Urban Intelligence: Smart infrastructure driving the growth of cities in India

By Abheet Dwivedi, Senior Director (Infra & PSU), Moglix

Home to around 31 per cent of its current population, India’s cities are the lifeline of the country’s infrastructure, financial ecosystem, logistical movements, and even health­­care and education. They currently con­tri­bute to around 63 per cent of the national gross domestic product (GDP), and this number is only expected to increase phenomenally in the coming years. The Indian government expects about 40 per cent of India’s population to settle in urban areas by 2030 and pegs the urban GDP contribution at around 75 per cent by this year.

Given these estimates, it is apparent that the need of the hour is a robust and dynamic blueprint to promote the development of core smart infrastructural elements in India’s urban centres. However, before these projections are realised, cities in India must look beyond mere localised development and prioritise the right partnerships and participation to drive growth.

International benchmarks

Singapore’s Smart Nation Initiative, launched in 2014, is a prime inspiration when it comes to eliminating urban traffic bottlenecks by focusing on contactless payments and augmenting public transport. The city also boasts an enviable digital healthcare system that uses internet of things to monitor patients in real time.

Finland’s Helsinki and Norway’s Oslo are other pioneering smart cities to be looked into, particularly for their effective strategies for lowering emissions and going carbon neutral – a crucial, yet often overlooked, aspect of smart city development.

Moving a bit down south, Amsterdam is an­other excellent example for the development of a comprehensive and sustainable smart city project. The city’s drive to convert to smart sol­u­tions began in 2009, and currently, it encompasses over 170 initiatives across Amsterdam. With solar-powered bus stops, garbage trucks that run on renewable energy, floating villages to minimise overcrowding and energy-efficient roo­fing, Amsterdam checks many of the right boxes.

Need for smart infrastructure in India’s cities

Rural-to-urban migration is a global phenomenon that is recording higher numbers by the year. In India, around 78 million migrants had mo­­ved from rural to urban parts of the country as per Census 2011 data, and the number has only grown since then.

This increasing urbanisation is one of the top reasons to prioritise the infusion of smart infrastructure in Indian cities. Most of them, particularly the cities that are still growing, are complex systems created and sustained by the many interconnected and interdependent elements. Introducing smart infrastructure at this stage allows these ci­ties to adapt to the inflow of migrants and support the growing urban population more efficiently.

Other factors are also driving the need to retrofit existing infrastructure with smarter solutions wherever possible. Smart cities offer the enticing possibilities of improved quality of life for citizens, greater efficiency, cost savings for governments and enhanced economic growth.

Smart infrastructure segment in India

Launched in 2015, India’s Smart Cities Mission (SCM) is the backbone of the country’s dream of taking its cities into the big leagues and tra­nsforming them into smart ecosystems. The target is fairly ambitious. It aims to cover 100 citi­es, over a timeline ranging from 2019 to 2023. Progress reports indicate that as of Sep­tember 23, 2022, a little over 56 per cent of the projects in these cities (4,436 of the total 7,902 projects) have been completed. While this is undoubtedly de­cent progress, we still have a long way to go to touch the finish line.

Going toe to toe with the SCM is the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transfor­mation (AMRUT). If the SCM is driving India towards the future that it seeks, AMRUT is the foundation it needs to get there. Even as the SCM has its sights set on renewal, redevelopment and retrofitting; AMRUT, which includes 500 cities, covers the more basic human needs such as urban sewerage systems, urban transport, water supply and urban green spa­ces. Moreover, it bridges the gap between the essential and the extraordinary by focusing on smart facilities such as internet and Wi-Fi facilities in public spaces, weather prediction and controlling pollution by encouraging secure public transport.

Story so far

In the journey of transitioning to smarter, tech-driven development, Tier 2 cities have been the leaders. The Tier 3 cities that have set benchmarks in this regard are: Bhubaneswar, Bhopal and Chandigarh.

The winner of two major awards at the Sm­art City Challenge conducted by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in 2021, Bhuba­nes­war’s infra developments include the street­sca­pe design, intersection redesign, and rehabilitation of major bridges, culverts and roads – especially Janpath Road. The city has established a City Command Centre to enable a centralised data governance model to track on-time completion of projects, infra health monitoring and infra performance.

