Development, Economics and finance, Environment & energy, Government and governance, Science and technology | Asia, South Asia

9 September 2016

India’s Smart Cities Mission aims to transform 100 cities – breathing new life into urban areas and creating the local economies and environments of the future, Chandan Chawla writes.

Worldwide, smart city initiatives are being recognised as integral to solving the challenges of urbanisation and for driving competitiveness. And governments are backing the idea with big money.

China’s efforts have seen the country establish 285 smart city pilot projects. Singapore’s Smart Nation drive identifies five key domains: transport, home and environment, business productivity, health and enabled ageing and public sector services, which are being impacted through digital technology. In the United States their smart cities initiative began in September 2015 with an investment of $160 million in federal research and leveraging technological collaborations with local communities. The Australian Government’s smart cities strategy includes federal government funding for state infrastructure projects that meet a number of criteria such as increasing economic growth or tax revenue. These are examples of an emerging global trend towards national and regional interventions in the smart city arena.

India’s Smart Cities Mission celebrated its first anniversary on 25 June 2016. And it is a milestone worth noting, because despite what its critics might say, this initiative contains ingredients that set it apart from other urban schemes and promise to deliver a potential watershed moment in rejuvenating India’s urban environment.

The Smart Cities Mission aims to put cities in the driver’s seat in order to enhance economic growth and improve people’s quality of life by enabling local area development and embracing technology for complex problem solving.

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In a departure from traditional grant-based initiatives, the Smart Cities Mission has selected cities through a two-stage competitive selection process. The first stage involved an intra-state competition to select 100 potential smart cities. In the second stage, these 100 cities submitted smart city proposals (SCPs) which were evaluated by an expert panel from the Ministry of Urban Development. At the end of this first year, 33 shortlisted cities have kick started implementation proposals and about 64 cities have submitted revised SCPs to re-enter the competition with improved plans.

SCPs are built around long-term visionary planning principles. They have employed extensive community consultations to build on a city’s strengths and set out key strategic priorities. For example, the city of Pune (population 3.11 million) is an education and manufacturing hub, and home to many prominent IT companies with a history of promoting local start-ups. The Pune SCP leverages its strong human capital and business environment. It aims to create 45,000 jobs in the startup hub and commercial spaces through retrofitting its Aundh-Baner-Balewadi area.

Winning SCPs have promoted transformative projects that make a direct impact on economic growth (including creating new jobs, attracting new firms, increasing productivity and improving the business climate in both the formal and informal sectors).

The successful SCP-selected cities will establish a Special Purpose Vehicle to plan, execute and manage projects. As part of the program, India’s central government will provide assistance of Rs. 500 crore (around US$ 75 million) for each city and the respective states and local bodies will provide an equal amount.

These special purpose vehicles are expected to leverage private equity sources, seek investors and look at innovative financing mechanisms. In order to do more with less, the winning cities have pushed ideas that benefit larger populations and solve more critical problems. The local area planning-based approach aims to make an entire city ‘smart’ over the long term by generating surpluses, raising new resources and creating credible investment opportunities, thereby debunking the notion that the Smart Cities Mission will only create isolated islands of excellence.

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In addition to providing basic infrastructure, the mission emphasises the use of solar energy, recycled wastewater, smart metering and underground ducting to improve the visual landscape. IT connectivity and digitisation are being promoted to improve transparency and accountability for citizens. Smart features related to urban form such as pedestrian pathways, non-motorised transport, compact land use and safety features for women and children, are also given precedence. For both redevelopment and greenfield projects, the mission guidelines mandate energy efficient and green buildings and the inclusion of affordable housing.

Unlike traditional silo initiatives, Pan-city e-governance initiatives will benefit entire cities through the application of information and communications technology to improve services. Once IT infrastructure is laid, the city can creatively use and integrate it to address several social and economic objectives. Transport, waste management, and water supply have been popular pan-city thematic areas in all 33 cities.

Critics describe the idea of India’s smart cities as delusional, or express fears about technology and its ability to serve the marginalised. Apprehensions are expressed through warnings that smart cities lack a city-wide approach, truncate the role of local governments, pander to the private sector and will undermine democratically elected city representatives. But however faddish and utopian it might appear to critics, the idea of smart cities clearly offers creative possibilities for urban reform and merits careful consideration. While technology is one strong ingredient of India’s Smart Cities Mission, it has been supplemented by visionary planning, fiscal prudence, win-win partnerships and target outputs that directly benefit citizens daily lives.

Urban development and planning is a state issue in India, and despite several initiatives to empower states, they have not ventured very far in the urban policy arena. With India’s unique culture, and its states at varying levels of urbanisation, a one-size-fits-all approach may lead to uncertain outcomes on the ground. As the Smart Cities Mission navigates a number of diverse challenges, it will provide valuable feedback for further developing India’s urbanisation policy in order to achieve growth and address sustainability. It will also enable citizen participation in the process, facilitating people’s ability to influence local policies and their implementation.

The 100 smart cities are rightly poised to provide solutions for equitable and sustainable urban centres and vastly improve efficiency in the delivery of urban services – and they deserve the chance to prove their potential.

Chandan Chawla is an urban planner. In the past, she has freelanced with private consulting firms for training and handholding cities for smart city proposal preparation. The ideas and opinions are the author’s own and are written in a personal capacity. They do not reflect the views of her clients or cities in any way. The author has not been compensated, directly or indirectly, for writing this article.

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Chawla, Chandan. 2016. "Building Tomorrow's Cities - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.