Bangladesh is on the path to be a middle-income country by 2021 which is well articulated in the government's development plans for the next few years. Urbanisation has a huge potential to contribute to this vision, as it is projected that more than half of the country's population will live in cities by 2050. While this is a huge opportunity, this could also be a potential challenge in terms of access to basic services, environmental degradation and pitiable living conditions. But it seems like Bangladesh is ready to grab the opportunity, a glimpse of which was visible at the Smart City Week organised by UNDP and the Access to Information (a2i) at the Prime Minister's Office, along with other urban stakeholders, from November 29 to December 5, 2017.
As an urban reform enthusiast from India, who had the opportunity to participate in this event, I felt this was a great initiative that attempted to construct a roadmap to co-create smart cities in Bangladesh. While this is an ambitious task, from my own experience with the government of India's Smart City Mission, it is a much-needed one.
The Smart City Week brought together a diverse group of stakeholders in the urban space—policymakers, city leaders, planners, authorities, communities and students. I was part of this diversity and represented IPE Global, which is an international development consultancy with its roots in India. While I shared some of our experiences of working in multiple and challenging Indian cities as part of the government's Smart City Mission, there was a realisation that many of the innovations that are tried and tested in our homeground can be dovetailed into the Bangladesh context.
One of the most attractive aspects of this Smart City Week was for people to participate, to develop a homegrown vision towards a Bangladeshi Smart City. This is important to emphasise as creating solutions that are suited to a particular social, political and economic context is critical. Moreover, a city can only be smart if it addresses the challenges of its slum-dwellers and I think this could be a common ground for India and Bangladesh to learn and share experiences with each other.
The other point of learning for the two countries could also be the use of technology to build inclusive cities that look after the poor and vulnerable. To me, this is the top line that defines a “smart city,” its ability to look after those who are at the bottom of the pyramid.
An integrated planning approach could support in addressing the needs of the poor in our cities. IPE Global has used this integrated approach for our work; an example will be from the State of Madhya Pradesh which is in Central India. One of the major components of this approach included creating an integrated cluster based approach to solid waste management. This resulted in significant reduction in transaction costs of solid waste management. Another integrated approach was to build and develop comprehensive water supply and sanitation system. Thirdly, integrated urban service centres were envisioned.
These centres would provide real-time data on multiple services while addressing citizen complaints and grievances in record time and with significantly reduced transaction costs. This ensured better coordination among various urban agencies like municipalities, development authorities and departments like police, transport and planning.
Cities are the centre of economic growth, innovation and empowerment. They are key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) agenda 2030. It is, therefore, encouraging to see Bangladesh gearing up to take on this challenge. It is the responsibility of the development community in Bangladesh to support the government in making our cities sustainable and truly smart. Learning from best practices from around the globe would be a logical start.
Dr Soumen Bagchi is Technical Director, Smart Cities, Urban Reforms & Infrastructure, IPE Global Limited.