Technology and innovation have always gone hand in hand with human progress – from the industrial revolution to our current mobile, digital world. Yet, is the legacy of this progress actually hindering Western society from taking the next step forward? Should we look to more agile economies like India to drive the next wave of innovation?

Think about the established infrastructure of a busy Western city. Typically, its roads have been designed to support petrol-powered, people-driven cars. The engineers of the time (even those of 10 years ago) could not have predicted the rise of electric, autonomous vehicles. A huge upgrade job now awaits many road systems to support these sensor-dependent cars.

Think also about all the analogue systems that we encounter day to day. Our core financial mechanisms, for example, are still firmly rooted in paper. Despite recent moves to electronic money, and the growth of digital payment systems like blockchain, we still face the legacy of cheque books, pay slips and paper-based transactions.

A new maturity path

Shift the focus to emerging economies like India, however, and we see the growth of ‘Smart Cities’ – which are relatively unhindered by the legacy of these previous technological shifts. Government and private-sector initiatives are encouraging cities to regenerate into modern urban landscapes, built on a physical infrastructure that’s embedded with a smart information layer powered by sensors, IoT, mobility and analytics.

With collaborative and competitive principles at the heart of the India Smart City programme, new ideas are emerging and spreading at pace. Citizens are encouraged to expose their talents more, and in some cases there are financial incentives to cross-pollinate the best innovations across regions. Smart Cities are focusing their development around digital, mobile and autonomous technologies, bypassing a lot of the fixed infrastructure and analogue systems that have built up in traditional Western economies.

A big driver for this programme, of course, has been the population boom in India over the last few years. Cities have simply reached the limits of their capacity (Bangalore, for example, grew by ~50% over a decade to about 10 million in 2001, ahead of Delhi and Mumbai), and redevelopment alone will not solve the problem because modernisation involves further construction, more people and more disruption. Creating brand new Smart Cities helps overcome this paradox.

In contrast to the West, which has already experienced its population boom, India is tackling its growth in the digital age – which gives them far more technology-enabled choices and allows them to build in smartness from the ground up. 

Pioneers of progress

This not only makes Smart Cities great places to live and work, it makes them hot spots for further innovation and progress. India is the fastest growing major economy in the world, and well recognised for its focus on entrepreneurship and innovation. Estimates suggest that 843 million people will live in India’s urban areas by 2050, up from 350 million in 2008.

The residents and employees migrating to India’s Smart Cities truly are digital natives who expect everything to be connected and integrated. This younger generation is driving the next wave of innovation, with an insatiable appetite for digital technology, social media and mobile working. The population of Bangalore, for example, has more than doubled over the past 15 years due to the expanding opportunities in IT, BioTech and other fields. It’s a compound effect. Innovation attracts expertise, and the expertise drives further innovation.

Investing in innovation

The level of investment being made in Smart Cities is huge. The Government of India is distributing Rs.500 crore over five years to each of the 33 Smart Cities, which is matched by their state government. This funding is managed by a Special Purpose Vehicle responsible for realising the Smart City vision through partnerships with designers, start-ups, tech companies, contractors and developers.

In the city of Hubli, for example, a partnership was forged with the civic start-up company NextDrop to overcome the problem of unpredictable water supply. They created a text alert service for residents, telling them when water would be available in their neighbourhood. This is helping over 25,000 residents plan better for how they store and use water, raising their quality of life.

Taking all of this into account, it’s perhaps no surprise that so many multi-national companies are investing in India right now – there’s a buzz around Smart Cities that’s attracting a lot of interest from technology, infrastructure and energy companies ready to compete for these sizeable projects.

As a nation of entrepreneurs and technologists, India has the expertise to make rapid progress – and it’s free from a lot of the legacy infrastructure and systemic barriers often faced in the West. It will be fascinating to see where the Smart City programme takes us and, perhaps more importantly, if the dream is fulfilled in the way we all imagine.                               

David Blackwood