Crowds, pollution, traffic jams, tangled wires overhead, potholed roads, power outages in peak summer coupled with acute water scarcity—that’s your standard Indian city in a nutshell. ‘City planning’ is seen as a contradiction in a country where cities take on lives of their own and just grow. And it was all seen as normal—till the ’90s.

With liberalisation, and with more people travelling to and from India, there was popular recognition of cities that “worked”—Singapore, for instance, or Shanghai. (Rarely cities in the West, since those were seen as highly developed economies, which could afford well-planned cities.) Politicians and bureaucrats of every hue travelled across the world and came back with big ideas: Mumbai was to become the next Shanghai, Chennai, the new Singapore. But nothing came of these jaunts.

More and more people are moving to cities, which are just not equipped to deal with the influx. According to a 2009 UN report titled World Urbanization Prospects, “urban populations will grow by an estimated 2.3 billion over the next 40 years”. A study by McKinsey Global Institute, the consultancy’s research arm, said that by 2030, Indian cities will be home to 590 million people. The study says: “It took nearly 40 years (between 1971 and 2008) for India’s urban population to rise by 230 million. It could take only half that time to add the next 250 million.”

Cities will have to grow exponentially to keep up. That includes mass transportation, housing, utilities, waste disposal, etc. A larger population will also mean a sharp increase in emissions and a larger carbon footprint. A report on smart cities by WWF International, in association with Booz & Company, says the world’s urban centres account for close to 80% of CO2 emissions.

The idea behind smart cities is to provide a decent quality of life for citizens while reducing emissions. Considering the congestion and poverty in Indian cities, any attempt to make them smart would be a tall order. There have been some efforts to improve the quality of urban transport, such as Delhi’s metro rail and Ahmedabad’s BRTS (bus rapid transit system), as well as in green buildings, and efficient waste management, some of which we feature over the next few pages. But such efforts mean little unless they’re implemented on a nationwide scale, and politics and economics are the biggest stumbling blocks.

Building a smart city from scratch in India was, for long, a pipe dream. But since the 1,483 km Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) began to take shape, there’s been talk of smart cities forming a part of this project. Funded heavily by Japan, the project aims at building a manufacturing and trading hub across Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, and includes power plants, ports, and airports. And 24 smart cities.

The information communication technology (ICT) master plans for five of the smart cities have been finalised. Cisco made the ICT plan for four (Shendra in Maharashtra, Dholera in Gujarat, Manesar-Bawal in Haryana, and Khushkhera-Bhiwadi-Neemrana in Rajasthan) while IBM took care of the ICT for Dighi in Maharashtra.

The idea behind having the ICT backbone in place before the city is planned is to ensure that once the city is built, “process, data, and action come together seamlessly”, says Rahul Sharma, partner (global business services), IBM India.

ICT planning decides the bandwidth, hardware, and software needed to run web and mobile services, cloud computing, smart meters, intelligent systems, and sensor-driven technologies. It digitally connects services such as roads and water supply.

“These are plans covering 30 years of growth,” says Angshik Chaudhuri, executive director (smart+connected communities and globalisation), Cisco Systems India. Each smart city along the DMIC will house 2 million people.

“It is a step towards developing an infrastructure in which vendors can just plug in and begin offering products and services,” says Aamer Azeemi, MD (emerging solutions advisory, Asia Pacific Japan), Cisco Systems India.

The digital backbone is ready. Now for smart cities to move into the real world.

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