you can have more efficient transactions, you can find all those things you are looking for, etc. But if you have to spend a lot of time in transportation, then cities are polluted. The configuration matters a lot. Compact cities can be a way of bringing people together without having too much of congestion. Right now, everybody wants to have a car because it is a status symbol, etc. However, the most efficient cities around the world are those with less of cars. Cities must be compact, so that travel time, emissions, etc, are cut down.

How is the World Bank participating?

The Bank operates through partnerships with country governments. It is like a dialogue with the government, to figure out five priority areas where we think our support will be valuable. In the partnership strategy for India, there are three main areas where we have agreed to work together upon. One is the integration to make it a common market, rural transformation and social inclusion. This is part of an agreement with the Government of India, which covers their needs and what we can contribute.

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First Published: Wed, February 18 2015. 00:42 IST