100 Resilient Cities Initiative In Atlanta

by Emma French And Supraja Sudharsan

Setting Atlanta’s Resiliency Agenda

Last week the City of Atlanta launched its 100 Resilient Cities program (100RC) with a day-long agenda-setting workshop — the first step of an engagement process to develop a robust resilience strategy for the City. Atlanta was selected to be part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100RC program in May 2016 along with thirty-six other cities from around the world, together forming the one-hundred-cities’ cohort of 100RC. The selected cities, which span 6 continents and over 50 countries, receive financing to hire a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO), as well as additional logistical and networking support.

Atlanta’s agenda-setting workshop, co-hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation, featured a forty-five minute presentation by 100RC President, Michael Berkowitz, a keynote address from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and four facilitated small group activities designed to gauge the participants’ understanding of resiliency and perceptions about Atlanta’s biggest long-term stresses and acute shocks. In addition to these activities, participants were asked to take a pre- and post-workshop online survey on changes in attitude. Students, faculty, and staff from Georgia Tech, including several researchers from CUI, attended the workshop, as both attendees and table facilitators.

What Makes a City Resilient?

Resilience may be defined in several ways depending on the system being studied and the actors involved, including ecological, organizational, or supply-chain system resilience, or resilience of a particular community or individual. In general, resilience refers to adaptation and/or recovery following a disruption to normal operations of a system (Bhamra, Ran et al.). In a forthcoming book chapter, CUI Director Jennifer Clark draws connections between urban resilience and innovation. In it, she writes “resilience speaks to the viability of complex systems to withstand and adapt to change.” For a city that encompasses complex economic, environmental, and social systems, a change or disruption could be in the form of acute shocks, such as flash floods, massive infrastructure failures, heat waves, and blizzards, or from expressions of long-term stresses, such as chronic water shortages, poverty, inequality, pollution, and unemployment.

With more than 50% of the world’s population living in urban areas and climate change acting as a multiplier of many of the above-enumerated shocks and stresses, the role of city government and other stakeholders in weathering these changes and building systems that can withstand and overcome adverse impacts of urbanization and climate change, and the associated social and economic challenges becomes paramount. The IPCC estimates funding requirements for climate-related adaptation efforts in developing countries to be in the order of seventy to one hundred billion dollars a year by 2050 (albeit with low confidence). A UNEP report, however, estimates this gap to be higher by 4-5 times by 2050. Therefore, support from public, private, and non-governmental organizations is crucial for building local capacity for resilience. Several programs such as the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, as well as transnational networks such as 100RC, ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, the United Nations Human Settlement Program, and others provide support in the form of financing, information-sharing, and networking opportunities for cities. However, depending on their definition of “resilience” and their inclusion or exclusion of adaptation-related issues, the nature and type of support varies among the above organizations.

100RC defines resilience as the ability of a city to maintain essential functions and to evolve and emerge stronger in the face of acute shocks and chronic stresses. A resilient city, according to the Rockefeller Foundation, is one that is reflective of past experiences, resourceful, exhibits inclusiveness in decision-making, integrates different systems and institutions, is robust, redundant to accommodate disruption to services, and flexible to changing circumstances. Utilizing a City Resilience Framework (CRF, developed by Arup and the Rockefeller Foundation, See Fig. 1 below), the CRO plans interventions to address identified shocks and stresses that span some or all of the dimensions of the CRF. In Medellin, Colombia, for instance, tramlines added to supplement its gondola-based transit system improves the city’s resilience indicators across all of the four dimensions by providing redundancy, contributing to reduction in homicide rates, reducing transit time ,and enhancing social inclusion and integrating regions along the path of transit.

Fig 1: City Resilience Framework.The four primary dimensions are represented in gray and the drivers of these dimensions represented in yellow. These dimensions (drivers) are Health & Wellbeing (Meets Basic Needs, Supports Livelihoods & Employment, Ensures Public Health Services) , Economy & Society (Fosters Economic Prosperity, Ensures Social Stability, Security & Justice, Promotes Cohesive & Engaged Communities), Infrastructure & Environment(Provides Reliable Communications & Mobility, Ensures Continuity of Critical Services, Provides & Enhances Natural & Manmade Assets), and Leadership & Strategy (Promotes Leadership & Effective Management, Empowers a Broad Range of Stakeholders, Fosters Long-term & Integrated Planning).

