This summer, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced plans to build ‘100 smart cities’ across India in an effort to take advantage of the country’s recent urban boom and catalyze investment in Indian cities. His initiative will cost the government 1.15 billion USD for the first year, and will emphasize building new smart cities rather than implementing smart infrastructure in existing cities. While there has been much discussion – positive and negative – in the media and political circles surrounding the initiative, Modi himself is ready to accelerate the project, and has taken steps to reduce delays in decision-making and necessary approval processes.
One consistent piece of the mainstream rhetoric around smart cities in India has been the transformative power of technology. New technologies are already making waves in India’s auto-rickshaw sector in cities like Chennai, but are not yet widespread across different sectors or in cities throughout the country. The ability to monitor traffic behavior, improve energy provision, electronically unify health care information, and more accurately predict transit ridership, for example, is expected to create profound changes in how cities operate.
Despite this overwhelming emphasis on the technological and financial inputs for smart cities, these undertakings – like any urban development project – should also be evaluated based on their outcomes. In economic terms, the difference between outputs and outcomes is subtle but important, creating a dividing line between the end result of a project and the real change it creates in people’s lives. Evaluating for outcomes holds city leaders accountable to ensuring that the scale of investment matches the real benefits for citizens.
While shifting investment toward technology-savvy infrastructure in cities can be seen as a positive step, regulating how this technology is leveraged will be key in creating on-the-ground change. New technologies offer the potential for safer, more efficient cities with higher quality of life. This potential can only be realized, however, through effective governance that leverages technology to respond to the needs of citizens.
Defining success for India’s smart city boom
At the end of the day, smart city development is an opportunity to learn from and improve upon failures in urban governance to enhance quality of life for all Indian citizens. The birth of smart cities creates a chance to catalyze progress in three key areas:
- Improved governance structures and practices
- Equitable economic growth and access to basic services
- Human connectivity through mobile and Internet connection
Improved governance creates the foundation for smarter cities, and is essential for cities’ use of technology to improve service provision. Many Indian cities lack adequate cooperation among different sectors of government, and instead focus too often on public-private partnerships without first focusing on coordination across government departments. This can result in ineffective spending that fails to create sustained impact. Prime Minister Modi has emphasized that a key component of smart cities is improving the way city governments function. He has stressed the need to promote coordination across departments and reduce delays in decision-making. For example, the use of data is a key component of technology-enabled smart cities. However, when this data is siloed across a range of government arms, its potential is lost. A more efficient and connected government provides the basis for an investment-friendly environment that generates and sustains economic growth, in addition to better service provision.
Smart cities should also be evaluated based on their ability to provide equitable economic opportunity and access to basic infrastructure for all residents. Like effective governance, widespread access to basic infrastructure is a prerequisite for effective technology-driven urban improvements. When pursuing increased competitiveness and economic growth, smart cities cannot lose sight of the challenges faced by India’s urban poor. For example, increasing school graduation rates, or improving public health issues like child mortality and water-borne diseases should be core focuses of smart cities.
With the right priorities and effective governance structures, smart cities can use new technologies to improve service provision and quality of life.
Balancing governance and technology for smart, livable cities
The challenge for smart cities in India will be to evolve from the notion of ‘smart’ as one rooted in technology to one rooted in governance. Technology is only as useful as those who wield it. Strong governance structures and a focus on equitable quality of life improvements can help smart cities provide the framework for India’s future cities, and for future cities worldwide.
The author would like to acknowledge Dr. Vinay Lall of the New Delhi-based Society for Development Studies for the inspiration for this article.