Big Idea – The City – Megapolis Not a License for Megalomania

By Nalaka Gunawardene.

Published on October 29, 2015 with 1 Comment


It literally means a large city or urban area. Suddenly everyone in Sri Lanka has heard about it, and there is even a Cabinet Minister for the subject.

In their manifesto for the Parliamentary Election in August, the United National Front for Good Governance talked about turning Sri Lanka’s Western Province into “the most attractive megapolis in South Asia”. Now in office, UNFGG wants to make it happen.

The proposal is not exactly new. It first emerged over a decade ago, when Ranil Wickremesinghe was last Prime Minister. The original plan was developed by CESMA International, a part of Singapore’s state-run Housing Development Corporation (now rebranded as Surbana). The aim was to create a large metropolitan region “expanding outwards from Colombo to Avissawella in the north and Panadura to the south”.

The revived megapolis plan would probably resemble the original. And it looks set to become the Mahaweli of the new government.

For now, however, there is limited information in the public domain. As at 14 September 2015, the Western Regional Megapolis Planning Project (WRMPP)’s official website was still under development at On its Facebook page, a notice dated 16 July invites interested persons “to send their ideas/concerns”. (

What do we comment on? An urban revitalization plan can’t be all things to all people; it needs some focus. Elsewhere on their FB page, WRMPP’s vision is given as “Transform the Western Province as the most vibrant and livable cosmopolitan smart city” (followed by 45 more words, way too long for a vision statement!). It seems like ideas are still being sharpened.

Urban Century
● As we wait for specifics to emerge, there is no argument on the urgent need to better manage our cities.

na2First, let’s face reality: our common future will be decidedly urban. Although the 2012 Census categorised only 18.2% of the Lankan population as being urban, that figure is misleading. Currently, only those living in Municipal Council or Urban Council areas are considered urban – even though some Pradeshiya Sabha areas are just as urbanised.

Analysing the key findings of the 2012 head count, the Census and Statistics Department says that the urban percentage “would have been much higher if the definitional issues were resolved”. Right now, the eight largest cities – Colombo, Kaduwela, Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, Moratuwa, Negombo, Kotte, Kesbewa and Maharagama – make up nearly half the ‘urban’ population. All are in the Western Province, and only Negombo is outside the Colombo District.

WP, where 28% of the population lives on 5.6% of the total land area, accounted for 43% of the island’s GDP in 2012. The province leads in almost all social indicators, but also faces a higher share of problems like overcrowding, pollution and traffic congestion.

Business as usual will only worsen the urban chaos that, in turn, can lead to a declining quality of life. This is why we need proper city planning that goes way beyond recent attempts at ‘city beautification’ (which some critics have likened to a terminally ill patient getting cosmetic surgery).

Smart cities
● Other South Asian countries are grappling with similar or worse challenges. Already, three out of 10 South Asians live in cities (not counting the floating populations), and the UN says a massive rise is to be expected in the coming decades. Between 2014 and 2050, for example, India is projected to add 404 million city dwellers.

With this in view, India in 2014 announced an ambitious programme to create 100 smart cities. Under this, state capitals, as well as many tourist and heritage cities are to receive funding for upgrading their infrastructure. But Prime Minister Modi and his technocrats have been struggling to explain just what they mean by smart cities.

The term ‘smart city’ refers to urban systems, and not to the smartness of residents. In fact, there is no universal definition of smart cities: it can mean smart utilities, smart housing, smart mobility or smart design.

Smart cities use information and communications technologies (ICTs) as their principal infrastructure. These become the basis for improving the quality and performance of urban services, reducing costs and resource consumption, and for engaging citizens more effectively.

ICTs – ranging from automatic sensors to data centres — would create ‘feedback loops’ within the complex city systems. If processed properly, this flow of data in real time can vastly improve the design of “hard” physical environment and the provision of “soft” services to citizens.

There are two directions for smart cities to evolve from existing, not-so-smart (mostly stupid) ones.

The first is a very technology-intensive approach: sensors are placed everywhere – from buses and trains to garbage bins and public buildings – and public services are provided very efficiently due to continuous feedback.

