Indian Smart Cities Mission: A process to leapfrog to double digit growth

by Mousumi Roy

The Smart Cities Mission of the Government of India is one of the most challenging and ambitious urban development agenda, writes an urban infrastructure enthusiast.

The objective to develop 100 Smart Cities over five years is a laudable commitment towards urban transformation. The mission is launched at a time when India’s urbanisation is growing faster than the rest of the world.

Currently only about 31 per cent of India’s population lives in urban areas. Globally the share is over 50 per cent and in most developed countries the share exceeds 80 per cent. This implies that urbanisation will continue to take place over the next several decades and is projected to reach about 600 million by 2031. It further envisions Indian cities to be the locus and engine of economic growth over the next two decades and suggests that the realisation of an ambitious goal of 9-10 per cent growth in GDP depends fundamentally on making Indian cities more liveable, inclusive, bankable and competitive.

It is for this reason that we need to plan our urban areas well and cannot wait any longer to do so. India’s urban population is about 31 per cent and this relatively low base allows us to plan our urbanisation strategy in the right direction by taking advantage of the latest developments in technology. It also allows an opportunity to learn from good practices and mistakes made elsewhere, within the country as well as outside the country.

City building exercise is a continuous process with its share of challenges and difficulties. This project will provide a number of opportunities as well as challenges for all stakeholders in the sector. Smart cities are those cities which have intelligent physical, social, institutional and economic infrastructure while ensuring centrality of citizens in a sustainable environment. Smart City for its sustainability needs to offer economic activities and employment opportunities to a wide section of its residents, regardless of their level of education, skills or income levels. In doing so, a Smart City needs to identify its comparative or unique advantage and core competence in specific areas of economic activities and promote such activities aggressively by developing the required institutional, physical, social and economic infrastructures for it and attracting investors and professionals to take up such activities. It also needs to support the required skill development for such activities in a big way. This would help a Smart City in developing the required environment for the creation of economic activities and employment opportunities.

Building new, green cities from scratch is a great way to avoid many troubles but in a country like India, the retro-fitting of existing cities with “smart” and economical solutions is a more viable option. The conceptualisation of a Smart City varies from city to city and country to country, depending on the level of development, willingness to change and reform, resources and aspirations of the city residents. In developed countries, a Smart City is one where existing infrastructure is augmented through application of IT, and includes sustainable development. However, the approach is different in the Indian context. Since many cities lack basic infrastructure, institutional framework and proper governance, Smart City initiatives will have to focus on providing basic needs through IT enabled solutions.

Intelligent ICT, IoT platforms, big data and analytics will play a very significant role in the evolution of Smart Cities.
These technologies will help find solutions to issues ranging from poor infrastructure to improving the delivery of a range of public services.

The key elements of success towards building Smart Cities would broadly cover the following aspects.

  • Financial resources of both the public and private sector have to be utilised effectively to meet the objective of building Smart Cities.
  • Cross-sectoral cooperation between state departments and local bodies would build stronger ties of collaboration and integrate the efforts towards meeting the objectives. Cities need to have inter-departmental cohesiveness as well as harmony for driving the Mission.
  • Complex solutions require organisational versatility, including more flexible partnership models between the public and private sectors.
  • Focusing on the needs of its citizens and encouraging the processes that make cities greener and self-reliant. Smart Cities should be places where citizens are generators of ideas, services and solutions, rather than mere receivers of them.
  • Entry of all-encompassing technology should not be seen as a one-stop-solution to all our problems. Encouraging innovation is key to improve city life.
  • Most cities today are vast repositories of information and data. When systematically organised in a digital fashion, the data can be exposed, shared and interconnected. Giving people the right kind of access to this information can simplify ways of life and reduce day to day challenges.

Challenges exist but if a holistic approach is adopted for implementation of the Smart Cities project, the benefits which will accrue to all the stakeholders will be huge. Interconnecting governmental organisations and administration; creating e-education solutions; devising novel technological innovations while promoting energy conservation and material re-use; leveraging technology for the efficient movement of people, vehicles and goods are just some initiatives which can bring about a smart change and cultivate a green movement.

Mousumi Roy is Senior Director at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI ) and heads verticals on Smart Cities, Real Estate and Urban Infrastructure.

About the Author: Mousumi Roy