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18 IA&B - DEC 2011
Bridging the Gap Smita Srinivas, Founder Director of the Technological Change Lab at Columbia University, speaks to IA&B about how urban planning and efficient implementation can promote tremendous change in our cities. Photograph: courtesy Smita Srinivas
Smita Srinivas is the Founder Director of the Technological Change Lab at Columbia University and Assistant Professor of Urban Planning. She works on comparative institutional analysis in economic development with a special focus on ties in cities and nations between social welfare and technological innovation. She is also a Faculty Associate of the South Asian Institute (SAI), Columbia University and Senior Advisor at the Indian Institutes for Human Settlements (IIHS), likely to be Indiaâ€™s largest research and university effort on economic and urban and regional planning issues.
IA&B: You have researched, written and taught on industrial development and urbanism. What do you think about the processes of urban governance, and the way cities in India are governed? SS: There are several challenges to industrial development. India is, of course, still industrialising extremely rapidly. However, there is a real disconnect between the industrial development ideas that proliferate at the national level and the kinds of challenges that the people, at the local level, face. Every aspect of industrial development is manifested within a city; but that is not how policy and ideas regarding India’s industrial transformation are actually mapped out. So, there several things that could be done for more efficient and equitable transformation, but are not being done.
IA&B: Further, do you think innovations have to be dealt with at the grassroots level, at the micro level or the centralised system that we have? SS: I think there is a place for centralisation in all economies; there is no economy in the world which has not had some level of centralisation. Having said that, there is a lot of innovation, particularly technological innovation, that occurs at the grassroots and unless you go there, map it, spend time with the people and ask them ‘what would you like to have changed?’ you can never know what needs to be changed. So, if we want to see urban India as an engine of innovation, we have to think differently about the way this is going to fit into our national setting.
IA&B: What about implementation? What is your take on the disparity we have between policy making and the policy being actually executed in a country like India? SS: In a comparative perspective, a lot of the countries we tend to think of as developed are actually places where the relationship of urban governance has evolved very differently in industrial history. India, with the 74 th amendment, has struggled to know what to do with urban wards, how to think about the relationship of civic management and basic infrastructure, and the relationship of people and their work. Owing to this, policy governance became specifically compartmentalised. As there was little amalgamation between inherently related sectors, not surprisingly then, our cities have become unliveable.
IA&B: As an academician, do you think the present methods of teaching urban practice are efficient enough to translate the knowledge you assimilate in an institute to the field? SS: Academic work is not expected to make things more efficient. Learning is very indirect; it is not about taking ideas and applying them. It is, in fact, looking very closely at what is out there and saying how does this make us theories differently?, how does it make us rethink our urban space? It is important for academics to re-conceptualise planning as traditionally, in India, planning has always been thought of as something that happens within the planning commission. Also, I am biased towards the thought that you cannot understand an economy unless you are thinking of particular places. However, most economics is not taught that way; most planning is not taught that way either. Some marriage in between will really help us.
IA&B: Do you think it is fair to blame, at some point, the process of implementation for an idea not being executed? SS: Implementation is a very complex thing. We can treat implementation as putting into place an idea and making it happen. But you can also see implementation more broadly as the greater understanding of our own history. The average Indian idea of development has been very imitative. Our cities mostly only try to emulate other cities. This approach does not work since different cities have different industrial and economic pressures. For example, Mumbai is very different from a city like Nagpur, and yet again, from one like Pune. There is little in common except for a narrow set of activities.
IA&B: Being a planner and economist, would you say managerial thinking in India is a little weak on the urban? SS: In my opinion, it is very weak. We have historically had an anti-urban bias in Indian economic conceptions. Therefore, the idea of India as a nation has understandably been focused on rural issues. However, we need to rethink our definitions of urban and rural. We have very unique opportunities in India and hence Columbia is trying to partner with Indian cities; not so much that Columbia has more to teach, but it could perhaps lend a space to galvanise new kinds of conversations about this. A lot of particularly young urban administrators are trying to find a language because they don’t fit. Maybe this is how we’ll eventually see things actually change.