Bhopal, in particular, has been a dark hor­se that can teach some key lessons to other cities with similar ambitions. One of the most notable developments in the city is the deployment of multifunctional smart poles by Bhopal Smart City Development Corporation Limited (BSCDCL). They come with inbuilt surveillance ca­meras, cloud-based electric vehicle charging, Wi-Fi hotspots and multi-operator telecom base stations to facilitate street lighting and improve mo­bile coverage.

Chandigarh also shines on this list, having been the epitome of a modern, planned city for several decades. The city’s innovative initiatives primarily revolve around elevating the qu­ality of essential infrastructural services such as water supply, urban transport, sewerage and sanitation by deploying smarter, alternative solutions.

The award-winning Gujarat International Fin­ance Tec-City (or GIFT City) is another brilliant success story that we can learn from. GIFT City has prioritised sustainable smart infrastr­ucture such as an automated waste collection system, underground utility tunnels and 100 per cent wastewater reuse.

Further south, Bengaluru and Coimbatore stand out among the cities nominated. In Kar­nataka’s capital, the Electronics City Industrial Township Authority (ELCITA) has set out to develop an aff­ord­able smart city with smart water and waste ma­nage­ment, smart lighting, integrated town plann­­ing, tech-driven complaint redressal, and sm­art surveillance and parking. Meanwhile, Coim­­­batore is eliminating manual scavenging by unclo­gging manholes and septic tanks using robotic ma­chines called Bandicoot V 2.0. It has also set out to become Tamil Nadu’s first integrated smart city project with G Square City. Concei­ved as an out-and-out residential space, this smart zone has me­a­sures such as an artificial in­telli­gence mo­nitoring system, smart licence and number pla­te recognition, visitor management systems, and surveillance apps on its agenda.

Challenges and opportunities

Compared to similar global endeavours, India’s initiative to drive smart transformation in its cities faces some unique challenges. The technological limitations of urban local bodies top this list, followed closely by the constraints of identifying vulnerable areas that need to be retrofitted with smart technology. There is a gla­ring need for a skilled workforce, too, becau­se smart cities of the future will be judged by their ability to train and impart skills to the ur­ban poor and provide affordable housing with­out compromising on smart features.

Lastly, coordinating governance across three tiers, namely, local bodies, state governments and the Centre, is perhaps the biggest roadblock we need to tackle. The Indian government appears to have a head start in tackling this challenge. In addition to creating special purpose vehicles to facilitate citizen participation in the mission at the ground level, the government has also removed financial constraints for municipalities with a grant of at least Rs 1 billion per year per city.

Identifying opportunities for partnerships and collaborations will also help India overcome many of these issues. Public-private partnerships can be a game changer, as will international collaborations. For example, BSCDCL partnered with Bharti-Infratel, Ericsson and HPL to develop smart features in Bhopal, while Bengaluru’s ELCITA collaborated with several companies such as Wipro, Tejas Networks, Bo­s­ch, Siemens and Mindtree, among others.

As for the fundamental issue of bridging the technological gap, the need of the hour is rapid and robust digitisation across all aspects of the proposed smart cities, with particular attention to security, interoperability and scalability.

What lies ahead

Although the deadline remains unchanged, India has set its sights higher and expanded the SCM to cover 4,000 cities before March 2023 (or within the next two years, if the 2023 deadline is unfeasible). Dubbed SCM 2.0, this initiative aims to convert the mission into a movement. While the target is ambitious, it is also critical that we get there, given that all the predictions point to rapid growth in India’s urbanisation. According to the United Nations-Ha­bitat’s World Cities Report 2022, the country’s urban population – which stood at just over 483 million in 2020 – is expected to cross 675 million by 2030.

The need for steady investment in, and su­pport for, developing smart infrastructure in India cannot be overstated. By drawing inspiration from prosperous smart cities worldwide and collaborating with domestic corporations and international governments, India can es­tablish its prominence on the global stage and make history by accelerating its march into the future, with smart technology powering thousands of cities.