The second involves a better relationship between citizens and governments leveraged by available technologies. This relies on citizens to help improve service delivery by identifying their needs and creating mechanisms for feedback and reports. Local government bodies and citizens collaborate on managing neighbourhoods and improving public services. Smartphone apps or SMS services connect citizens and service providers. In this scenario, citizens themselves become the sensors…

These two approaches are not mutually exclusive. In any case, each city must adapt an approach to suit its own realities. As infrastructure specialist Dr Rohan Samarajiva has pointed out, exclusive reliance on smartphones for urban feedback can distort priorities in countries where they are still not ubiquitous. SMS, on the other hand, cuts across social and income groups and reaches (almost) everyone.

Efficient city planning needs insights on how people use specific urban environments – roads, stations, marketplaces or parks, etc. Aggregated (and anonymised) mobile phone use patterns – interpreted with other local knowledge – can help determine such use patterns. Planners can assign more resources and services to areas where more people converge.

For the past two years, Samarajiva’s LIRNEasia and partners have been analyzing mobile network big data (MNBD) to find such patterns. Their findings are shared at http://lirneasia. net/projects/bd4d/ (and will be discussed in a future column).

naSri Lanka’s choices
● Even though ‘smart city’ has been mentioned, it is not yet clear what approach Sri Lanka’s megapolis would adopt. Conceptual clarity is crucial, as is open public discussion on choices being made.

The newly sworn Minister of Town Planning and Water Resources Rauf Hakeem has said that Kandy would be developed as Sri Lanka’s first ‘Smart City’. Is this because Kandy is in his electoral district? On what evidence base or reasoning has this choice been made? We need to know.

In any case, highrise buildings, high tech facilities and transplanted greenery alone don’t necessarily make a city, let alone a smart one.

As I argued in a panel discussion during Colomboscope 2015 in August, city is a collective state of mind. To quote myself: “Cities are where many worlds collide, but in a liberal and pluralistic setting. Real city dwellers learn to navigate through contentious issues without aggression or violence. It’s the pseudo urbanites who simply transplant their village mindsets, along with feudalism and intolerance.”

Viewed in that light, does today’s Colombo even qualify as a city? Beyond physical infrastructure and administrative designations, what turns an urban area into a real city: Bohemian lifestyles, melting pot of cultures, a certain defiance of authority, sense of innovation and entrepreneurship, or other factors?

Do we appreciate that these are often inter-linked (as Singapore belatedly realized, thus starting to ease up)? How are these and other intangible qualities nurtured, and by whom – the elite, merchant class, artistes or intellectuals? The idea of a modern city can be explored at many levels, by sociologists, anthropologists, writers and activists. Issues of culture clashes, sub-cultures, identity and loyalties make cities a veritable treasure trove for researchers.

A smart city or megapolis that is aloof of these factors can do more harm than good. Without a rights-based approach to urban development, ICT-sourced intelligence can become citizen surveillance.

As digital activist Sanjana Hattotuwa said in a recent blogpost: “It is essentially an article of faith that the growing use of big data in urban policymaking, and policymaking around the development of urban spaces will take into account concerns around privacy and the protection of the most vulnerable groups in cities.” (full text: https://goo. gl/37X3Ha)

Despite regime change, we still live with corruption, technocratic arrogance and political expediency. Our rulers love to monitor private actions of citizens in the name of ‘national security’. Can megapolis or smart cities become another extension of the overbearing state?

This is why we urgently need wide ranging public debate on choosing pathways for urban futures. Back in the late 1970s, the Accelerated Mahaweli project did not go through such a process, and that was a pity. Its vast benefits are not in question, but greater consultations could have avoided some mis-steps like the confrontation with Veddah people, and water quality concerns arising from new irrigation canals. The new government must also learn from the decade-long misadventure of Hambantota where investments did not match local needs or people’s aspirations.

Megacity should not become a license for megalomania!


Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is on Twitter @NalakaG and blogs at


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  1. Is this not the agenda 21 of UN ? Where they want to converge all the cities in to one mega city, so that the population is clustered into one section which gives them the ability to control every single human being with a press of a button ? Ultimately technology has not given freedom but restricted us more.

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