In an effort to build collaboration related to India’s Smart Cities Mission, nine faculty members and researchers from the University of Toronto, a multidisciplinary group of urban experts from across the university, went to Mumbai in May 2017 to lead a workshop on the future of smart cities. The workshop was sponsored by the University of Toronto, the Centre for Urban Science and Engineering at IIT-Bombay, Tata Trusts and the Government of Ontario. It was held in conjunction with Muncipalika, an annual exhibition and conference aimed at urban administrators and professionals.

During the workshop, presenters from U of T and IIT-Bombay approached the definition of smart cities from a broad perspective, considering physical and social infrastructural needs as well as the role of management and services required for the sustainable operation, inclusive development and growth of metropolitan areas. Workshop presentations provided leading-edge thinking about how cities, administrators and residents could move toward building smarter cities in the decades to come, addressing questions of sanitation, transportation, innovation, municipal finance, affordable housing, public health, resilience and more.

While in India, the U of T delegation also travelled to two of India’s designated smart cities: Surat and Pune. In each city, we met with civic officials to discuss local approaches being developed to foster the municipality’s goal of becoming a smart city, shared our expertise and considered opportunities for future collaboration and partnerships.

Travelling between Mumbai and these two cities, we witnessed the stark and challenging variations in urban environments and urban dwellers. Chaotic and congested streets, many poor people living on the sidewalks, unreliable or nonexistent public transportation systems, dilapidated housing, and unsanitary water and sewage systems were in sharp contrast to the technologically savvy narratives and plans we learned about in the cities of Surat and Pune. It became apparent that the smart cities plans under way in each city represented progress in the direction of each city’s future development trajectory. The efforts ranged from improving residents’ quality of life through the addition of enhanced public services such as reliable public transit and sanitary waste collection, construction of thousands of new affordable housing units, and improvements to each city’s capacity to support a growing population. However, given the large size of the cities and the scope of the challenges faced, the Smart Cities Mission seems insufficient on its own to shift India toward a prosperous and inclusive urban future. We began to understand and view the smart cities plans as aspirational. At present, they are plans to develop the necessary financing, culture, systems, technological capacity and resources, being tested through small-scale pilot projects with the intent of realizing a path forward toward achieving longer-term, wider-scale success.

Pune is the seventh largest metropolitan area in India, with a population of approximately 5 million people. The municipality’s smart city development corporation is working with McKinsey & Company on a 51-point plan for transformation, developed through a public consultation process and focused on priority areas of transportation, water supply and sanitation. The plan also includes a focus on enhancing and revitalizing public spaces, and improving access to government services through websites, apps and publicly accessible online kiosks. The city is making progress through pilot programs and phased initiatives: 1.5 kilometres of streets have been redesigned to safely accommodate cars, bikes and pedestrians in separated spaces along one roadway; approximately one-quarter of the street lights have been replaced by energy-saving LED bulbs; and there are plans for 100 electric buses to be running on the streets of Pune by the summertime.

In Surat, a city of 6 million, the municipality has partnered with IBM to develop its smart city strategy. Surat’s strategy is decidedly technical in nature — it emphasizes capturing and collecting property taxes from residents to pay for improvements in infrastructure and services, and providing real-time data on bus routes, where a single digital identification assists with property tax payments, improving access to municipal services, and also acts as a bus pass.