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Getting smart about cities in India

A sky view of a lit up city.

The cities of the future are all but certain to confront a number of unique challenges. Across the globe, cities are expected to experience enormous gains in population, with most of the growth concentrated in the developing world.

These cities of the future will need to balance the basic demands of a growing population against concerns for the environment, economic sustainability, and the logistics required to simply keep these enormous cities running. Planning for this future is made more complicated by the dearth of usable data.

Enter the smart city.

Smart cities are built by installing dense networks of sensors that permit real-time collection of data on the use of water, electricity, transportation, healthcare, and other systems. This allows governments or private utilities to manage and respond to changes in demand in real-time, streamlining energy usage, generating efficiency, and improving logistics.

Rapid growth of smart, connected cities is already underway across Europe. But India is also leading the charge in developing smarter cities. Newly-elected Prime Minister Narenda Modi has unveiled an ambitious plan to fulfill a campaign promise and create 100 smart cities across India.

Delhi and Mumbai will see population growth of 5.9 million and 5.1 million, respectively, by 2030.”

While the list of cities is still being developed, the plan includes a hybrid of new construction and retrofits. Satellite towns will be built near existing urban areas and important industrial corridors, and mid-sized cities expected to see rapid growth will be updated with modern systems.

In its Global Cities 2030 report, our partner Oxford Economics forecasts that Delhi and Mumbai will see population growth of 5.9 million and 5.1 million, respectively, by 2030. In fact, nine Indian cities (Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmadabad, Surat, Pune, and Ghaziabad) are in the top 50 cities expected to see the biggest population growth over the next 16 years.

But Indian smart city growth may be hampered by a lack of capital. Only one Indian city-Mumbai-is in the top 50 cities by GDP growth, with an expected growth of $173 billion.

Oxford Economics also forecasts that at current growth rates, it will take Delhi 43 years to catch up with New York City's 2013 GDP, and 56 years to meet New York's per capita GDP.

Part of India's 100 smart cities plan is to build a series of cities along the Delhi-Mumbai corridor, which is to be mainly funded by an investment of $100 million, mostly from private or foreign developers. India has allocated a total of $1.2 billion to build satellite towns close to existing cities.

But the efficiencies brought about by smart cities can be lucrative for local governments, and Modi is on the hunt for ideas and expertise from other countries, recently visiting France and Japan for advice and investment for his smart cities plan.

While India's 100 smart cities initiative faces a long road ahead, Prime Minister Modi's plan represents a vigorous step in the right direction.

But one might also ask 'Is it smart enough?' In other words, will making cities smart and connected be sufficient to address massive, and growing, issues of sustainability.

And the answer of course is no. Not on its own. Some old-fashioned basics like well-engineered roads and houses will also be needed, at large scale.

But we should not let it depress us. It is certainly true that technology is reaching levels of sophistication today that can indeed be transformative. We just need to realize it won't do it on its own.

Click here to read the first, second, third and fourth articles in our series on The Future of Cities.

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Longitudes explores and navigates the trends reshaping the global economy and the way we’ll live in the world of tomorrow: logistics, technology, e-commerce, trade and sustainability. Which path will you take?

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