Event ReportsPublished on Jan 31, 2015
With there being a strong connection between smart cities and a nation's pride, it is important to connect universities and research institutions with smart city initiatives, says Dr. Meric Gertler, President of the University of Toronto.
Important to connect research institutions to smart city initiatives

With there being a strong connection between smart cities and a nation’s pride, it is important to connect universities and research institutions with smart city initiatives as they share a symbiotic relationship depending on each other for success, according to Dr. Meric Gertler, President of the University of Toronto.

Dr. Gertler said this while delivering a talk on "Universities and Smart Cities: A Global Perspective" at Observer Research Foundation on January 29. The event was chaired by Dr. M. Ramachandran, former Secretary, Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India.

In the Indian context, Dr. Gertler observed that while the government is focussed on improving the standard of living of its citizens, there is an equal focus on developing the higher education system - the announcement of introducing five new IITs, five new IIMs and 4 new AIIMS type institutions. This co-initiative makes the PM’s plan a visionary one, he said.

Dr. Gertler said the Indian government’s plan for infrastructure and university development should be viewed as co-initiatives. India has recently experienced drastically increased research productivity as well as a dramatic increase in the scale and scope of international collaborations.

He said the plan to build smart cities will bring tremendous challenges but whatever the configuration may be, a partnership between India’s dynamic research institutes and future cities will lead to national prosperity.

Dr. Gertler gave examples to show that countries are focusing on spatial management and city systems (UK recently created a Minister for Cities position). Additionally, they’re increasingly creating ’system of cities’ at the national level.

He, however, acknowledged the lack of lucid understanding or strategic guidance that many countries are grappling with. Hence, the role of research institutions is crucial for the growth of smart cities. At the same time, cities are "privileged sites" with demands from customers, markets, challenges and opportunities leading to mutually beneficial relationship with local research institutions. Additionally, he stated that "innovation requires interaction" and cities make it easier for technology producers and consumers to have constant dialogue resulting in increased potential of both.

Dr. Gertler then spoke about the case of a Toronto tech firm - Autodesk (formerly Alias) to demonstrate how the symbiotic relationship between the company and University of Toronto caused Autodesk to stay local instead of re-locating to Silicon Valley. This relationship has been a force of prosperity and stability in the Toronto region.

Further, Dr. Gertler highlighted that the top five urban regions for research publications are London, Beijing, Boston, Tokyo, New York and San Francisco; making the link clear between economic and cultural hubs of the world and research output. He emphasised on this symbiotic relationship by stating that "money flows where ideas flow".

Earlier, in his opening remarks, Dr. Ramachandran said an active discussion on the subject of smart cities is extremely relevant in India, especially post PM Modi’s announcement of developing one hundred smart cities. These cities would also act as satellite towns to larger cities.

Dr. Ramachandran acknowledged that there is a lack of clarity in the definition of the phrase ’smart cities’ in the Indian context and thus it is important to deliberate about who would be the ultimate beneficiaries of these smart cities. Would entire cities be developed with special focus on amenities such as water, energy, and safety-security issues or would the development be primarily in terms of satellite technology, he enquired?

The Chair highlighted the fact that India’s existing big cities, like New Delhi, face a multiplicity of problems exacerbated by the growing natural population, large number of migrants, inadequate public transportation system and other infrastructure issues. Some reasons responsible for the prevailing conditions according to Dr. Ramachandran are lack of "city empowerment" and administration capacities,, lack of coordination among multiple governing bodies, etc.

He said the present government has ambitious targets but more thinking needs to go into finding resources for infrastructure development, he said. Literature from other countries where the concept of smart cities has been in existence for a while can be helpful to India and universities can, and must play a role in the process of city development, it was pointed out.

The talk was followed by an engaging discussion. The exact nature of partnership between universities and smart cities was discussed further. The idea of cities funding research at universities and universities in-turn participating in solving city issues through research and innovation was explored. It was also discussed that, in the Indian context, smart cities must focus on objectives that affect everyone as opposed to symbolic achievements.

(This report is prepared by Vidisha Mishra, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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