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Unlocking India’s potential through smart cities


Urbanisation is arguably the trend that will define much of Asia Pacific’s future in the coming decades, as more than half the continent’s 4.3 billion population is expected to live in cities by 2018, tipping the region over from a predominantly rural one to an urban bloc.

Some of the region’s most rapid urban growth is set to take place in India. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the country’s urban population will soar from 340 million in 2008 to 590 million in 2030, an unprecedented rate of urbanisation for the nation.

But this shift comes with growing pains.

Not only have India’s burgeoning cities struggled with overcrowding, extreme poverty and the lack of basic amenities such as housing, water, and electricity, they are also plagued by polluted waterways, piles of untreated waste, and some of the worst air quality levels in the world.

Cities such as Mumbai and Chennai are frequently wrecked by catastrophic floods, which many analysts have blamed on the breakneck pace of urbanisation resulting in improper city planning and drainage.

India’s government, acutely aware of the need to address these issues, launched a national Smart Cities Mission in July 2015, which aims to develop 100 smart cities across the country.

Each of these cities will boast, among other things, reliable water and electricity supply, good solid waste management infrastructure, efficient public transport systems, and affordable housing. They will also be hubs of technological innovation and economic growth.

But for urban development expert Karuna Gopal, the future of India’s cities was a personal preoccupation long before India’s leadership turned its attention to the issue.

In 2005, Gopal, set up the non-profit advisory organisation Foundation for Futuristic Cities (FFC) with the aim of helping to solve the planning, governance, and financial challenges that India would encounter as it urbanised.

“Though much of India lived in villages at the time, I knew that the country’s future was heavily dependent on how we shaped our cities,” she tells Eco-Business in a recent interview.

“I wanted to see the country’s economic potential translate to performance,” adds Gopal, who will be presenting at the upcoming International Green Building Conference in Singapore from September 7 to 9.

She will be speaking on how the policy and technical tools that make a city smart — such as data analytics, e-governance, and widespread internet and communications infrastructure — also help improve its sustainability.

Trend-setting urbanisation tools

Since FFC was founded, the Hyderabad-based think tank has over the years delivered several knowledge initiatives such as maintaining a stable water supply as cities become more densely packed; providing essential services to the urban poor; and developing financing strategies for urban improvement projects across the country.

One project which has perhaps had the most enduring legacy is Sculpt Your City, a 2009 publication which offers 21 strategies for improving Hyderabad’s quality of life, administration of public facilities and its environmental performance.

The project, which took a crowdsourcing approach to urban policy, consolidated strategies gathered from some 100 Scientists, information technology professionals, business leaders, professors and students on how to make Hyderabad a globally-renowned city.

The Sculpt Your City report, though published years before India’s Smart Cities mission, contains several technologically advanced suggestions to transform Hyderabad, and even help it become a carbon neutral city.

These include: implementing sensor-based traffic management protocols; embedding sensors in city infrastructure; using GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation and mobile data technologies to better manage the city’s transport fleets; and a slew of energy efficiency measures across the city.

It also addresses gnarly environmental and social issues such as pollution and poverty through strategies to upgrade city slums and provide better amenities to their residents; and measures to clean up and protect local lakes and rivers.

“Sculpt Your City is a guidance document to make every city liveable,” says Gopal, adding that at the time, it was a disruptive tool because its emphasis on weaving citizen perspectives into city policy was unprecedented.

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