Why citizen engagement will be vital for the success of Chennai as a smart city

Technology adoption is at the heart of success of any smart city, Chennai included. But can physical and digital infrastructure help make a city more liveable? Here's where citizen engagement plays a key role.

How adaptive are urban citizens today when it comes to technology? Digitisation not only plays a central role in any smart city once it’s established, but also lays the path to getting there. Along the way, its various stakeholders – private companies and businesses, local and state governments and equally importantly, its citizens — all need to be in sync for a smart city to thrive.

The challenge however, not only for Chennai, but for any city under the smart city mission is adoption of technology. Ultimately, it’s citizens who should be able to easily adopt and reap the benefits of technology, which is so central to the concept of a smart city. 

Chennai so far has used Information & Communication Technology (ICT) in traffic management with CCTVs, and the trend is likely to continue with the Metro possibly moving towards an app-based platform for ticketing, last mile connectivity services etc. To make these a success, citizen buy-in and participation are critical.

Is India tech-savvy enough?

Let’s look at some of the basic parameters with regard to technology adoption – Internet and mobile phone usage. This can be an indication of how adaptive citizens are to technology and where the barriers of entry occur. For a smart city to be livable, there should be low barriers to adoption of the technology that facilitates smart amenities. 

A European group called Ideas for Change envisioned a project called ‘Making Sense’ to empower citizens to use technology to solve local civic issues. The key point of this was lowering the barrier of entry and not making technology seem scary and complicated. Its CEO, Mara Balestrini, talks about making technology more accessible in an interview:

If cities are willing to pay for the technology to become smart cities, it is their responsibility to invest enough money to make sure all citizens can meaningfully access and profit from that technology.”

In this, metrics such as age, education and socio-economic factors also play a role.

Taking a general look at the national landscape, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), at the end of 2018, India had more than 560 million Internet subscribers. But when it comes to digital adoption — in other words, how existing technologies are being used and the demand for new technologies by citizens — India sits behind China globally. 

According to a 2018 PEW research study, nearly 70% of adults in India own a mobile phone. But more specifically, among some developing economies, India ranks lowest in terms of smartphone usage (32%) and highest in terms of usage of a basic phone (47%). 

When it comes to Internet usage, the same PEW study states that 38% of Indians use the Internet, the lowest among the countries surveyed. Among Internet users, those in the age group of 18-29 form a majority in India. An important, though predictable, data point to note when it comes to technology adoption, is that younger people are more tech savvy. But for Chennai to truly succeed as a smart city, it should be one where all citizens, young and old, are able to gain from smart technology.

Impact of citizen engagement

While some of the data mentioned above does indicate that the country as a whole is becoming more digitally advanced, will that ensure that people’s lives are generally easier in a smart city? Will the physical and digital infrastructure of a smart city help make it more liveable? 

In this respect, effective citizen engagement achieves a few important goals:

All voices are heard

Citizen engagement empowers citizens to have their voices heard. Any public meeting by officials, whether at a local or district level, should ideally involve members of the community. Their concerns and aspirations must be taken into consideration as it forms an important part of the feedback loop in a smart city mission, which also includes public policymakers and private entities. 

An ideal example for this is the Seoul Innovation Bureau in South Korea. The Bureau is part of the government and specifically handles citizen participation; it even recruits citizens to work with government officials. 

A policy of effective and timely citizen engagement ensures that those who are in charge of designing, prototyping and implementing projects and policies are aware of the challenges and opportunities of the end users. 

A common example is the need to ensure access for persons with disabilities in public spaces and buildings. With respect to the Chennai smart city projects, citizen participation hasn’t been ideal so far. The official website lists some citizen outreach events for Chennai Corporation’s ‘Namma Chennai’ app. According to the National Institute of Urban Affairs’ Smart City Lab project, Chennai is one among a few cities that uses a relatively low-tech offline approach; citizen engagement has been mainly through ward level meetings. 

Collaborative development

Collaboration often leads to the best ideas and outcomes. Diverse groups often make better decisions than homogeneous ones. Suresh Subudhi, Shubhika Bilgrami of the Boston Consulting Group outlined the framework and merits of a collaborative government in a column for Livemint:

In the age of collaborative economy, city governments can take advantage of technology and open platforms to involve citizens more actively to shape a better future. It is not hard to imagine a future where citizens, with the help of the right technological tools and platforms, will play a big role in enabling the government in providing optimal solutions”. 

Digitally empowered citizens

For collaborative development to work effectively, citizens must be motivated to participate, and that participation might need some use of technology. 

Engagement is the first step. A noteworthy example is HelpAge India’s workshop in Chennai last year, educating senior citizens on smartphone usage. Similarly, a programme from earlier this year at the Calcutta Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology (CMIG) focussing on digital literacy for the elderly is a good attempt to boost technology adoption across various age groups.

Regardless of the level of automation that exists or will transpire in the future, many smart services will always be people-centric. Using various transport systems to get from one place to another, and availing these services through apps and smart cards, can all ensure that there’s minimal hassle in the daily life of a person, but only when the technology is easy to use and accessible to everyone.

Working together to make a city thrive

In summary, therefore, a good way to ensure that a project benefits citizens, and does not face unanticipated delays or opposition, is to bring people into the process at various levels. This is equally, if not more, true for projects that utilise technology at all levels from planning to design to execution.

It’s up to the government to leverage whatever connectivity they have with citizens and then build on that to ensure that no section of the population is left behind. Engaging through technology can be challenging, but citizens and the overall smart city project will be better off for it.

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