Marching Ahead: Moving towards progressive, dynamic and innovative smart cities

Amit Singh, Partner, Technology Consulting
Meghna Mittal, Senior Manager, EY India

The tale of India’s urbanisation is being increasingly told in recent times, with the urban population expected to double and GDP to reach $32 trillion by 2047. To put the magnitude in perspective, the country’s urban population in 2050 is expected to be roughly double the total population of Europe. This ra­pid urbanisation has put our cities and urban infrastructure at the risk of being exposed to unforeseen challenges. In this backdrop, it was essential to adopt a radical approach to setting a template for the future of urban development, establish new institutions and concepts, and develop institutional and professional capacity to enable Indian cities to cater to the growing needs of citizens in the best possible way. To this end, a unique administrative process was adopted under the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) for selecting cities on a competitive basis, setting up special purpose vehicles (SPVs) for various smart cities, and utilising innovative financing strategies. Smart cities were envisaged as thriving grounds of urban experiments, where the learning would spill over to more than 4,000 urban local bodies by fixing fuzzy urban problems such as local governance, evidence-based planning, and quality of service delivery through a network of horizontal technology systems (smart solutions) and vertical knowledge stacks (resources and processes).

Journey so far

The commonality of urban problems in our cities is overstated. Every city has its own uni­q­ue story, its own set of challenges and a dis­pa­rate ecosystem. These push and pull factors highlight the need for city-specific solutions ov­er a “one-size-fits-all” solution. SCM has been designed with the flexibility to enable cities to choose projects that suit their context.

Projects developed under SCM are multi-sectoral and mirror the aspirations of the local population. In the past eight-plus years, the mission has completed more than 6,000 projects out of a total of over 7,900 projects worth more than Rs 1,100 billion across multiple areas, including solid waste management, wa­ter, sanitation and hygiene, mobility, IT connectivity, governance, sustainable environment, safety and security, health and education and innovation. The remaining projects are expected to be completed by June 2024.

Infusion of data and tech

The critical part of solving complex problems related to urban development is diagnosing them accurately in the first place. SCM recognised the need to invest in a deeper understan­ding of the root causes of urban development problems, as what gets measured gets managed in city government systems. Thus, in­ves­ting in the data ecosystem and technical infrastructure became a central theme in SCM for enabling data-driven decision-making in day-to-day governance. Further, to leverage and utilise valuable data being generated in cities through a network of intelligent devices and systems, the mission launched the DataSmart Cities (DSC) Initiative across the 100 smart cities. The DSC followed a three-pronged appro­ach – people, process, and platform – to imbi­be a culture of data awareness and data usage in city functioning. This initiative recently won the Platinum Digital India Award under the “Data Sharing and Use for Socio-Economic Development” category and the World Smart Cities Award for Innovation at the Smart City Expo World Congress 2022 in Barcelona, Spain.

These measures have equipped smart cities with the capacity to better leverage, manage, use and share data from varied sources and put in place “systems” to maintain the sensitivity of data privacy. The programme has ins­titutionalised a data ecosystem in cities th­rough 100 city data offices and more than 70 data policies. Moreover, the Smart Cities Open Data Portal has transformed from zero to all 100 smart cities now publishing open data­sets. This initiative has led to a generation of more than 200 innovative, scalable and replicable use cases in collaboration with various sta­keholders. These use cases are being em­ployed by cities for better functioning and citizen engagement, with initiatives such as the Vadodara Medical Green Corridor, Surat Real-time Bus Seat Occupancy, and Agartala Smart Traffic Control, among others.

In addition, in all the 100 smart cities, integrated command and control centres (ICCCs) have been operationalised, which serve as ce­ntral operating systems of the cities. They en­able a decision support system for enhancing municipal service delivery, urban manageme­nt, and the quality of life for citizens. ICCCs help cities to do “more with less” using real-time data. They help in effectively managing city op­erations, handling exceptional scenarios and mitigating disasters using information and co­mmunication technologies in a robust manner. They drive cities towards inclusion, efficiency and innovation. The ICCCs have enabled city authorities to collect and analyse vast quantities of data to automate administrative proce­sses, improve municipal service quality, and enhance the livability of cities. In fact, cities like Patna, Lucknow and Agra are leveraging ICCCs to achieve fuel savings through route optimisation under solid waste management, and reduce manpower overheads. For mobility, cities such as Ahmedabad and Bhopal are generating revenues through e-challans using ICCCs. Through GIS-based use cases, cities like Surat, Gandhinagar, Varanasi and Indore are able to analyse property tax collection gaps, green cover planning and ward-wise grievances, etc.

Hurdles along the way

Like any multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral and multi-layered programme, SCM has faced its share of challenges. First, the smart cities are at varying stages of maturity as they were sh­ortlisted at different periods of time. This, coupled with the pandemic, has delayed the completion of projects beyond the envisaged timelines. Second, the independence of SPVs from the city administration in some cases has de­celerated the integration of services with digital interventions, leading to sub-optimal results at a pan-city level.

Another major challenge is the limited in­volvement of SPV staff, leading to a greater re­liance on external agencies. This may have led to some agendas being driven by market forces rather than city priorities. This may also lead to a lower level of institutional memory for the work undertaken by the smart cities.

Promising race to the finish line

In this last year of the mission, cities are accelerating their efforts as much work needs to be done. Along with the completion of projects that have been taken up, it is important to ensure their sustenance. SCM has encouraged cities to consider how these projects can create value for the urban ecosystem to ensure their sustenance in the long run. The SPVs may continue to function in some cities, while in others they may carefully hand over projects to the city administration. In both cases, the smart cities are leaving behind a legacy. They have created institutions, forged partnerships, built open and transparent governance mechanisms, spurred innovation and facilitated citizen participation.

The urban digital platforms have reached an inflection point, tipping towards a scalable impact on citizens by enabling information ex­change, urban-social networks and innovative service delivery. With a focus on scale, speed and absorption, these interventions have the potential to become the underlying fulcrums of everyday city governance, rather than just technical tools. It is important that all the learning gathered by these lighthouse cities in the past eight years is internalised and shared for other cities to imbibe. The success of this initiative across 100 smart cities has the potential to create a virtuous cycle of improvement, with a transformational impact across over 4,700 cities in India.