Smart Cities Mission: Installing digital technologies alone will not deliver results

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Smart Cities Mission”, launched in 2015, is an ambitious multiyear effort to boost economic development, technological innovation, and sustainable growth across 100 cities. If successful, Indian cities will position themselves as clean, modern, and competitive places for years to come.

Using three cities—Ajmer, Allahabad, and Visakhapatnam—as examples, a Brookings India report highlights governance challenges, infrastructure gaps, institutional arrangements, and financial tools that policymakers must consider to reach their local ambitions.

The report finds that installing digital technologies alone will not deliver the results India hopes to achieve.

While collectively, across various social and demographic factors—like health infrastructure, education infrastructure, sanitation, connectivity, energy uses, housing and banking and crime rate—the three cities display a number of strengths and weaknesses, overall performance often significantly lags international standards.

Visakhapatnam performs well in terms of its toilet access, electricity coverage, infant mortality rate, and its education and health infrastructure. Ajmer does well in terms of its literacy rate and education and health infrastructure. On average, Allahabad lags behind on most of the indicators, with the potential exception of its mobile access and banking facilities, where technological solutions may be better suited.

Policy interventions, therefore, will likely need to play a bigger role in driving change, even in markets with fewer apparent obstacles to overcome. Visakhapatnam, for instance, has an enormous population and expansive infrastructure base—potentially allowing for greater economies of scale—but any resulting agglomeration will depend on the institutional dynamics of the city, such as the efficiency of its local government, the rule of law, and its specific trade and industrial policies. Across all three cities, the lack of reliable electricity or a computer with internet access severely limits the potential to implement digital solutions, ranging from fairly basic digital governance to future-looking Internet of Things (IoT) products.

From sanitation standards to economic diversification, the three cities trail their international urban peers, and they have failed to meet central government’s goals within the country. Addressing these shortcomings must be at the centre of any local Smart City planning effort and will require significant financial capital to address a clear investment gap.

The lagging indicators ultimately represent impressive opportunities for public or private market interventions. Using new digital infrastructure to upgrade sanitation services, schools, and hospitals has the potential to dramatically impact these regional economies. If done well, these upgrades can create a virtuous cycle in which households leverage improved services to achieve greater economic outcomes, which in turn increases their demand for even more infrastructure services. India’s economic challenges are clear—but so are the market opportunities.

Our report offers a series of distinct policy recommendations can help Indian cities design smart cities plans, improve their implementation, and build their economies.

These include:

1. India must focus on creating more customised solutions as part of its Smart Cities Mission, which should be shaped according to local infrastructure priorities and institutional capabilities.

2. India must look to improve government capabilities at all levels to accelerate future urban development efforts.

3. India must elevate the financial standing of its urban areas, making them more attractive destinations for future investment.

Our extensive research reveals how governance changes at a city level represent a crucial step in delivering more comprehensive Smart City improvements, which naturally involve a number of factors beyond technological upgrades.

Download the PDF of the report, “Building Smart Cities in India”

VIDEO | Amitabh Kant launching the report
VIDEO | Presentation
VIDEO | Panel discussion
VIDEO | Adie Tomer | Lessons from developed economies
VIDEO | Elizabeth Kneebone | How urbanisation differs

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