India, the second largest country in the world by population, with just under 1.3 billion people, is urbanizing at a rapid pace. India’s government has committed funds to the development of 100 smart cities across the country, with an emphasis on building and supporting the physical, digital and data infrastructure required to accommodate unprecedented urban growth at this key juncture in the nation’s transformation. Its Smart Cities Mission is intended to be an opportunity in the coming decades for India to guide and invest in physical, economic and social opportunities for its citizens and the nation as a whole. While there is no consensus on the definition of a smart city, the Indian government views smart cities as places that operate as part of an ecosystem that includes institutional, physical, social and economic infrastructure and services.

For Canada, the prospects of understanding and engaging with such an initiative are compelling for at least two key reasons. First, Canada-India partnerships and trade are growing, which is evidenced by the fact that bilateral trade between India and Canada increased by almost 30 percent over the past two years, and second, the Canadian government announced a $300-million smart cities competition expected to be launched in fall 2017, meaning that there is an opportunity for Canadian policy-makers to learn and benefit from the Indian experience thus far.

To understand the significance of a growing urban population for India’s future, consider that India’s cities are expected to grow by an additional 200 million people over the next 15 years alone. India currently has five megacities of 10 million or more residents and 59 cities with more than 1 million residents. Although 33 percent of India’s population lives in an urban area, only 15 percent resides in a city of 1 million or more people. By comparison, Canada has a population of 36 million, 47 percent of whom reside in one of only six cities of 1 million or more.

In an effort to build collaboration related to India’s Smart Cities Mission, nine faculty members and researchers from the University of Toronto, a multidisciplinary group of urban experts from across the university, went to Mumbai in May 2017 to lead a workshop on the future of smart cities. The workshop was sponsored by the University of Toronto, the Centre for Urban Science and Engineering at IIT-Bombay, Tata Trusts and the Government of Ontario. It was held in conjunction with Muncipalika, an annual exhibition and conference aimed at urban administrators and professionals.

During the workshop, presenters from U of T and IIT-Bombay approached the definition of smart cities from a broad perspective, considering physical and social infrastructural needs as well as the role of management and services required for the sustainable operation, inclusive development and growth of metropolitan areas. Workshop presentations provided leading-edge thinking about how cities, administrators and residents could move toward building smarter cities in the decades to come, addressing questions of sanitation, transportation, innovation, municipal finance, affordable housing, public health, resilience and more.

While in India, the U of T delegation also travelled to two of India’s designated smart cities: Surat and Pune. In each city, we met with civic officials to discuss local approaches being developed to foster the municipality’s goal of becoming a smart city, shared our expertise and considered opportunities for future collaboration and partnerships.

Travelling between Mumbai and these two cities, we witnessed the stark and challenging variations in urban environments and urban dwellers. Chaotic and congested streets, many poor people living on the sidewalks, unreliable or nonexistent public transportation systems, dilapidated housing, and unsanitary water and sewage systems were in sharp contrast to the technologically savvy narratives and plans we learned about in the cities of Surat and Pune. It became apparent that the smart cities plans under way in each city represented progress in the direction of each city’s future development trajectory. The efforts ranged from improving residents’ quality of life through the addition of enhanced public services such as reliable public transit and sanitary waste collection, construction of thousands of new affordable housing units, and improvements to each city’s capacity to support a growing population. However, given the large size of the cities and the scope of the challenges faced, the Smart Cities Mission seems insufficient on its own to shift India toward a prosperous and inclusive urban future. We began to understand and view the smart cities plans as aspirational. At present, they are plans to develop the necessary financing, culture, systems, technological capacity and resources, being tested through small-scale pilot projects with the intent of realizing a path forward toward achieving longer-term, wider-scale success.

Pune is the seventh largest metropolitan area in India, with a population of approximately 5 million people. The municipality’s smart city development corporation is working with McKinsey & Company on a 51-point plan for transformation, developed through a public consultation process and focused on priority areas of transportation, water supply and sanitation. The plan also includes a focus on enhancing and revitalizing public spaces, and improving access to government services through websites, apps and publicly accessible online kiosks. The city is making progress through pilot programs and phased initiatives: 1.5 kilometres of streets have been redesigned to safely accommodate cars, bikes and pedestrians in separated spaces along one roadway; approximately one-quarter of the street lights have been replaced by energy-saving LED bulbs; and there are plans for 100 electric buses to be running on the streets of Pune by the summertime.

In Surat, a city of 6 million, the municipality has partnered with IBM to develop its smart city strategy. Surat’s strategy is decidedly technical in nature — it emphasizes capturing and collecting property taxes from residents to pay for improvements in infrastructure and services, and providing real-time data on bus routes, where a single digital identification assists with property tax payments, improving access to municipal services, and also acts as a bus pass.

The differences in approach toward smart city development taken by each of these cities were evident; the Pune initiative seemed to be more sophisticated and holistic, but the initiatives was designed to be city-specific, with input and insight gleaned from a range of consultation activities involving both the general public and experts.

The transformations being proposed will require cultural shifts, along with economic, social and physical change. For example, in Pune the bus system was described as unreliable, and was therefore used almost exclusively by low-income residents. To improve public transportation, work is under way to develop a reliable transportation network, utilizing digital tools to provide real-time tracking and trouble-shooting, as well as an easy-to-use and widely available digital payment system. However, the effectiveness of these improvements and the potential impacts on reducing congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, improving travel times and delivering a user-friendly system will depend on a cultural shift in which middle- and higher-income earners make more use of the public transit system.

While the smart cities plans are ambitious, and municipalities seemed to be very proud of being selected to participate in the initiative, it remains to be seen if city-wide initiatives such as command-and-control monitoring centres, investment in a safe and reliable water supply, pilot sites for separated bike lanes and public Wi-Fi hotspots will be sufficient to spur the transformation of the country. This is particularly significant, given the massive urban growth anticipated in the coming decades and the challenges that will inevitably accompany it.

A week is too short a time to make pronouncements about the lasting value or impacts of India’s Smart Cities Mission. We are working toward building longer-term partnerships for research, student exchanges and public engagement. At the same time, there are important lessons for Canada if it is to promote enduring, future-oriented city-building practices through smart cities initiatives. Our visit underscored the fact that any smart cities initiative needs to be rooted and embedded locally — a one-size-fits-all strategy will not work, even within the same nation. But it is important that we learn from experience and adapt processes and policies from one location to another as appropriate.

Like India, Canada will be distributing smart cities funds through a competition. The cities we visited expressed immense pride at succeeding in the competition. One important value in competitions is that they build the relationships and partnerships that are crucial to any complex initiative aimed at social and economic transformation. As well, they demonstrate capability before the expenditure of substantial sums of public money. Competitions can also lead to additional funding opportunities. Smart cities initiatives should be seen as far more than a mechanism to incorporate the latest technologies and innovations for building faster, better and more efficient cities. They are also an opportunity to invest in strategic city-wide goals and nationwide efforts, laying out a comprehensive plan to guide the urban future for subsequent generations.

Photo: Shutterstock, by jamesteohart.

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Shauna Brail
Shauna Brail is an associate professor at the Institute for Management and Innovation and affiliated faculty at the Innovation Policy Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on the transformation of cities as a result of economic, social and cultural change.

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