Towards a smart city: Compassionate, creative and culturally alive


During 1831 – 33, the first edition of Benares Illustrated by James Prinsep was published having outstanding illustrations of the ghats, the temples and other striking objects. In his forethought, Prinsep paid a tribute to William Augustus Brooke, Chief Judge of Appeal for his endearing alike to ‘the Hindoo, the Moosulman and the Christian inhabitants of the holy city. Today when we are trying to build smart cities in the country, the importance of paying proper tribute to all the institution builders, contributors to the city’s heritage and history, and those who provide services to the inhabitants cannot be overemphasized. Dr. A.P.J.Abdul Kalam gave me the 2009 reprint of the book essentially to underline the value of leadership in anticipating the future needs of the society. How many of us would know that a week was needed to perform various rites, prayers and perambulations at 1000 Shiwalas while performing a pilgrimage? The history of the city cannot be visualized without reference to the sketches he painted of various ghats. Referring to the census in 1827, he describes various contributors to the cultural life. Description of various astronomical instruments installed in Man Mandir was published by Robert Barker in 1775. Numerous other such insights including the erosion of various ghats by the river and damage to various structures were recorded. How much effort do we make to chronicle the contemporary memory for future generation? What kind of smartness we want to visualize which does not situate the history and the future potential in a paradoxical context? The tensions revealed by these paradoxes will make our values clear.

Smartness is not possible without Samvedana. All those people who come to city to provide various goods and services are as much part of the city as those who live in it on more durable basis. What kind of services city provides to those who serve it becomes one of the pivots for evaluating the extent of smartness. James Prinsep, became a Fellow of Royal Society in 1828 at the age of 28, one of the youngest members of the Society for his contribution to the improvement of design of pyrometer, cartography, improvement in the accuracy of the balance used in the mint in the city and many other distinctions. His Samvedana is evident in his remark: “I never expect to find the highest natives excluded from European society, nor to see Indian servants beaten about like slaves” [2009:103]. His admiration for Raja Raman Mohanroy and Dwarkanath Tagore further demonstrated his respect for local talent. Every smart city should make it possible for a visitor or a resident to find out the outstanding achievers in the city. Smartness is not in not embedded in providing wifi and good transport alone. It is in reducing the distance between epitome of excellence and the common knowledge. If a smart city cannot bridge this gap, it will only induce dumbness and indifference among the citizens. A smart city makes people feel responsible for their own common good. It requires that the under-served people do not get ignored while planning different services, locating different functions and reducing various kinds of transaction costs. Be it homeless or street vendors or students in municipal schools, the smartness lies in serving their needs efficiently and also empathetically. To discover talent among the knowledge rich, economically poor people, we require different kinds of smart sensing initiatives. Various outstanding practices in different parts of the city must be shared widely. If all the members of a housing society have developed a practice of segregating waste at source for its efficient disposal and recycling, then local tourism system should organize visit to such a society to inspire others. People who have unusual private collections and are willing to show them should be invited as per their convenience to do so. When the elderly walk on the city and need benches to sit at regular intervals, a smart city will provide that.

The smartness cannot be defined without reference to Samvedana. The srijansheelta born out of samvedana creates an ongoing, self-renewing and self-designed culture of a smart city. Technologies have to play an important role but they cannot be a substitute for institution building. And institutions and technologies are the warp and weft of the smart city. The culture of inclusion, innovation and overcoming information asymmetry is vital for a smart city. Closing different roads on different days of a week to make them pedestrian path with abundance of street vendors to offer their products and services is part of smartness. Dr. O P Kejariwal has made a very useful contribution in republishing the book, Benaras Illustrated to provide a very relevant context for the current dialogue on smart city. The amalgam of a tradition, history and culture with contemporary needs, technologies, sensitivities and reciprocities will provide an Indian model of smart compassionate cities. May the new year bring new sense of reciprocity towards the under-served and unreached.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place

1 Comment

  1. Samvedana is an ingredient required by everybody. It is appreciable. But smartcity itself is already supposed to be smart to carry samvedana for the needy and the elderly.
    Being a resident of Benares, what I feel is that the city needs an infrastructure that last. Benares needs a responsible and samvedna embedded srijansheelta which could be benchmarked for the outskirts and other districts.
    Technology is not a substitute but the implementation can, yes, push hindrances for the existing srijan to a remarkable decline and can takeout more off the efforts.
    Myth out of mythology can be used as a tool against the people disturbing the habitat in benares and polluting Holy Maa Ganga.