The workshop emphasized several steps as vital to the 100RC initiative. These include the tracking and measurement of metrics in the implementation of the resiliency framework, networking with other member cities from across the world, and learning from their experiences. The implementation of the initiative itself is tied around engaging diverse stakeholders from the city and bringing together different perspectives on what resilience means. Planning and implementation of resilience initiatives is heavily dependent upon the ability of the CRO to work across government silos, bring together diverse stakeholders, and create a concrete plan for increasing the City’s resiliency based on pragmatic, local understanding of prevalent shocks and stresses. In light of the importance of this stakeholder engagement process, it is therefore imperative to evaluate the process of the first agenda-setting workshop that was organized by the 100RC initiative for the City of Atlanta last week, and assess its strengths and weaknesses for consideration towards future stakeholder- engagement processes. This is carried out below.  

Building Resiliency Through Public Engagement

Public engagement and participation are necessary for building the institutional capacity of cities (Healy 1997). Atlanta’s workshop last week was the first step in engaging the public in the process of creating a resiliency plan for the City. Feedback from participants and facilitators will be used to prioritize what shocks and stressors the CRO focuses on. During one of the activities, participants worked together to place a number of shocks and stresses on a four part grid to indicate the frequency/likelihood on the horizontal access increasing to the right, and impact on the vertical access increasing upward (see below). At the end of the activity each table shared their top three stresses and shocks with the whole group. Poverty/inequality, lack of social cohesion, lack of affordable housing, and lack of transit options were identified as a top chronic stressors by almost every group, while flooding, extreme temperatures, and infrastructure failures dominated the top acute shock lists.

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For one of the activities, participants worked together to place a number of shocks and stresses on a four-part grid to indicate the frequency/likelihood and the severity of impact of each challenge.

In the next activity each participant was given 12 stickers, which they placed on the City Resilience Framework diagram (see Figure 1 above) without discussing their choices with others–green stickers next to things the city is doing well, yellow stickers for things the city could do better, and red stickers next to things the city urgently needs to improve. At the table featured below, the green stickers were concentrated around ‘Fosters Economic Prosperity’ and ‘Ensures Public Health Services.’ There was a mix a yellow and red stickers under ‘Meets Basic Needs,’ and red clumps next to ‘Transportation’ and ‘Empowers a Broad Range of Stakeholders.’

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Participants placed stickers onto the City Resilience diagram to indicate things the city is doing well, things it could do better, and things it urgently needs to improve. (Left to right: Timothy Block, Enterprise Community Partners; Reese McCranie, Director of Communications at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport; Marshall Shepherd, Director of UGA’s Program for Atmospheric Sciences; Emma Tinsley, Fellow at the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, Inc.; and Maria Azuri, Director of Programs of Immigrant Affairs, City of Atlanta).

Underscoring many of the discussions at the workshop was the recognition that the stresses and shocks facing Atlanta are subjective, varying significantly depending on where in the city you live or work, as well as the social and financial capital to which an individual or neighborhood has access. When planning the workshop, the City intentionally invited a mix of people from the private businesses, government offices, nonprofits, community organizations and academic institutions (see Fig. 2 below for the breakdown of registered guests by sector). Of the 160 people who were registered to attend, 44 were from government (28%), 42 from nonprofits (26%), 22 from academia (14%), 19 from business (12%), 16 were elected official (10%), 16 were community members (10%), and 1 person was from a faith-based organization (less than 1%). It should be noted that the authors do not know how many from each group actually attended.

Fig. 2: Breakdown of the participants who’d registered for the Atlanta Resilience Agenda-Setting Workshop.


During the last activity, participants identified stakeholders who were not in the room who they believe should be included in this planning process, such as students, members of the LGBTQ community, private sector representatives, and community members. One participant pointed out that the timing and location of the workshop (it was held at the Carter Center in Northeast Atlanta) may have prevented community members from attending if, for instance, they could not take work off on a Monday.

