Making Cities Smarter: Leveraging technology and innovation in urban planning

Sudip Datta, Partner and Leader, Urban Sector, Government and Public Sector, Ernst & Young LLP, India

India’s urban landscape calls for the establishment of many planned urban centres, with the urban areas projected to contribute  73 per cent of the anticipated population growth by 2036. The country already hosts ap­proximately 11 per cent of the global urban population, which grew from 300 million to 500 million, making it the world’s second-lar­gest urban system. Despite occupying just 3 per cent of land, urban centres in India contribute a staggering 60 per cent to the nation’s GDP. In response to this wave of urbanisation, city authorities implemented a range of organisational and technological interventions, with varying degrees of success. Effective planning, sustainable management, innovation and technology have proven crucial for ensuring sustai­nable and economic growth. In 2015, the government took a major step by initiating the Smart Cities Mission (SCM),  one of the largest urban redevelopment and rejuvenation programmes in the world.

The SCM was launched with the objective of transforming the country’s rapidly changing urban landscape by leveraging world-class infrastructure, state-of-the-art technology and a robustly planned implementation framework. The mission encompasses 7,742 projects, with an estimated value of Rs 1,800 billion to be im­plemented in 100 cities. It entails a series of in­terventions to effectively manage urban growth and transform cities into liveable, sustainable, and economically viable spaces. Sus­tainable urban development in India received a significant boost with the launch of the City Invest­ments to Innovate, Integrate and Sustain 1.0 (CITIIS 1.0) programme in 2018 with a total outlay of Rs 9.33 billion and the recently app­ro­ved CITIIS 2.0, with a further funding of approximately Rs 18.66 billion. CITIIS aims to support specific projects that promote a circular economy, prioritise integrated waste management at the city level, drive climate-oriented reforms at the state level, and strengthen institutional and knowledge dissemination at the national level.

The need for smart cities in India

A smart city is one that effectively addresses its unique challenges by employing digital and cross-sector solutions (EY – Switzerland Re­port). These cities leverage information and communication technologies to improve ur­ban processes and services in terms of pu­blic service and sustainability. Projects under the mission showcase the transformative potential of urban areas as catalysts for economic growth through “area-based” and “pan-city” in­itiatives. The pan-city initiative fo­cu­ses on improving road design, upgrading neighbourhoods, implementing efficient sanitation mea­sures, fostering public transport and integrating IT-based governance systems, where­as the area-based initiative focuses on integrated and hoisting development of identified pockets within the city.

Another initiative is the DataSmart Cities programme, which offers a framework to utilise data to enhance governance. It employs a th­ree-pronged approach that includes people, pro­cesses and platforms. Digital platforms thus developed now host more than 55,000 data sets and 1,400 application programming interfaces, engaging over 1.5 million users. They facilitate evidence-based planning, cross-city assessments, multidisciplinary research and improved socio-economic outcomes, and have generated over 180 innovative use cases. The effectiveness of the SCM was particularly evident during the Covid-19 pandemic. City ma­nagers across India used integrated com­mand and control centres (ICCCs) to ana­lyse city-specific data, coordinate agency efforts and engage with citizens to understand the spread of the virus and plan an effective res­ponse. The ICCCs supported telemedicine, helplines, tele-counselling and mobile clinics, showcasing the power of technology and data-driven decision-making in enhancing citizen outreach and service delivery, particularly in times of crisis.

The city of Surat serves as a prime example of successful urban projects. Known as India’s textile city, the thriving trading hub with a rich historical background was in dire need of infrastructure and service upgrades. In response, the city took up projects under the SCM with a focus on innovation and sustainability. These projects include smart solid waste management, integrated traffic management, intelligent street lighting and a citywide Wi-Fi network. As per the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the utilisation of treated sewage water for industrial purposes, including printing and dyeing establishments, has been encouraged to promote the use of recycled water and minimise reliance on groundwater. Additionally, the city uses biological wastewater treatment methods to produce and store methane, which is then utilised to generate a daily output of 6,000 to 7,000 units of power. Such initiatives being taken up by Indian cities under the SCM have laid the foundation for improved quality of life, sustainable living and economic growth in the region.

