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.


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