Celebrating the Past with a Focus on the Future
Last time I stood here, I was tasked to speak about digitization. This year, the organizers have asked me to share some thoughts on smart cities. These are two strategic projects of the Government of India, they are schemes aimed at pushing the nation ahead on a path of innovation and development. It goes without saying, that we support these initiatives and would like to contribute – and be it with the comparatively meager means at our disposal.
We have assembled here tonight to celebrate 25 years of TFSC. In a life of an organization this is a long period – and a good opportunity to take stock and, from there, to also look ahead. I am very happy that TFSC has chosen to celebrate the historic anniversary with a future-oriented topic. We are celebrating the past with a discussion on how to manage the future!
All this has only been possible due to a solid base. The partnership of our two institutes has provided this solid foundation. This partnership has grown and matured over the years, and has grown as a family grows. Today, TFSC is a strong, solid, respected institution – with an outreach far beyond the borders of Tamil Nadu.
So looking back, I congratulate you and thank you. Looking ahead – and I am slowly approaching the theme of today – I am confident that TFSC will have a bright future.
Smart Cities is a very important topic – that’s a platitude. The “smart” stands for “innovation”, technology driven and creative. India’s cities are in urgent need of a strategic rescue plan. Organizing and coming to grips with what at the moment is anarchic urbanization may well be termed a matter of survival. One number shows the magnitude of the challenge: every minute, some 30 Indians move from the rural areas to the cities. They are in search for a better life, for jobs, education, housing, health, sanitation – and all the other things we often take for granted. While for hundreds of million Indians they are yet not.
The smart cities project – which the government has termed “Smart Cities Mission”, to highlight the urgency – is a central component of the overall development strategy. Also for this reason (and for the reason that it may turn out to be a profitable business opportunity) foreign governments have shown pro-active interest and willingness to give also financial support. Also the Federal German government is among the sponsors.
In comparison with the Federal government FNF is a very small fish. Still, we believe we can contribute to the effort and have carved out – in cooperation with TFSC – a niche. We believe it is highly relevant to discuss and promote the active contribution of the SME-sector. This is not only about multinationals and big players. Without a clear role for SMEs, the project will not succeed. We hope, TFSC may have an impact on the related and ongoing policy debates.
At the same time, SMEs and the entrepreneurial class must themselves become smart and innovative. The eco-system of doing business is changing dramatically – in a smart manner. The catch word here is e-commerce. We hail TFSC for having developed – in cooperation with us – a series of hand-on trainings on e-commerce. We are committed to expand this program in the future and TFSC is a key-player in these plans.
I will not go into the details of the ongoing debates about the implementation of the SCM among stake holders and in the media. It is to be expected, that the topic is arousing considerable debates.
I wish to make some more basic observations. As a liberal Foundation, we see enormous potential for implementation of liberal principles in the context of Smart City Planning.
Liberals (as most people with common sense) believe in the virtues of local autonomy – even subsidiarity. In politics this principle means that a central authority should have a subsidiary function and perform only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level. Smart Cities is therefore also an issue of governance, local governance and devolution. The project will only work if such tasks as urban planning, ensuing water supply, infrastructure development – to name but a few.
I am of the impression that thus far the focus on most of the debates in India has been limited to the technological aspects, the upgrading of certain services on digital platforms. There are many other, structural issues that need to be addressed – in the field of governance. I gather that the introduction that the creation of a new agency – it almost looks like a parallel local government – in the shape of the “Special Planning Vehicle” (SPV) is rather controversial and has caused considerable resistance to the entire SCM in some parts of the country. I gather from these debates, that the existing local bodies need to be strengthened – and not sidelined. Or: should one decide to sideline them, one should not be surprised if they don’t cooperate or even resist the necessary changes.
Another huge challenge is securing the vast sums of money needed. The sums committed as subsidies from the central government look like a drop in the ocean considering the magnitude of some of the schemes. All this will only work out with substantial investment from the private sector and myriad private public partnerships. Some of the money will also have to come from outside. In a way, the Smart City-vision is similar to the Make-in-India-vision. Outside investors are a core component. They will only rush to India, if they find an inviting regulatory framework. While some steps have been taken – and then ongoing GST-reform is a major breakthrough – other bottlenecks remain.
The people of Chennai know from own very painful experience how crucial it is that India’s cities become smarter – and that the ticking time bombs which are the result of bad or no urban planning be diffused. It is simply not acceptable in our modern times that heavy rains lead to a catastrophe that kills nearly 300 people.
I would not want to end my talk with a reminder of that horrible, man-made disaster. I wish to end with a message of optimism. During my two years in India, I have seen abundant examples of creative, innovative and problem-solving efforts – also here in Chennai within the ranks and the leadership of TFSC. May these qualities guide the organization - and the community it operates in - in the future.