In September 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi affirmed India’s pledge to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UN General Assembly in New York. He made a commitment to “make our cities smart, sustainable and engines of progress” by 2030. This builds on earlier promises of ending poverty, providing housing and basic services to all by the early 2020s.
The Digital India mission is a missing link that could help connect the Smart Cities mission to these high-level SDG outcomes, especially the Sustainable Cities goal to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Smart cities are best seen as one of many mechanisms to operationalise this link, rather than an all-encompassing framework whose internal contradictions can make implementation tough.
As the NITI Aayog prepares to implement the SDGs nationwide, a key question is whether core SDG priorities—poverty, employment, basic services, Make in India and sustainable infrastructure—take precedence in both investment and phasing over Smart cities or whether we can build a complementary narrative, where one strengthens the other.
To do that effectively, we have to examine the many origins of the idea of smart cities, which is certainly not a swadeshi concept. The idea developed somewhat independently in the 2000s in high income countries of Europe, East and South-east Asia. All have well-established physical and digital infrastructure, high levels of urbanisation and were seeking to consolidate their position as advanced markets and innovation-led economies.
This state-led policy drive was given additional fillip by transnational corporations, seeking to reinvent themselves around the fourth industrial revolution, based on the Internet of Things (IoTs) that they believe could form a new digital substrate for 21st century cities. Much of the hype around smart cities in India is led by these firms seeking state support and possibly subsidies to expand market opportunities, in an era of uncertain growth in economies belonging to the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD).
The challenge is that India is far from being a high-income country with well-established infrastructure, markets and responsive public institutions. It would therefore be difficult for us to draw upon examples of ‘smart urbanism’ ranging from Seoul and Singapore to Masdar and Barcelona. Most Indian cities continue to struggle with poverty; weak infrastructure and poor services; dysfunctional land and informal labour markets; fragmented governance; and feeble public participation in everyday governance, in what is otherwise an active, vigorous and contested democracy.
A central question, therefore, is whether these developmental processes have to be addressed first, or if many swadeshi city-wide smart initiatives can help our cities leapfrog to a more sustainable development pathway defined by the SDGs. Further, can local greenfield and brownfield initiatives that form the backbone of the current Smart Cities Mission enable city-wide impact, rather than creating pockets of privilege or affluence?
The SDGs provide a wide and holistic development framework to encompass India’s urban challenges. This ranges from ending poverty and hunger, to the provision of universal health care and education, housing and basic services, jobs and industrialisation.