Global Knowledge Sharing and Local Empowerment

The 100RC initiative provides both opportunities and challenges for the City of Atlanta. Opportunities include the ability to allocate dedicated resources to identifying, tracking, and collaborating with diverse stakeholders to address the City’s vulnerability to shocks and stresses, and learning from, and sharing resources and knowledge with other cities around the world. The major challenges include enabling broad engagement in the political process by taking into account unequal access to resources, and empowering citizens to initiate collaborative problem-solving to address the issues they themselves have identified. Public participation is no longer just about hosting a public meeting to discuss already decided upon alternatives. It is about providing the public with data and resources to come up with their own solutions using their collective creativity and localized understanding of the problems.

In sum, each city has a very localized set of stresses and shocks, and the 100RC Network facilitates cities seeing how others are moving through this process of setting priorities. It enables the city to carve out a dedicated resource and hire a Chief Resilience Officer, and design and implement a resiliency plan. As it proceeds, there is a need to ensure that the subsequent data gathering, the indicators utilized for data gathering, and the resulting decision-making processes are representative and integrate the capacities and constraints of all relevant stakeholders in order to maximize the impact of planned interventions and to build inclusive and robust systems for a truly resilient Atlanta.  


Scaling The Smart City: Design, Deployment, and the MAPPD Project

By Jennifer Clark and Thomas Lodato

How do we build the Smart City?

This question is the central research focus of the MAPPD project (“mapped”), or the Multi-Array Phased Participatory Deployment. Both a practical and strategic endeavor, MAPPD is an ongoing research project and a city-university collaboration of the Georgia Institute of Technology and the City of Atlanta. Georgia Tech’s Center for Urban Innovation (CUI) and the Georgia Tech Research Institute are the university leads for the project with the support of the Georgia Tech’s Institute for People and Technology (IPaT) and the Public Design Workshop.  The City of Atlanta’s SMARTATL team has taken the implementation lead for the City.

The project focuses on understanding the various layers of enabling Atlanta’s Smart City design, from technology development to public policy and administrative practices to community and stakeholder engagement. Beyond charting and understanding how Smart City efforts progress, MAPPD is also an intervention itself, following and contributing to an extended case study of Smart City development.

Lessons from (and for) the Emerging Smart City Landscape

Globally, no shortage of projects and programs exist under the Smart City label, now numbering well into the hundreds. These efforts are geographically diverse, diverging “in some meaningful ways from the dominant imaginary that ‘smartness’ only resides in cities like New York and San Francisco.” As such, these efforts provide many lessons related to planning, development, and implementation that account for productive differences in the social, political, and cultural spheres where the efforts reside. From these projects, we have charted important trends and gaps that motivated the foundations of the MAPPD project. These foundations are:

  1. A phased technical deployment in order to increase opportunities for in-action learning, community engagement and responsiveness, and integration of ongoing technical improvements, while simultaneously reducing the implementation burden on participating organizations.
  2. A comprehensive administrative and technical strategy focused on interoperability that accounts for the necessary current and eventual need for systems to communicate in order to foster sustainable growth and resilient expansion over time.
  3. A fundamental commitment to engaging the community at large, and to integrating concerns originating in everything from planning to technical specifications in meaningful ways.
  4. A program that established policy around open data and open innovation in order to ensure both continued access and local and regional economic development.

Beyond these pillars, the goal of the MAPPD project is to document and analyze this approach to in order to develop a replicable programmatic approach to Smart Cities design and deployment.

Conceptual and Operational Foundations of MAPPD

In a comprehensive literature review of Smart City definitions, Albino, Berardi and Dangelico identify four shared themes that cut across definitions of a Smart City. The themes: 1) smart cities pair functional efficiency with “social and cultural development”; 2) smart cities foster new forms of economic development; 3) smart cities magnify human capital; and 4) smart cities are sustainable. As much as these authors identify a normative definition of a Smart City, they also illustrate the sprawling demands placed on Smart City projects and programs. Spanning domains from technical infrastructure to urban and regional economic development, projects often struggle to accommodate diverse agendas under a single umbrella. One strategy to attend to the vast interest in Smart Cities is to embark on projects that allow for progressive accumulation of technologies, engagements, and policies overtime rather than all at once.

An example of this approach is SmartSantander. The core feature of SmartSantander is the establishment of a city-wide testbed that allows multiple parties to develop applications, efforts, and projects within a single platform and program. The project began with a clear strategic framework that was accompanied by a technical architecture for development. In combination, the framework and architecture provide a platform for testing, validation, and prototyping. Notably, SmartSantander set out to include the community at large as well as firms, yet offered no formalized policies related to open data and innovation. Additionally, SmartSantander had no specific accommodations for how systems would interoperate, instead relying on developers to handle this on an ad-hoc basis.

