Smart Cities Mission in India: Vision and Challenges

Article Introduction:

The term “smart cities” evokes a futuristic vision of a shining high density megalopolis, fully digitally enabled with city services managed on the cloud, green energy supply and multi-modal transportation complete with driverless cars, electric public transport and last mile rapid transit pods. Certainly, Barcelona has drawn attention with its smart planning and deployment of technology. Cities around the world are planning to implement varying degrees of technological solutions. However, in India, given that many cities struggle to provide high quality basic services, such a smart city seems a distant vision.

Interstingly, in a 2013 article in Harvard Business Review, Professor John D. Macomber laid down a two by two matrix for sustainable city planning, along the axes of financial investment and technological innovation to make cities competitive, smart and livable. Many ‘tech-enabled’ ideas fall in the quadrant of high innovation and high investment. However, Macomber argues, operating in the quadrant of low tech and low investment ideas can also create immediate impact in an unstructured and unpredictable environment like India.

The vision outlined by the Government of India matches this model; it is looking at a dashboard of ‘smart’ cities – from Greenfield developments to creating layers or pools of smartness within existing cities. Smartness has been defined not just by cutting edge technologies, but by providing adequate services for all citizens – from electricity, water and waste management to internet of things and analytics enabled smart mobility solutions.

However, given the complexity of implementation, systems thinking and design thinking lens needs to be considered at the very start and enmeshed with urban planning. Smartness will not lie in simply creating infrastructure and solutions, tech enabled or otherwise. Transforming urban India is not just about investment, as financial gurus suggesting public private partnerships believe. It’s not just about technology, as smart tech solution creators claim. It’s not just about the structure, as proponents of single window clearance suggest, offering a simplified regulatory regime where multi-department permissions for a new project can be given by a single government entity.

Eventual success will rest on the capacity of cities to attract investment and talent, their openness to seek partnerships and create a platform for other stakeholders to contribute and their ability to shape the behavior of citizens, administrators, suppliers, and others. How to understand and embody that in the master plan from the start will be critical for the entire effort.

Cities will need to layer their holistic vision with the ideas of human centeredness and how every stakeholder can experience better quality of life and contribute to the smart city.