Delivering on the Promise of India’s Smart Cities

In their first meeting in September 2014, President Barack Obama agreed that U.S. industry will serve as lead partners with the prime minister in developing three of those cities—Ajmer (Rajasthan), Vishakhapatnam (Andhra Pradesh), and Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh).

Within months of his election in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a bold commitment to build 100 smart cities throughout India. This centerpiece of his urban agenda aims to help rapidly developing satellite cities and major urban centers become the magnets of foreign investment and jobs and "symbols of efficiency, speed and scale."

This U.S.-India partnership on smart cities comes at a time when there is rising public and private sector interest in deploying big data, technology, and infrastructure to meet the demands of a rapidly-urbanizing globe. In India alone, the United Nations estimates there will be 400 million additional residents in cities by 2050 as rural areas lose 50 million persons. That pace of urbanization, coupled with pressures from climate change and fiscal stress, are creating demands for new, more efficient ways of operating. Thus, cities’ ambitions to become “smarter” range 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.

For Modi and India's cities, the promise of this tech-savvy approach is greater livability, sustainability, and improved public accountability and performance. This modernization would also deliver jobs and attract new investment. For global firms providing smart city services, the benefit is entry and leadership in a rapidly growing market. By one estimate, the smart cities market is projected to hit $1.5 trillion by 2020.

Despite this convergence, the smart cities movement is still a work in progress. The deployment of technology-driven solutions to urban challenges has failed to meet private industry’s ambitions for efficient and effective uptake and public leaders’ desires for local impact. Worse yet, a smart city is often whatever each company happens to be selling because cities are underprepared to be good business partners and navigators of the public interest. Partly as a result, most of the leading best practices are found in developed cities (though innovations are beginning to be tested and applied in developing cities like Nairobi).

Thus the United States and India have an opportunity, through this new partnership, to make the three cities the model for smart city development. It is time to demonstrate that a smart city can effectively leverage private investment and expertise while meeting the goals and aspirations of local residents and leaders. The good news is there are some emerging best practices to build upon.

DATE: 
09/01/2015
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