As just one example, SmartSantander is illustrative of a pattern in Smart City projects. The pattern is to develop a Smart City on a project-by-project basis. In producing isolated projects, Smart City efforts passively argue that the city is a collection of discrete and distinct systems that assemble into a mega-system, leaving integration to happen in use or after-the-fact. In MAPPD, we are explicit about integration, and this begins by being intentional about how any individual project develops with what is a programmatic approach to Smart Cities design, development, and deployment.

The four key elements of MAPPD are:

1) Phased Deployment
north-ave-sensor-boxAn central technical component of MAPPD is the development of a sensor array called the Campus Array Node (CAN) system, an environmental and mobility-sensing platform under development across Georgia Tech. Rather than develop the system in full, release it, and integrate later, CAN has been released in phases to test early versions of the hardware, software, data infrastructure, and use and access policies. These early versions of CAN are more minimal systems, housing the most straight-forward sensors to mount and calibrate. Based on findings from the early deployments, subsequent modules will grow in complexity as well as technical sophistication. This increases opportunities for in-action learning, community engagement and responsiveness, and integration of ongoing technical improvements, while simultaneously reducing the implementation burden on participating organizations.

The initial MAPPD deployment targets the intersections along the North Avenue Smart Corridor. The first CAN node was installed in July 2016, and is being used to develop an application programming interface (API) to access the real-time data. The next four nodes are targeted for installation by the end of October 2016.

2) Open Data/Open Innovation
In MAPPD, we are explicit about policies and practices related to open data and open innovation. Georgia Tech’s Center for Urban Innovation (CUI) is currently engaged in analyzing best practices of open data and open innovation in order to inform local policy and practice in these areas. A clear benefit of Smart City design and planning is the ability to leverage the distributed capacity of citizens and organizations by building platforms that accommodate changing needs of urban residents now and in the future. To date, open data, open innovation, and community involvement have been desired outcomes of many projects, but are often integrated ad hoc or as afterthoughts. Building these areas into MAPPD ensure that the technical deployment is necessarily coupled with appropriate public policy.

In one notable example from 2012 in New Orleans, Code For America fellows created BlightStatus, an application that “makes it easy for anyone to look up any address in New Orleans and see a simple, clear history of the property, including reports of blight, inspections, hearings, and scheduled demolitions.” Given the continuing impact of Hurricane Katrina on the city, BlightStatus addressed a prominent concern of residents: the ongoing social, environmental, and economic impacts of blighted property on the recovery and growth of the city. By showing the current progress of a case, the application increased transparency and accountability by revealing the inner-workings of bureaucracy. BlightStatus’ development reveals the ways Smart Cities can be developed through partnerships that extend the traditional geographical polity of a city as well as illustrates the key role of nonprofits and private companies in shaping cities through investment, services, support, and software, a point made by CUI Director Jennifer Clark in her recent work. This point in particular is further supported by the evolution of BlightStatus beyond its original design. The project started as an application for code enforcement in New Orleans but was later spun out into more comprehensive software called CivicInsight, offering a framework to track municipal processes from building permits in Palo Alto to economic development activities in Dallas.

The evolution of BlightStatus/CivicInsight illustrate that Smart City projects are deeply connected to an extended “fast policy” network of practices characterized by the adoption of technologies, the standardization of administrative practices, and the sharing of central concerns. The trajectory of BlightStatus/CivicInsight highlights the need to ensure that data is made open and available (as New Orleans did) both in the present and long-term to support the functioning of iterative applications. Even more, the software’s development shows that the value of allowing firms to leverage open data beyond the immediate need of a city as it holds the potential benefits for other cities with similar (or similar enough) issues. As an exemplar, BlightStatus/CivicInsight provides an example the necessity of open data and open innovation.

3) Interoperability First
As noted above, Atlanta’s North Avenue corridor is a designated testbed for multiple IoT (Internet of Things) systems, according to SMARTATL’s strategic plan. One central research question is how might these systems work together rather than work in parallel? 

