Saturday, January 16, 2021

Interview - Pedro B Ortiz (World Bank)

View from NEW YORK



Smart Cities are successful only when you have the intelligence in place



Pedro B Ortiz is a senior consultant for the World Bank in New York who advises various governments and private firms. Ortiz, a former deputy mayor of the Spanish capital Madrid, has also earned international repute as a Metropolitan Planner and his recently published book, “The Art of Shaping the Metropolis,” establishes policies that address the phenomenon of the explosive growth that’s taking place in 600 metropolises around the world. In an exclusive interview to SHRIKANT RAO from New York, Ortiz dilated on the challenges of building smart cities in a country like India.




The Indian government is planning to develop at least two smart cities in each state, which works out to roughly 60 new cities across the country. As an urban expert what is your reaction to those pronouncements?  


Many governments promise new cities when they don’t know what to do with the existing ones. Such types of proposals are often statements of the inability to manage urban challenges. New cities take an enormous amount of capital and time to develop. It takes approximately 30 years to receive financial returns for cities of 250,000 inhabitants and longer if the investment is for larger cities. Investment and economic efficiency is low. New cities lack social identity. Expatriation creates psychological, emotional and social problems.

Environmental footprints impact new areas in a higher degree than addressing the issues of existing urban centers and expanding them. The Government of India should make proposals to address and resolve actual Indian urban needs instead of making ineffective promises that never reach fruition.




Against the background of poor infrastructure – which ails most of India – what is your assessment of both the intent and likely execution? Is India ready for smart cities?


Infrastructure investment should be an efficient percentage of the National GDP.  It shouldn’t be too low since infrastructure is the backbone of development. It shouldn’t be too high since multiple sectors of development need to be funded and there should be a balance of investments. The needs are endless and no budget is able to accommodate all of them. In the short term, capacity is limited. Prioritising capacities is the way to approach that balance. How is the best way to do it? Limited short time capacity should be encompassed with long term consistency. Long-term consistency is not provided by capital; Governance provides it. Unfolding capacity will fill up consistent frameworks provided they exist.

They do not now, which is India’s main urban challenge. Governance, and not finances, is the problem.  Professional and sector construction capacities exist.  It’s the capacity of the government to provide a long-term consistent framework that’s missing.




A smart  city is essentially a technologically driven city. What are the challenges that are likely to be faced in the setting up of smart cities?

Can you name the players who would be crucial to the construction effort?


Technology is a complement, not a substitute. Solutions must be substantive and not simply technological. Technology helps, once you know what you need. Smart cities place technology first as a placebo for lack of substantive teleonomy.  In terms of challenges  the growth across the country is 50,000 people each day. Any lower figure underestimates slums. Further the amount of land that will be needed in the next 30 years reaches 1 million sq km each year.

That is 275 per cent actual urban land. What is the shape it should take?  In my view metropolitan mass transport driven TOD’s. The establishment of rights of way for that development – legislation - and collaboration with the private sector for incremental encompassed investment - governance and viable PPP’s - criteria are established. If you are acting intelligently, then you can be smart too.




A smart city presumes the availability of regular and technological infrastructure - a smart grid for starters - besides of course having a population that is technologically advanced. Will that in a sense create exclusive pockets that are distinct from the rest of India and lead to a social divide? How does one bridge the gap?  


Social concerns require dispersion as a search for equity. How do you balance both conflicting objectives? There’s no technical formula for that. Only politics can provide the necessary balance. Basically, there are two political objectives: economic efficiency and social equity. Both objectives are presented to the population in different blends at each election and it is the population that selects the share, depending on the historical moment it is living in and the democratic priorities of that moment. In a democracy it is up to the population to decide how to bridge the gap.




What are the key requirements – the smart elements that need to be woven into the fabric of such cities?


The key to being smart is to be intelligent first. All smart elements must be consistent with and driven by the intelligent ones. You need first to have a vision of what you want the city to be, a project to address and respond to your needs and goals.Then you select the technology that will help you achieve those goals in the future. Your future should never be determined and driven by a technology whose purpose you don’t know.




How do you ensure that such technological islands are sustainable? What according to you are the must-do things for such experiments to succeed in a country like India?


Technological islands? India is not an archipelago. It is a continent. To be sustainable you have to reduce the median. If the social fabric has gaps and flagrant injustices, it will not be sustainable and the economic system will break. If the economic fabric has gaps and flagrant disparities, efficiency will be jeopardied and equity missing.




How successful are Smart Cities internationally and what kind of future do they hold?


Smart cities turn out to be successful once you have the intelligence in place. I can give you the example of Vancouver. The smart success witnessed at Vancouver is not replicable unless there is  intelligence first.




Can you give us some understanding of the World Bank's support to Smart City projects across the world? In the context of the World Bank has there been any smart financing for such projects? 


The World Bank provides loans to governments and responds to the demands of the governments of various nations from across the world. Governments must have first their priorities right. Smart Cities are part of the World Bank framework but mainly under a PPP approach. It is very imperative that Smart Cities must make sense within an economic and social objective.

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