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Three reasons why the UK should pay attention to India’s smart city programme

As Narendra Modi is on his first visit to the UK, little is known about his agenda, other than a ‘rockstar’ Wembley reception, a lunch at Buckingham Palace and meetings at Number 10. Political meetings will focus on how the UK and India might work more closely together, but in what areas?

In September, the UK’s Trade and Investment Department (UKTI) published a report highlighting opportunities for collaboration between the UK and India on smart city development. Thinking beyond the buzz surrounding smart cities, there are three reasons why the UK should take a look at what is happening in India:

  • The scale of Modi’s plans for urban rejuvenation is unprecedented: a third of the 98 selected cities for the Smart Cities Challenge have over a million inhabitants. The Indian government has also been working on the rejuvenation of another 500 cities, through the AMRUT scheme. Overall, some $1.2 trillion will be invested by the government over the next 20 years to improve transportation, energy, public security, sanitation, waste management and well-being in Indian cities. India’s urban population expected to rise to 840 million by 2050. For big challenges, big solutions are required.

  • India has the potential to encourage experimentation with urban decision-making models and citizen-led initiatives: by its scale and diversity, India has traditionally been a laboratory for business solutions, particularly for emerging markets. Recently, municipalities and NGOs have started experimenting with models blending traditional and new participation channels. An example is Next Bengaluru, a neighbourhood design initiative combining offline consultations and online idea-crowdsourcing, ensuring inclusivity while improving reach. India has also seen the multiplication of innovative bottom-up initiatives, from entrepreneurs, NGOs and communities, aiming to address pressing urban issues like safety, sanitation or transportation.

  • Modi’s Smart Cities initiative fits into a larger ‘branding’ strategy: Modi’s plans for Indian cities are not an end in themselves. They align with other complementary programmes, e.g. Digital India or Make in India, set up to attract inward foreign direct investments, create jobs and skill-up the workforce. This is already proving successful, as initiatives are receiving increasing external attention and funding. France wants to invest £1.5 billion in the smart cities mission, Germany is investing about the same in India’s clean energy sector. Singapore, Japan, Spain and the USA are other examples of nations investing in India’s smart cities, to the extent that India became the world’s first investment destination for 2015.

Over the last few years, the UK has been developing competencies of its own in the field of smart cities. Glasgow, winner of a £24 million grant from the Technology Strategy Board in 2013, to set up a smart city demonstrator, is a good example. Successful public-private partnerships like Bristol is Open are also worth mentioning. Set up as a joint venture between the University of Bristol and the City Council, around a consortium of public and private partners, the project looks at how networked sensors can generate data about cities and inform decision-making.

Given the scope of its urban challenges, India has the potential to be a pioneer in the design and implementation of innovative solutions. Additionally, in a time of severe budget cuts, India’s talent for frugal innovation presents great potential for both Indian and UK cities. There are plenty of opportunities for further collaboration between the UK and India in this field, first in terms of sharing experience, developing standards and understanding variables for replicability, but also, more concretely, in terms of cross-investment or partnerships. The theme for Modi’s Wembley speech is ‘Two great nations, one glorious future’. Let’s hope UK politicians will use Modi’s visit as a chance to discuss these opportunities, pushing India-UK relations further.

This blog is part of a series of work on innovation in cities. Nesta's recent report on smart cities can be found here. Future blogs will explore common challenges that UK and Indian cities face.

Photo Credit: M M Photo Collection via Flickr


Florence Engasser

Florence Engasser

Florence Engasser

Senior Foresight Analyst

Florence was a senior foresight analyst within Nesta’s Discovery Hub, which aims to create a link between Nesta’s current portfolio and our pipeline of future work.

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