You have to keep in mind the social fabric, ethos of a city: GE South Asia CEO

You have to keep in mind the social fabric, ethos of a city: GE South Asia CEO

In a conversation with Business Today, Banmali Agrawala, President and CEO of GE South Asia, discusses the right approach to build smart cities in India.

Banmali Agrawala, president and CEO, GE South Asia (Photographs: Shekhar Ghosh) Banmali Agrawala, president and CEO, GE South Asia (Photographs: Shekhar Ghosh)

In a conversation with Goutam Das and Manu Kaushik, Banmali Agrawala, President and CEO, GE South Asia, talks about the right approach to build smart cities in India. Excerpts:

Q. How do you define a smart city?

A. We are struggling with the definition. As a country, we are struggling because it's not one definition that can fit across the country. It's more of a concept than a hard-coded definition that is detailed out (and) can be replicated all across the country. The concept of smart cities is about how to get services and facilities delivered to the common man more efficiently and at affordable prices. It includes basic physical infrastructure, education and health, and a lot other things. You need to have a different approach city-by-city. Delhi or Mumbai would have a different approach as compared to Allahabad and Varanasi.

There are two ends of the spectrum. One, with Greenfield we do have an opportunity to leapfrog into the next level of technology solutions. The other end is established cities. Smart cities have been around for a long time. There has been no commercialisation of the smart city concept. One of the reasons why it is a challenge is because, for a large city, you have multiple agencies that run a city. So, the first issue is how to coordinate decision making. Incidentally, for many of our large cities, it is not only we have multiplicity of jurisdiction, many of these agencies are elected bodies. It is a slightly more complex thing to solve. If they are just bodies, you can collapse them and merge them into one.

Q. What should be considered while building a smart city?

A. You have to keep in mind the social fabric and ethos of a city. You cannot go to a tier-II town and start talking about high-rise buildings because that is the most-efficient way from the space perspective. It might be, but if people are comfortable living in a certain way, will it be wise to go and completely disrupt the way of life or the soul of the city?

It's crucial to capture the soul of the city and marry it with the latest technology and efficiency. Ultimately, people have to buy the concept. You cannot force it down their throats. People are not going to pay for something they don't like. Taking people along and building something around the ethos of that particular town is critical to making the entire concept of smart city successful.

Q. What should be the starting point for government agencies?

A. The starting point is citizens. For every city, the first step is to understand what the city needs. The approach is to win the hearts and minds of people. You can only do this if the level of service is absolutely top class. Squeezing out inefficiencies in the present delivery of various services will be the next step. That is a combination of using technology and enforcing the law. How do you squeeze out inefficiencies so that these inefficiencies can pay for adoption of new technologies and fresh investments?

Large and grandiose plans that take 20 years to implement do not get traction with people. You must look at just the basics - power, water, information flow and waste discharge management. If you can start with these four things (you can set the ball rolling), because things like improving transportation networks take time. The pain and challenge is more with our existing cities as compared to Greenfield projects.