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Insights into Editorial: Uniqueness of India’s smart cities + MINDMAPS on Current Issues

Insights into Editorial: Uniqueness of India’s smart cities + MINDMAPS on Current Issues

03 December 2015


India is moving to its cities and it is now widely accepted that urban centres will be critical to country’s overall cultural and economic growth. But it is also clear that, because of the absence of proper planning and investment, most of our cities are visibly straining to cope with the rapidity and scale of change over the last decade or so.

  • The smart cities mission is a good step in this direction. It aims to improve the quality of urban life and build sustainable cities. It emphasizes the devolution of funds and functions to urban local bodies and also calls for wider stakeholder consultations that would involve citizen participation.
  • This mission would also deliver jobs and attract new investment through several important global partnerships.

Investment opportunities:

For global firms providing smart city services, the Indian initiative offers a unique opportunity to invest in a rapidly growing market.

  • According to an estimate, the smart cities market worldwide is projected to hit $1.5 trillion by 2020.
  • Because of its enormous potential, a multitude of experts, analysts, public and private firms are rushing into India with ideas ranging from the use of information and digital infrastructure to manage the energy and water use in buildings, to the creation of intelligent transport networks to minimize congestion.

Smart cities mission uses a tech-savvy approach and assures greater livability, sustainability and improved public accountability. However, a technology-first approach to smart city development, without a clear understanding of local conditions, traditions and realities, will often fail to result in sustained, community-wide change.

  • The idea of smart city should not be limited to the deployment of technology-driven solutions to urban challenges.
  • The mission should also try to meet private industry’s ambitions for effective uptake and public leaders’ desires for local impact.
  • A bottom-up approach would better deliver the needs of urban areas.

How smart cities of developed countries differ from that of developing countries?

Today, most of the leading global best practices around smart cities are found in developed cities. Places such as Barcelona, Helsinki, Toronto, Singapore and San Francisco are often at the top of most lists of “smart cities” because they have the resources and expertise to be good business partners and navigators of the public interest.

  • But the challenges and opportunities for smart cities in developing countries like India—that are urbanizing at a dizzying pace—need to focus more on the basics: clean and reliable energy, safe and secure streets, transparency and citizen engagement.
  • A better example to watch may be Nairobi because of its focus on broadband, mobile apps and government efficiency.

How should India’s approach be?

  • A city needs to be sustainable in order to be smart. This will mean that the interventions under the Smart Cities Mission need to align their goals, objectives and processes to the overarching principle of sustainability.
  • A smart city has to imbibe the characteristics of good governance for achieving sustainability. For example, transparency, accountability, participation and consensus-building are some of the key characteristics of good governance, which form the foundation for ensuring equity.
  • Governance of cities is critical to the sustained prosperity of their citizens and economy. In this regard, it is important to contrast and recognize the different role of each level of government within India compared to other countries.
  • While globally, most smart cities are governed at the city level, this is not the case in India. Smart cities in India are part of a national effort driven by New Delhi, but it is the states that still wield great authority. Nearly 70% of government decisions are made at the state level. States should be given some free space in this regard.
  • Devolution of authority to the cities and local municipalities is very much necessary for the success of the smart cities initiative. Significant and urgent political reforms are required for this to happen in the country.
  • Smart cities in India require sharp self-awareness: each Indian smart city should develop or update a strategic plan for growth, one that has clear goals towards basic service improvement, job growth and productivity, economic inclusion, and sustainability and resilience. The technological deployments under the smart city rubric should then aim to deliver on those goals.

Why do we need smart cities?

It is estimated that about one third of India’s population now lives in urban areas, overcrowded cities and towns with infrastructure bursting at the seams. This problem will only worsen with little or no intervention happening.

  • The proportion of the urban population can only go in one direction — upward — as more Indians migrate to the cities and towns in search of jobs. Cities are engines of growth, and as a result attract a lot of people.
  • Hence, to address the challenges posed by rapidly growing cities it is necessary to develop smart cities.
  • The country’s urban population also contributes over 60% of India’s GDP and in 15 years this will be 70%.


To achieve its stated targets, the smart cities mission has to make sure that it responds to the unique challenges within India’s cities and not simply clone efforts going on worldwide. More local autonomy is a must if cities are to fix themselves and invest wisely in creating the infrastructure they need. There is also a need for a holistic approach to urban development. This will require an integration of physical, institutional, social and economic infrastructure.



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