Consequently, MAPPD is structured around the principle of “interoperability first,” meaning that the project is structured to consider requirements beyond any individual hardware or software, project or testbed. MAPPD instead focuses on the integration of multiple heterogeneous systems. In so doing, MAPPD mitigates proprietary lock-in. Thus, interoperability is not just a technical term that refers to the ways systems communicate and coordinate within MAPPD. Instead, interoperability includes the ways many different types of systems work together to make the Smart City functions and creates opportunities for economic development.

4) Public & Participatory
MAPPD holds a deep commitment to making the city work for its residents. As a part of that commitment, a deployment approach has been designed to integrate community engagement workshops to refine hardware/software, align the deployment team with as many stakeholders as possible, and better understand the needs, concerns, hopes, goals, and ideas offered by the community.

The first workshop is planned for October 2016 and will gather the community and stakeholders around the second sensor node planned for concurrent deployment. The workshop will ask how smart cities sensors might be meaningful to the specific needs of the community through facilitated activities, all of which will be hosted at the Atlanta City Studio. Subsequent workshops are planned for the following months, and focus on the next phases of MAPPD. As a whole, the workshops provide a means to give voice to the community, identify shared needs, and find new avenues for what a Smart City could mean at the neighborhood-, community-, and city-scale.

Smart Cities Rely on Open Innovation

In a recent article in Nature, Martin Curley, the Chair of the European Union’s Open Innovation Strategy and Policy Group outlined twelve principles guiding “Open Innovation 2.0.” Curley’s concept goes beyond Chesbrough’s original definition of open innovation by pushing the boundaries of the underlying concept further from the discrete act of invention to dynamic and programmatic acts of innovation.

The expansion of “openness” as it relates to innovation to include community separate and apart from government parallels the patterns seen in “civic IoT” (internet of things) practice. Similar to the crowdsourcing and hack-a-thon processes mentioned above to understand public sector applications of new inventions, Open Innovation 2.0 looks to includes communities of users in the entire innovation process. In other words, communities are part of determining what is developed, not just whether to buy a product once it is commercialized.  

Recognizing that many organizations still pursue innovation through linear contracts and bilateral relationships, Curley argues for an ecosystem approach in “Open Innovation 2.0.” And here the language of innovation returns to the same framework on which much of the resilience discourse is based: a language that favors natural systems and adaption.  The proximity between the two concepts  — innovation and resilience — seems to shrink in an Open Innovation 2.0 model.

Purely technical solutions to urban challenges rarely measure up to the promises of their advocates. The diffusion of urban innovations — in policy and planning — requires adaption to local contexts and communities.  Each city has its own unique administrative and managerial quirks and its own embedded norms and values — its own peculiar way of “getting things done.” Truly Smart cities require diverse stakeholders within and across cities collaborating on innovative solutions to a wide array of interdisciplinary challenges. 

The starting point for that collaboration is increasingly seen as the creation of networks aimed at building dialogue, fostering relationships, and sharing knowledge about what works and equally what does not. The broader question is how cities as places and as institutions manage their own resilience in the face of a dynamic environment where the technical terrain is uncertain and the policy outcomes largely unknown. Perhaps conceptualizing both urban governance and regional economies as open innovation systems is a step toward both economic and institutional resilience.


Smart Cities Research Neighborhood At CUI

smart-city-iconThis week marked the official rollout of the Smart Cities research neighborhood here at the Center for Urban Innovation.

In addition to providing a more central home for a number of existing Smart City-related projects such as the Center’s partnership with the MetroLab Network, ongoing research on the rise of coworking and the makers movement, and exploration of evolving urban innovation networks, the research neighborhood’s opening brings with it three newly-announced projects.

These projects are MAPPD, Open Data & Open Innovation Policy, and Civic IoT.

MAPPD: Multi-Array Phased Participatory Deployment

north-ave-sensor-boxMAPPD is a technical and strategic Smart Cities project developing a repeatable approach to scaling up a Smart City sensor network. MAPPD is a city-university partnership between the Georgia Institute of Technology and the City of Atlanta, and a featured project of both the MetroLab Network and NIST’s Global City Teams Challenge. In addition to technical challenges, MAPPD focuses on three additional aspects of Smart City scale-up: (1) building partnerships, (2) fostering engagement, and (3) establishing open data and open innovation policy to allow for future technology-led economic development.

