In Search of India’s Smart Cities


This page in:

“Smart city” has become a buzzword in India ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlined his vision for creating a series (a hundred, to be exact) of them. Since then, there have been many debates to unpack, understand and define the smart city. “Smart cities” joins the long list of many other often overused city descriptors such as “creative cities”, “sustainable cities”, “eco-cities”, “resilient cities” and “livable cities”.

While the concept of “smart cities” is not new, it is nonetheless a loosely-defined moniker that often conjures up images of technologically-integrated and meticulously-planned cities that rely on information technology as panacea for many of their problems – from the use of sensors to smart grids and data analytics that allow city infrastructure and services to meet citizen demands efficiently and reliably. For many, this ambition remains elusive in the Indian context, given that the basic amenities and infrastructure in many existing cities such as water supply, sanitation, sewerage, electricity and traffic management are generally not in place.

But ironically, this is also precisely why India desperately needs a system of smart(er) cities. India’s cities are growing faster than its capacity to manage them. Therefore, city models with smarter approaches to city planning and management, which not only depart from business-as-usual activities but are also able to leapfrog and transform India’s cities through modernization and good urban management, are critically needed.

Mr. Greg Clark, at a recent Smart Cities Knowledge Exchange*, advocated for a different starting point in his keynote speech – that smart cities are “not an IT solution, rather the alignment of good governance, investments, institutions and time.” It was through this lens that forum participants debated on what smart cities might mean for India. I’ve always found such forums much more interesting when, in the process of discovery, they raise more questions than provide answers, which was the case in this exchange:

  • What should India’s smart cities aspire to become, for their citizens? What better way to define India’s smart cities than to start with the aspirations of their citizens? Mr. Onno Ruhl, the World Bank Country Director for India, suggested that the question is best answered by going into any Indian town and asking any girl in Class Eight what she aspires to be when she grows up. Smart cities in India should aim to enable that aspiration.
  • What role do private partners, businesses and stakeholders play in the realization of smart cities? Dr. Arvind Mayaram, India’s Finance Secretary, and Mr. Shankar Agarwal, Secretary of the Ministry of Urban Development, were of the view that a focus on implementation and strong partnerships will be critical in realizing the potential of India’s smart cities, and questions such as what supporting interventions and investments are required, areas where the private sector can come in, and what legal frameworks will be needed must be addressed.
  • How should policy makers approach the planning of smart cities? A smart city is only as smart as its approach to urban management. Dr. Martin Rama, Chief Economist at the World Bank, shared that, in addition to city size, governance matters in the creation of productive (smart) cities. Many lessons can be learnt from cities such as Seoul, where leadership and smart policy-making in the area of waste management have (literally) transformed solid waste landfills into city park assets that generate energy at the same time. Or from other successful international examples of cities that were able to implement smart solutions to manage traffic flows, or maximize energy and water resources through integrated urban planning, targeted policy instruments and effective institutional arrangements. Mr. C. K. Khaitan, the Joint-Secretary of the Ministry of Urban Development, acknowledged the need to drill down into some of these smart solutions, and to ask how these can be catered to the Indian context.

For me, “smart cities” can continue to remain as a placeholder to describe India’s urban aspirations, so never mind the cliché and the lack of definition now. After all, the urban development of successful cities such as Singapore started with the vision of a “garden city” in the late 1960s, to integrate the environment with urban development. Since then, Singapore has developed and implemented its own unique brand of the “city in a garden” concept – a densely built-up yet highly livable global city set within generous greenery and open spaces, amongst many other desirable qualities. Going forward, India’s 100 smart cities must similarly strive to differentiate themselves so as to become India’s model for urban development and growth, that is all at once – “innovative”, “sustainable”, “ecologically-friendly”, “resilient”,  “livable” and, of course, “smart.”

In Korea, smart policy making in the area of waste management through policies such as volume-based fee systems, multi-jurisdictional cooperation and treating waste as resources has allowed Seoul to manage waste disposal volumes and has even transformed solid waste landfills into city park assets that generate energy at the same time. Image: Haneul Park, formally a dump site in Seoul, has now become a popular park destination.
Curitiba, Brazil remains a favorite example of good leadership and smart approaches in transport and landuse planning. Image: Curitiba's Bus Rapid Transit system.

Smart urban planning policies in Singapore, have allowed the city-state to balance its dense built-up areas with ample green spaces, all within a land area of slightly more than 700 sqkm. Image: Bishan Park with integrated storm water infrastructure in Singapore.

*The Smart Cities Knowledge Exchange held on October 1, 2014 in New Delhi was organized by the World Bank with the Government of India and attended by key experts, government officials, think tanks, international organizations, and World Bank staff from the Urban, Transport, Water and Energy sectors.
Dr. Khursheed
October 22, 2014

Un interupted supply of electricity, water, transport, telecommunications , disposal of waste, security and approved planned architect by govt on sustained pace with requisite room for recreation and sports.The population must not go beyond 2 lakh / city may be defined as smart city.

Jon Kher
November 02, 2014

Dr. Khursheed, thanks for highlighting that a focus on aspects of city livability, such as the inclusion of space for recreational and other public uses, in addition to getting basic infrastructure right is also important.

Dr Piyush Ranjan Rout
October 25, 2014

Every city should be unlocked to facilitate innovation to shape the city if that happens then only we will see some lights on SMART Cities and City should be designed around people not on the technology is something that is missing in Indian cities. Our City wants to be SMART but it does not used to have peoples consultation before finalising 1000cr public infrastructure and at end it cries why people don't use it.

Jon Kher
November 02, 2014

Much agreed. It's the process that counts. Being consultative and having targeted investments for the new smart cities will be crucial.

Ryan Tan
February 09, 2015

Thanks for the article. May I just ask who is "Mr. Greg Clark"? Is he a government official?
Thank you,
Ryan Tan

Jon Kher
February 26, 2015

Hi Ryan,
Greg Clark is an urbanist who has done a lot of work focused on city economic strategy, city governance and leadership, and city planning. He has a website at and he tweets using @TheBizOfCities.

May 19, 2015

Hi, Jon just saw this blog, great article/photos to demystify the buzz word "smart city". Thank you:) Danqing

November 02, 2017

Smart cities need to be mainly based on bottom up approach rather than top down approach . After three years, top down approach defeating the purpose by making smart cities authorities to be mere agent of multinational companies for dumping their products at excessive rates.So common people participation/benefit need to be given precedence by adopting bottom up approach.

May 29, 2018

Its a very informative blog. In this blog they mention a India’s Smart Cities

Nabaroon Bhattacharjee
October 09, 2018

I think making of a smart city boils down to Smart Governance'. This would mean firstly a financially smart City Government, which can afford and steer integrated planning for balanced provision of , at least basic services i.e water, sanitation, integrated public transport and provision of affordable housing to promote and enhance cities productivity and contribution to the GDP.