Opportunities under SCM 2.0

As India moves up the urbanisation ladder, it is crucial to address the issues that continue to affect cities. A NITI Aayog report on urbanisation states that of the 7,933 towns, almost half continue to be governed as rural entities. SCM 2.0 has the potential to integrate valuable learnings from past initiatives and best practices observed in other countries to facilitate effective management and growth of urban centres across the country.

Knowledge sharing and scalability: There is an opportunity to shift from traditional practices towards transformative thinking and innovation by leveraging technology, developing innovative business and economic models and ensuring sustainability and liveability across the country. India can take a cue from Singapore, which is among the top seven smart cities in the world as of 2023 (earth.org). The country has integrated several smart technologies in the public and private sectors. In 2021, Singapore also reveal­ed its plans to build a new eco-smart city that would be entirely vehicle-free.

Adopt smart planning: As India moves ahead with nationwide smart urbanisation, there is a pressing need for large-scale planning and interventions, akin to the manner in which cities are presently being planned. Ur­ban centres must prioritise vision-based planning with a focus on achieving economic and sustainable development tied to well-defined outcomes and optimal land use. Future urban cities should strive to be economically viable, inclusive and sustainable while leveraging te­chnology to drive progress. Urban experts have suggested the implementation of a national-level urban policy to guide the future development and management of cities across the country.

Greenfield smart cities: According to McKinsey Global Institute, Dhole­ra, located within the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, is India’s foremost and most expansive smart and sustainable city developed from scratch. The emphasis should be on the development of greenfield smart cities that are strategically linked to freight or economic corridors. These urban centres have the potential to be­come global economic hubs that attract in­vestments, boost trade and generate employment opportunities. Similarly, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, UAE, is a master-planned live-work community that prioritises sustainability. The city operates solely on renewable energy sour­ces and boasts high performance, environmentally-friendly buildings that leave minimal carbon footprint. It is an investment zone desig­ned to attract clean-tech innovation and foster the development of a clean-tech cluster.

SPVs driving economic activity: As part of the SCM, a total of 100 special purpose vehicles (SPVs) have been set up to facilitate the development and management of in­fra­struc­ture. They have immense potential to dri­ve economic activity in cities because of the­ir autonomy, capacity to execute significant in­frastr­ucture projects, potential to secure funding and opportunity to engage with private sector players. Therefore, a roadmap for the implementation of this framework is essential.

Bigger role for technology and stronger data security: As reported by the World Economic Fo­rum, Estonia has implemented robust data privacy and security measures. The country has embraced innovative approaches to implement whole-of-government strategies, enabling the delivery of automated and reusable government services that prioritise citizens’ needs while en­suring security and privacy. Given the abundance of data generated in smart cities, it is necessary for India to prioritise data protection, cybersecurity and privacy regulations to ensure trust and safeguard sensitive information.

What the future holds

As the SCM nears completion in 2024, there is a compelling case to extend its learnings to encompass Tier II and Tier III cities in India. It is crucial to continue promoting the principles of smart urban planning and sustainable living by leveraging technology and innovation. Given the persistent shortfall in the overall capacity of urban India, it becomes imperative to enhan­ce private sector participation in the design, im­plementation and management of urban projects. There is a need to build capacity ac­ross multiple sectors at all levels, spanning from the conception to the implementation and management of these projects.

As India strives to become a global powerhouse, the coming decade holds significance in implementing initiatives that amplify the role of cities in driving economic developme­nt. To achieve its vision of becoming a $27-30 trillion ec­onomy by 2047, India must ensure that its urban centres reach their full potential. The SCM has laid a strong foundation and has emerged as a repository of valuable and practical knowledge. It is imperative to leverage the learnings from the mission and build upon existing knowledge by incorporating best practices observed in other countries. The time has come to accelerate India’s urbanisation efforts in order to foster sustainable economic growth..