Watch this blog next week for an in-depth introduction to this important project.

Open Data & Open Innovation Policy
open-data-vennOpen Data and Open Innovation are two key concepts for the Smart City. To understand the ways these ideas are being executed, research is being conduct to collect, compare, and analyze Open Data and Open Innovation policies, practices, and protocols across the United States. This research focuses on producing an empirical typology of Open Data and Open Innovation to inform policy and governance related to the Smart City.

PARSE: Participatory Approaches to Researching Sensing Environments

iot-graphicThe Internet of Things (IoT) — the ubiquitous computing vision of connected and communicative computational objects — has largely been conceived of in relation to industry. As such, an underexplored domain that offers a unique set of challenges and opportunities is IoT for public life, or Civic IoT. This NSF-sponsored project aims to understand the design and use of IoT technologies for enabling, organizing, and monitoring collective action, particularly in the context of urban communities.

In addition to the new web presence of these exciting endeavors, the Smart Cities research neighborhood also features a growing list of participants in the various projects within the neighborhood. This improvement also coincides with the addition of selected categories on this very blog, including that of Smart Cities, permitting readers with a particular interest to read only the posts that most interest them. This new research neighborhood and the many changes that accompany it represent an important new chapter in the growth and evolution of the Center for Urban Innovation and its many policy, research, and partnership activities. Keep an eye on the website for even more developments in time, including a brand-new image gallery of recent CUI events, presentations, and more.

Smart Cities India: Regional Lessons for a Sustainable Future

By Todd M. Michney

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The idea that our future cities must leverage information technology to become “smart” is one that has captivated the globe in recent years.  Likely debuting at a 1990 conference on the emerging “technopolis” held in San Francisco, and subsequently appearing in the title of the published proceeding, the term “smart cities” now conjures visions of conjoined innovations in engineering, computing, and ecology to create more adaptive, sustainable, efficient, and vibrant urban environments offering solutions to humanity’s most pressing problems of inequality, overpopulation, pollution, and climate change.  Moving in this direction this past January, Atlanta joined Dallas and Chicago in partnering with AT&T to install sensors capable of monitoring traffic and air quality, as well as detecting power outages and even gunfire –- more data than city officials presently even know how to manage.

At the same time, a number of observers have expressed concerns about the larger implications of ‘smart city’ technology, and leveled sometimes trenchant critiques of the underlying motivations and implementation of such programs, particularly when applied to the developing world.  Adam Greenfield, in a 2013 essay entitled “Against the Smart City,” encapsulated some of the most widely circulated:  the smart city as a generic blueprint insensitive to local conditions; smart city technology as typically proprietary and therefore too inflexible; and the smart city as camouflage for hidden agendas that are often corporate- and profit-driven.  Bleaker assessments see in sensor technology the possibility of implementing “continuous geosurveillance” with the capacity to ultimately “destroy democracy.”  Taking a longer historical view of urban development but similarly critical of short-sighted smart technology rollouts, Anthony Townsend, in Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (2014), nonetheless envisions an alternative:  a bottom-up, gradual, and more organic emergence of smart cities, cobbled together by increasingly connected and tech-savvy urban dwellers themselves.

With 2008 as the first year in which over half the world’s population lived in cities, and the global urban population predicted to nearly double to 5 billion by 2050 –- with much of the anticipated growth in Asia and Africa -– the current century has been dubbed the “Century of the City.”  At the same time, the smart city concept “translates” uneasily to the global South, considering how basic infrastructure systems (water, sewers, electricity) there have often struggled to keep up with the rapid pace of urbanization.  This makes all the more striking the announcement by India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, soon after his ascension to power in 2014, of a “Smart Cities Mission” (SCM) committing that country to build 100 such places by 2022 –- coincidentally the same year that India is predicted to surpass China as the most populous country in the world.


