Issues On Smart Cities

- Harsha Man Maharjan | 2021-09-24

Harsha Man Maharjan

Both planners and proponents agree, like other concepts such as computer city, information city and knowledge city, that the idea of smart cities in Nepal does not have a bottom-up outlook at the realisation, conception and planning stages. One day it just appeared in national policy and planning narratives. At present, we have imaginations, aspirations and assumptions. There is very little or no evidence about the prerequisites, estimations of proposed infrastructure such as energy demand and discussions on how an ordinary citizen gets real-world benefits which would not be possible otherwise.

NarrativesLiterature show this idea came from two urban thinking. First is new urbanism, which focuses on people-cantred designing and making cities eco-friendly and inclusive. Second is the “intelligent cities” that promote the use of information technology to deal with urban issues. An intelligent city converts data into knowledge and has an active role for governments to create innovation by exploiting information technology. Intelligence is a collective and collaborative enterprise in a knowledge-intensive environment. Reaching sustainable growth enabled by the use of (new) information technology to solve urban problems is a major aspiration in this idea.

Technology is an enabler if not a critical element in the various definitions of smart cities. CISCO and IBM are helping mayors and planners to transform existing cities into smart ones. In a smart city, technologies connect all the stakeholders and create an eco-system where they can collaborate to foster the collective intelligence. Naturally, data and various sensors to generate data are at the core. CISCO frames smart cities as solutions to urban problems like population explosion, pollution, and the pressure they put on the city infrastructure. IBM likewise frames smart city as the way to solve “social problems and promote economic vitality”. Owning to their resources and technical expertise, IBM is a position to generate insights from big data that CISCO can provide through their hardware.

In Nepal, the push for smart cities links to coping with disasters. Smart cities were thought to be resilient cities. The devastating earthquake that hit on April 25, 2015 provided impetus for the idea of smart cities. The government announced the programs related to smart cities on July while the discourse of smart cities appeared in newspapers only a few days after the catastrophe. On May 3, The Kathmandu Post published an article with a title, “Clever Cities”. This article pleaded to turn Kathmandu valley into smart cities and differentiated smart cities with cities created with a ‘medieval-era mindset’. The author claimed that the ill-designed cities could not handle the growing urban population and are prone to environmental and social problems.

We do not know about the impact of this article on public imagination. Coincidentally on July 8, programs related to smart city were announced in Policies and Programmes of the Government of Nepal for the Fiscal Year 2072-73 (2015-16). Master plans for cities such as Kathmandu Valley, Lumbini, Nijgadh and other cities affected by the earthquake were to be planned. The commitment was echoed in the budget speech presented a few days after. The speech made clear that master plans would be made for three smart cities--Kathamandu valley, Lumbini and Nijgadh. But no significant activities were initiated. Gradually the idea of resilience became less important as memory of the disaster faded.

Smart cities regained momentum in 2016. First, the budget speech presented in May mentioned that, “Keeping Palungtar of Gorkha at a centre, smart city master plan will be developed and implemented in the surrounding areas of Marsyangdi ”. It added, “in order to develop Waling, Lumbini and Dandeldhura including 10 cities as modern and prosperous smart cities, infrastructure construction work will be initiated through master plan”. Second, Nepal Planning Commission made 11-page concept paper on smart city public in July. This paper assumes Nepal needs smart cities to cope with rapid urbanisation and climate change. Smart cities are the cities where information technologies are used to: (i) provide services to citizens; (ii) manage infrastructures such as water, electricity, waste, public transportation, telecommunication; (iii) promote green energies and (iv) make easier for citizen’s participation. It discusses four pillars: smart people, smart governance, smart infrastructure, and smart economy. Third, New Town Project Coordination Office took initiative by inviting letter of interest in September 2016 to prepare master plans for Palungtar, Nirgadh, and Lumbini as smart cities.

In this backdrop, local elections took place in May and June 2017 where political parties presented smart cities as a new agenda. Political parties such as CPN (UML), Naya Shakti, Rastriya Prajantra Party, and Nepali Congress mentioned smart city as modern city in their manifestos. Smart city became a new agenda for many leaders. Dilip Kumar Khand, victorious candidate from Nepali Congress in Walling Municipality, had only one agenda-- smart city. He mentioned that he adopted the agenda without knowing an iota about it and learnt experiences of different countries after the elections.

On May 8, 2017, the cabinet announced to build smart cities in the four corners of the Kathmandu Valley. Kathmandu Valley Development Authority soon came up with a plan to build these cities covering 1,30,000 ropanies of land. The underpinning motive of these smart cities are to check haphazard urban planning and to shift population pressure from the core of the Kathmandu valley. New Town Project Coordination Office issued notice for invitation of interest to prepare smart city master plans for Chadrapur, Dallu, Tulasipur, Tikapur, Kavre, Bharatpur, Amagadhi, Mirchaiya, Dhankuta and Waling in Aug 2017.

It is the second time that the government is planning to build Kavre as a smart city. In 2005, a fourteen-member committee was formed under the chair of vice-chair of High Level Commission for Information technology to convert Kavrepalanchwok district into information technology city. The committee had main officers from Banepa Municipality, Dhulikhel Municipality and Panauti Municipality but the idea did not materialise. The dream was to make the city sustainable.

There are issues about choices. Why was Kavre district chosen for information technology city? Was it because there was IT park in this district? Why the government has chosen the seventeen cities not others? We don’t see uniform criteria for the choices. Some of these cities don’t even have basic infrastructure.

Another issue is about the energy needed to store, and analyse big data. Just to get a sense of scale imagine each 5 million Nepali households having 10 smart appliances or Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Now imagine these 50 million devices having the ability to be controlled using your smartphone and the Internet. Finally imagine each device receiving one signal every hour per day, which is a very conservative estimate. We are already talking in terms of billions of data per day. When we factor all the sensors in the city and not just the households, we are talking in terms of trillions and tens of trillions. Global consumption of electricity by ICTs are predicted to be between 6 and 21 per cent in 2020. ICT’s contribution can be as high as 23 per cent of globally released greenhouse gas emission in 2030. Data centres are clearly the most energy hungry. Remember, this is the case when most countries in the world have very little ICT infrastructure. There is not even a rough number on how Nepal is going to power billions of IoT things, handle trillions of data and power hundreds of data centres if all things go according to plan.

JustificationWe need empirical evidence to support the claims in the smart city narratives. We need justifications for the location and scale of the smart cities. We need even a rough estimate of energy demand of future smart cities. More importantly, we need to know who benefits the most and who is left out with the transformations. Smart city is not only the issue of data, sensors and analytics, it is also the issue of social justice.

(Maharjan is affiliated to academic NGO Martin Chautari and writes on issues related to media and technology)


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