Op-ed articles

Smart Cities – A Difficult Equation to Balance

Jean Haëntjens
Jean HaëntjensEconomist and Urban planning specialist at consulting firm Urbatopie

"More challenges, more solutions, more stakeholders"

More challenges, more solutions, more stakeholders. The cities of tomorrow are faced with a multitude of problems that require the creation of a solid "engineering" infrastructure. While the major metropolitan areas are discovering the complexity of the situation and are taking measures to tackle it, the smallest cities are at a loss, says economist and urban planner Jean Haëntjens, president of Urbatopie.

The urban population is expected to reach five billion by 2030, with the number of people living in towns and cities accounting for 60% of the world's population, compared to 50% today and 30% in 1950. Today 600 cities generate two thirds of global economic growth, while intermediate cities (with populations ranging from one to three million) are gaining strength.  The gap between the cities and the outlying areas is widening.

Against this backdrop, economic competition among the major urban areas is now a reality. Cities are on the front line when it comes to addressing the energy transition and managing social disparities.

The challenges they face are accordingly more numerous. Urban areas also have more solutions at their disposal and a greater number of stakeholders involved in the process. This multitude of challenges, solutions and stakeholders needs to be carefully assessed. In the past, two grids—one electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor..., one gas—satisfied a city's energy requirements, but now there are a dozen different channels and systems to choose from. Thirty years ago the municipal council and the government were the only stakeholders; today there are numerous actors involved in governance procedures. To cite researcher Georges Amar: "For a long time we thought a city could have four or five modes of transport, but that number needs to be tenfold."

More challenges, more solutions, more stakeholders. That's the new urban equation. But increasing the complexity of the situation, by a powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... of three, makes it necessary for cities to develop smart city technologies.

A Shortage of "Engineering" Capabilities

A smart city requires strong "engineering" capabilities, whether it's in the field of urban planning, transportation, energy or civic and cultural life. Some French cities have robust engineering infrastructures—Bordeaux, Nantes, Lyon, Montpellier, Strasbourg, Metz, Grenoble for example—but most intermediate cities sorely lack resources. Barring a few exceptions, only a small number of municipalities with less than 100,000 inhabitants have the engineering capabilities needed to address all of the challenges. 

Small communities have even fewer solutions to choose from. Take the case of energy. Today it's possible to develop local energy production, but how do you make the right choice? In eastern France I worked with a group of small communities whose aggregate population came to 7,000 or 8,000. One of them wanted to implement a geothermalDescribes the technology used to tap subsurface heat to produce energy... solution using old mining tunnels, another wanted to convert agricultural waste into methane (ch4)The main component of natural gas deposits and oil deposit gas caps. Methane is produced naturally by landfills..., and yet another wanted to install wind turbines. And these towns were located three kilometers apart.

In addition to bringing towns together, a lot of work needs to be done to improve expertise, training and the assimilation of new ideas, something that only a few cities have succeeded into doing so far. There's also the question of individual country practices. In France, energy distribution has traditionally been a state monopoly, whereas other countries such as Denmark, have adopted municipal energy strategies. The situation in France is ambiguous. Mayors are told: "You're the boss", but in fact they don't have the ability to decide.

The Limits of Digital Technology

In all sectors of urban life, digital technologies are integrated into solutions and provide substantial support. However, a city's vocation cannot and must not be determined by the maze of digital solutions on offer. It's a political decision. The risk is that global digital technology leaders (Google, IBM) will impose their "turnkey" city solutions. Without a strategic vision or the "engineering" capabilities required to meet the challenges, local authorities will have to adopt plans that won't necessarily be what the public wants. There's a risk of divergence between the "smart city" discourse that responds to the needs of the public and the "digital city" solution imposed by outside actors. 

Jean Haëntjens website

Marie-Hélène ZerahResearch fellow at the French Research Institute for Development (IRD)

"The energy transition and collection of digital data are not yet issues in these small and medium-sized cities"

Looking to the future, the world will not be filled solely with "Smart Cities" jam-packed with technology and managed using masses of big data. In developing countries, tomorrow's cities will vary widely in size and need to innovate in the areas of governance, infrastructure and basic public services. Marie-Hélène Zérah talks with us about the situation in India.

India, unlike China, has never experienced massive rural flight, but rather very diverse types of urbanization. Everyone has seen pictures of mega-cities like Mumbai, Calcutta and New Delhi, which have continued to expand outwards even as their centers have stabilized. The number of cities with populations of more than a million is rising. More interestingly, though, the 2011 census revealed a new phenomenon in which villages are staying put and growing into settlement agglomerations of 10,000 to 100,000 people.  This is a type of "subaltern urbanization", or transformation of settlements in situ. Officially speaking, many of these agglomerations are not considered to be cities. They still operate with a village-type governance system but face the same challenges as urban areas, including access to water, waste management, sanitation and the need for public infrastructure.

The energy transition and collection of digital data are not yet issues in these small and medium-sized cities, which are focusing more on delivering basic public services and acquiring the necessary equipment.

The problems facing local officials vary widely from region to region, although employment often tops the list. Job creation is a pressing issue in the states of Odisha or Bihar, for example, but much less so in areas close to vibrant mega-cities, like Haryana state near New Delhi. Electrification is well under way in certain states, making it easier to quickly absorb individuals who decide to transition from a purely rural lifestyle. This is less true for others, which makes problems more difficult to resolve. Transportation, at least, has improved greatly since the federal government spurred the expansion of the country's highway network.

The Energy Transition Versus Rising Consumerism

The energy transition comes after these main priorities.  It is certainly a key concern for India's leaders. The government has launched an assertive program to promote renewable energies and is encouraging the states and local officials to initiate programs of their own. India hopes to leapfrog to a more environmentally friendly and energy efficient level of development, without having to go through the intermediate stages experienced by industrialized nations.

But the country is facing a contradiction here: although it would be preferable for India to achieve a more energy efficient urban transition, and even though it does better than China or South Africa in terms of energy intensity, the growing middle class legitimately aspires to take part in a consumer society. On top of this rising consumerism, India suffers from a weak institutional framework, with the result that energy markets, financial tools for innovative projects and regulations are not yet stable enough to lay the groundwork for an effective energy transition.

Marie-Hélène Zérah completed her PhD in urban studies at the Paris Institute of Urban Planning (IUP) in 1997. She has been a research fellow at the French Research Institute for Development (IRD) since 2003, focusing in particular on metropolitan governance and the management of urban services in Indian cities. She headed the "Urban Dynamics" research team at the Center for Social Sciences and Humanities in New Delhi between 2009 and 2013, and worked on the "Water and Sanitation Program" administered by  the World Bank and Suez from 1999 to 2001. Ms. Zérah is on the editorial board of Géoforum and oversees a collection on cities in Southeast Asia at Springer Publishing.

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