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Set up as a grant competition with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the first 20 cities to be awarded funding out of a planned 98 were announced by India’s Ministry of Urban Development in January 2016.  While it was never entirely clear how the new smart cities emphasis overlaps with existing urban initiatives already in place, what became most immediately obvious was that the government planned to fund only a small portion of the SCM’s cost -– some 20 percent of a total estimated at $150 billion.  Instead, private sector capital was expected to supply the remainder, with an eye on India’s potential for economic growth, for example as the world’s fastest growing smartphone market.  The opportunities associated with implementing hi-tech infrastructure on a mass scale soon attracted the interest of multinational corporations, as well as of governments including the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, France, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, to name a few.  However, despite Modi’s promises to cut the red tape associated with such projects, a number have failed to get off the ground, and one recent assessment has declared SCM to be struggling, with private investment so far having favored “profit-intensive sectors like digital infrastructure and real estate” over essential, basic services.  Moreover, allegations of corruption overshadow at least one project, and the opposition has accused Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of using the SCM as a form of political patronage.  Even before the initial 20 smart cities were announced, three municipal corporations in Maharashtra, India’s second most populous state, refused to sign on, and last month a lawsuit was heard challenging the SCM’s constitutionality.


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A careful examination of SCM’s mission statement makes clear that the initiative represents neither a dramatic break from India’s previous urban development strategies, nor is it nearly as ambitious as the initial impression might suggest.  First of all, rather than building nearly 100 entirely new smart cities, these are defined in the guidelines as areas which can be as small as 50 acres, leading some critics to describe the program as applying not to cities, but rather to “certain designated areas within them.”  The various specified approaches -– retrofitting, redevelopment, and “greenfield” development –- are long-established models, the challenges and drawbacks of which are by now well understood.  Thus redevelopment risks population displacement when applied to dense, often improvised urban residential districts (“slums”), or in some instances the loss of publicly-accessible green space, as in the case of one smart city project slated to replace a beloved park that catalyzed protests.  

“Greenfield” development of the agricultural hinterlands at the metropolitan periphery similarly threatens displacement, while additionally raising the issue of fair compensation.  In fact, India’s flagship, pre-SCM smart city project initiated in 2010, Dholera, is currently facing resistance from local farmers, and last year rural opposition forced Modi’s administration to take off the table a controversial loosening of the country’s land acquisition law.  In the wake of evidence that, despite SCM’s stated concern with affordable housing, planners were not adequately considering the needs of poor residents, one critic has asked whether their “democratic right to the city itself” was being “diluted.”  Language discovered in a promotional brochure, suggesting an intentional exclusion of the poor from the smart city’s benefits, has borne out even harsher assessments of SCM, for example as an undemocratic attempt to “monetize the commons,” or as the institution of “social apartheid.”


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Regardless of the SCM initiative’s shortcomings, smart city technology is coming to India, with some indications of more hopeful developments that may help promote a more equitable and accessible future even for city-dwellers of lesser means.  To be sure, there are already-existing smart city prototypes being built as public-private partnerships outside the scope of SCM, such as Wave (Infratech) City outside of Delhi, Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, or Hyderabad’s HITEC City (see accompanying pictures).  There are also entire, privately-owned cities like Gurgaon and Lavasa, which are even more impervious to public oversight than the projects planned under SCM.  At the same time, however, ordinary Indians are integrating current technologies into their daily lives on the household level, and citizen-innovators are creating bottom-up smart technology along the lines envisioned by Townsend, for example, community-driven mobile apps addressing garbage pickup, bribery, and sexual harassment.  Some observers have even looked to India’s poorest, yet “inherently smart” urbanites for ideas about how to move beyond the limitations of our current sprawl- and automobile-centered urban models.  Mumbai’s Dharavi district, for example, has been profiled as an innovation-generating “smart slum,” with one recent proposal seeking to empower residents by instituting a Community Land Trust as an alternative to demolition.  Visionary civil engineer Himanshu Parikh also tapped community knowledge in designing water and sewer systems for Ahmedabad’s slums, which by utilizing the natural topography, cost a fraction of conventional infrastructure and are spinning off new quality-of-life improvements.

These initiatives hint at the promise of a more creative, civic-minded, and community-led smart city concept.  But to reach its full potential, according to one commentator, the smart city should be rethought as an “ecology of practices,” emerging from and building on “the creative potential of its diverse inhabitants” rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all model delivered in the form of top-down, profit-driven imperatives.  Instead of standing as a passive beneficiary, then, India may offer an example of how citizens could adapt a more distributive smart city model to suit their own local needs -– a lesson that our own regionally-diverse cities in the U.S. should heed as we embark on making our own cities “smarter” and more livable for all in the decades to come.