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Smart cities: The Swedish think it's about economic, ecological, and social sustainability

Goutam Das     October 7, 2015

Goutam Das, Senior Editor, Business Today
A definition overload afflicts all discussions around smart cities but the Swedish thinking appears to be uncomplicated and more functional - much like the Scandinavian design movement of the 1950s.

Business Today recently met the Swedish Minister for Housing, Urban Development and Information Technology, Mehmet Kaplan, in Stockholm. Smart urban development , according to him, is anchored around three pillars - economic, ecological, and social sustainability. The three are intricately intertwined and the failure to get the ball rolling even on one of the three may mean a loss of dynamism to any smart city development.

Economic sustainability implies investments that are made today and those that can reap dividends for future generations. "We must use the best available technology and methods for urban development. Here, we believe that Sweden has done a tremendous job," the minister said. "We don't lean back and feel safe and say that we are good at this, so we don't need to do more advanced development. We always try to reach for a higher ground. This is a serious way of thinking for the future because those buildings we construct today will stand for ages," he added.

Investments in solar energy, for instance, is one example of what he means by economic sustainability. "That (investments in solar) may pay off in just a few years. So it is economically sustainable to invest in solar power, even in Sweden. India, of course, has much more sun," the minister said.

Ecological sustainability is caring about the environment. Sweden is a strikingly leafy country and yet, wants to push the boundaries of what it can do further. The country has been using bio gas in public transport - a form of renewable energy derived from organic feedstock. And according to the International Gas Union, over the past two decades, "successful initiatives have led Sweden to become the world leader in the use of biogas as a vehicle fuel. Over 50 per cent of the 1.7 TWh biogas produced annually (in the country) is used in vehicles".

Kaplan sees an opportunity for Indian and Swedish companies to partner in this area. "Indian and Swedish companies can develop solutions together that can fit the India scale. You can't transfer all the technology directly. In some areas, you can. When the complexity is rising, you have to do it together," he said.

In fact, in March this year, commercial vehicle maker Scania announced that along with Swedfund, the Swedish state's development financier, it was establishing a partnership to develop biogas production for use as an automotive fuel in Nagpur. The biogas will be produced in collaboration with Indian companies and it would use digested sludge from one of Nagpur's wastewater treatment plants. Indeed the results could be promising - as per the International Gas Union, a car running on biogas saves 2,600 kg of greenhouse emissions per annum compared to a petrol-driven car. And a bus with 55 passengers can run for 1,000 km on the food waste produced by its passengers each year.

Sweden's city planners, nevertheless, prioritise walking over everything else. Cycling comes next. There are huge investment numbers cited to develop biking and biking infrastructure. Minister Kaplan said that for the current year, the Swedish government has earmarked half a billion Swedish Krona under 'Urban Environment Agreements'. "Those municipalities who are investing in biking, walking and public transport, will get half of the funding for their investments from the state. It is an incentive to make local initiatives work even harder," he said.

Minister Kaplan's third leg - social sustainability - advocates a bottoms-up approach to building smart cities. Citizens, especially in Brownfield developments, may not want planning thrust upon them. They prefer to be part of the process, and that has its benefits.

"Involving residents in planning, building and renovating cities creates sustainable neighbourhoods. If you involve them in what planners are doing, things will go smoother and faster. I didn't just mean that processes are going to be faster. The main goal should be better decision making," he said. Better decisions, he added, will lead to a more secure feeling for those who are affected by redevelopment.

"Social sustainability also makes people grow - they can feel that they are a part of the solution," the minister said. That also means the affected are not part of the problem. Key lesson for Indian cities.

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