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Blog: India's 100 Smart Cities - What Will Success Look Like?

28th January 2016

Dr Amy Hochadel, Future Cities Catapult’s India expert, blogs about how the success of India’s 100 Smart Cities rests with transformational local leadership and how we’re helping to power the smart city agenda in India.

We are delighted to see that Pune has been selected as one of the top 20 “India Smart Cities” who will receive investment from the government of India.  We’ve been involved with the Pune Municipal Corporation to position the city as a national leader among India’s smart cities and we look forward to hosting Pune’s leaders at Future Cities Catapult in February to share more best practice from the UK.

In 2015, India Prime Minister Narendra Modi set a challenge for the country to establish 100 smart cities.  The vision is bold and far reaching especially for a nation whose large urban areas struggle with maintaining 24/7 power, clean and readily available water and proper sanitation.  Smart means different things for different regions of the world and for India it means technology that helps facilitate a better quality of life for its millions of citizens through delivery of essential services whilst planning for a new urban future.

PM Modi has set the agenda, but it will be up to local leadership including Municipal Commissioners, Mayors and heads of local development corporations to deliver on that vision.  Many of these local leaders have operated in a transactional and bureaucratic scope for many years and will have to significantly change ‘business as usual’ in order to rise to the challenge.

To institute this level of change will require local leaders who can 1) think big and set a bold local vision that is inspirational; 2) engage citizens and build local inclusive coalitions; and 3)  be willing to take risks on big ideas that will require new ways of running local government.

Thinking Big and Setting a Vision

Mr Debashish Sen, Additional Chief Secretary in West Bengal and Chairman of HIDCO (Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation) in Newtown, Kolkata, is in the enviable position of building one of India’s smart cities from scratch.  Newtown is a planned development on the periphery of Kolkata.  The efforts led by Mr Sen and his team, including NKDA (New Town Kolkata Development Corporation) set the bar high for India’s Smart cities.  Mr Sen has set forth a bold vision of Newtown as the Financial Gateway of West Bengal and India, akin to Singapore.  He has engaged global experts and thinkers, including the UK’s Future Cities Catapult, to bring the next and best in smart and intelligent cities to Newtown.  He wants international investors to see Newtown as a place to do business with the infrastructure and people structure that can deliver across business, finance, academia, health care and more.  The India Smart City Challenge needs bold visionaries like Mr Sen who want to create India’s ‘Technological Taj Mahal’.

Engaging Citizens and Building Broad Coalitions

Mr Kunal Kumar, Municipal Commissioner of Pune in the Maharashtra State, has built a large coalition around his vision for Pune to be the most liveable city in India.  Pune has a large base of global industrial and technology corporations as well as some of the country’s top universities earning it the name, ‘Oxford of the East’.  Mr Kumar believes Pune has the ability to not only be one of India’s top smart cities, but to also be part of the national leadership that helps to guide and set the agenda for all of India’s smart cities.  He has gathered a broad base of local and national leaders across a wide variety of disciplines to build Pune’s Smart City Strategy.  Commissioner Kumar’s best asset is his willingness and ability to build shared ownership of Pune’s Smart City agenda.  He has encouraged co-design, delivery and leadership of a group including academic and business leaders, urban design specialists, entrepreneurs, social  and cultural leaders and students who all help Pune to achieve citizen buy-in.  Pune boasts to have reached: 50% of the total households in all 15 of its wards; 150,000 volunteers; 1 million registrations on their smart city website; and a 400 member team meeting with over 100 public and private sector groups. The group of architecture and design students who provided us with a tour spoke with a passion and a commitment about making Pune better, which only derives from those who feel ownership in government process – a rare phenomenon.

The coalitions should also be broader than India.  Government and companies around the world are looking to India for investment potential.  Partners like UK Trade and Industry (UKTI) have taken an early lead to make inroads for UK companies in India’s Smart city market.  On 19 January, ‘the Chancellor George Osborne and Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley reached a number of agreements to build on the economic relationship between the UK and India – focussing on financial services, infrastructure and technology.’

Taking risks

Both Newtown and Pune as well as all of the 100 smart cities will have to take risks to achieve their vision of a smart city.  Along the way there will be critics, dissenters, opponents and certainly those who are and feel disenfranchised.  Some groups such as the crowd sourced, Youth Ki Awaaz, claim that India’s Smart City Challenge will ‘force out the poor’ and be ‘a recipe for increased inequality and social exclusion’. Shivani Chaudhry claims that while the Smart City agenda is not inherently bad, the country should have other priorities: ‘Cities should be inclusive, equitable, ecological, and sustainable. Improved technology and connectivity are important, but what Indians need most is the realisation of their human right to live with dignity. Let the government focus on that first’.

The Smart City India Challenge will not be a silver bullet to cure all of India’s woes.  However, for those who feel that it may be one way to advance India’s urban areas and plan for an inevitable future, local leadership will need to make decisions that may prove unpopular or uncomfortable in the short term in order to plan for a long term healthy urban future – they will need to set a bold vision and create broad based inclusive coalitions.

The announcement on 26th of January of India’s first tranche of 20 Smart Cities to receive government funding, in which Pune was ranked as #2, is only the beginning – it’s what local leadership does in the weeks and months to come that will determine if India truly establishes a national network of flagship smart cities that ‘sparks meaningful change’ for a new urban future that improves the lives of all Indians.

Dr Amy Hochadel is the Global City lead at Future Cities Catapult in London, England.  She currently works across the UK, EU, India and United Arab Emirates.  Her expertise is in Integration of Local Government and Cities into the Global Economy and Future Cities Market.

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