What can smart city planners learn from 3,000-year-old Varanasi, India?

March 25, 2019 Richard Baker

India faces infrastructure challenges, yet one of its ancient cities is bridging old and new ideologies—an inspiration for all aspiring smart cities

 

Varanasi, India, is one of the oldest cities on the planet and a spiritual capital to millions. And late last year, it was also the hub of discussions on smart cities. No matter what you know about either Varanasi or smart cities, you might wonder how the two fit together. Who puts a conference on smart cities—one of the hottest topics in tech and urban planning—in Varanasi?

Good question. I had the same reaction. In fact, I didn’t even wonder “Why Varanasi?” I wondered, “Why India?” But my visit opened my eyes in lots of ways, and I came back with a bit more knowledge, enough that I can now tell you why India and Varanasi make a good fit for smart cities. And why what happened there will affect all smart cities in the future.

 

Varanasi, India (Credit: Juan Antonio Segal under CC by 2.0)

 

How smart cities are evolving

India is one of 90 participants in the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), a global standards group. The IEC is a standards-development group whose membership consists of national bodies that look after the interests of their countries. (It’s a sibling to the International Organization for Standardization, which develops the international ISO standards for almost every area of manufacturing.) IEC sets worldwide standards in a variety of industries—from power generation/distribution to telecommunications to medical devices—so countries can collaborate and create standards for interoperability while meeting their countries’ individual needs.

Each of these topics is so big and multifaceted that the groups form technical committees (TCs) or working groups (WGs) to focus on smaller areas, like IEC’s smart cities WG, which I’m a part of and the reason I was in Varanasi. Each national committee can assign individual experts to take part in the work of the TCs or WGs as a representative of their country.

Working groups do a lot of preliminary work and produce technical reports that help the committees choose an existing standard to ratify or decide to create a new standard. When a topic crosses into the scope one of IEC’s sister organizations, the two form a joint technical committee or working group that calls on experts in both areas to make sure there are no gaps in standardization. Each national body can volunteer to sponsor one of the two or three annual face-to-face meetings of the working groups.

 

Varanasi is one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities. Its location on the Ganges, sacred to Hindus, reinforces its history as one of India's most important spiritual centers. (Credit: Juan Antonio Segal under CC by 2.0)

 

Why Varanasi? Why India?

Varanasi is in India’s most populous state and represents the heart of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political base. The sponsors hoped he would attend the conference because of his personal interest in smart cities and because of Varanasi’s symbolic importance. It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, settled around 1000 BCE. It has also become one of four key destinations for Buddhist pilgrimage because it’s where Gautama Buddha first taught Dharma, in about 580 BCE.

_q_tweetable:The Indian government has chosen Varanasi as a pilot smart city. Just because a city is old doesn’t mean it can’t simultaneously be smart._q_Back in our century, the Indian government has chosen Varanasi as a pilot smart city, with a focus on bridging old and new ideologies. Just because a city is old doesn’t mean it can’t simultaneously be smart.

When I compare the state of the infrastructure that I use daily in the US (without ever giving it a thought) to what I encountered in India, I see the wide gap between a developed and a developing country. It makes India’s determination to nurture smart cities feel almost heroic. For example, just 20 years ago India’s electrical grid only served 40% of its population. Today, the proportion has risen to more than 70%—but that still leaves 400 million Indians without ready access to electricity. The World Health Organization estimates that only 54% of the urban population and 16% of the rural population has drinking water piped onto the premises. This means that only 28% of the country’s population has access to clean drinking water in their homes.

In its 70-year drive to develop since it won independence, India has relied heavily on the private sector to build out its infrastructure. Companies, many from the developed world, regularly used proprietary systems that didn’t necessarily play well with other companies’ systems. Once you know that history, you begin to see why India wants a seat at the table when standards are being written—it wants to make sure that as it grows over the next few decades, all new infrastructure will work together.

Relentless growth (with a population that will surpass China’s within the decade) and furious urbanization (the UN projects that 416 million Indians will move to cities over the next 30 years) create the possibility for all kinds of problems if infrastructure can’t be built to a common standard. Add in how far behind India is in developing its infrastructure—a legacy of its colonial past, present-day budgetary limits, and political issues I won’t get into here—and you see the challenge the country still faces.

 

The  International Electrotechnical Commission smart cities working group typically convenes for a week, with one day reserved for a conference in which experts from the host country bring additional perspective to the group’s work.

 

Making a 3,000-year-old city smart

So, how does a developing country make the leap from not having fully built-out services like clean water and electricity to making 3,000-year-old cities smart? Global firms like Stantec, with decades of this work under their belts, will play a role, working within standards frameworks that India itself has helped create. With our emphasis on community-focused design, we can help develop smart-city systems that strengthen the ability of India’s cities to deliver services more efficiently and better accommodate hundreds of millions of new urban residents with reliable and integrated infrastructure.

My final thought on my Varanasi experience is this: I became an engineer to have a positive impact on people’s lives. Helping develop smart city standards might sound daunting—and a lot less sexy than, say, teaching your car to talk to your house—but it reminds me that my work can make a real difference in this world. I’m helping build standards that will become a common base that cities use to develop and manage new ways of monitoring utilities, delivering services, increasing efficiencies, and reducing carbon production. Whether in Calgary, Montevideo, Stockholm, Nairobi, Tokyo, or Varanasi, tens of millions of people around the world will benefit from the systems the emerge under the smart cities standards.

About the Author

Richard Baker

Richard Baker is an information and communications technology designer in our Lynnwood, Washington, office. He focuses on the design, coordination, and implementation of the infrastructure for technology systems in buildings. In 2018, Richard received a Master of Engineering in “Sustainable Smart Cites.”

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