I travelled to Delhi to attend the “Smart Cities India 2016 Expo”. A mega Smart City feast focusing on the Indian mission of creating 100 smart cities. As a Norwegian I came to the event with one particular question in mind, and I got the answer I hoped for.
Written by Trond Skundberg
It’s about smart-everything
Smart transport, smart water, smart grids, smart buildings, smart waste management, smart governance, smart health and smart education. Most of all it is about improving the lives of the smart citizens. A firm smart city definition doesn’t exist, but the extensive term covers all possible elements of the future sustainable, green and livable high-tech cities. A hype – but reality. Many of the required ingredients are already here.
The incredible Indian challenge
To fuel today’s economic growth, unbelievable 300 million more Indians need to move to the cities the next 15 years! Try to imagine that. The reason is simply that the growth is happening in the cities, not in the villages where most people live.
A lot of urban innovation and smartening of cities has to take place before that can successfully happen. However, succeeding with smart and sustainable urban development will give hundreds of millions Indians a better life.
Prime Minister Modi and his Government did the right thing, they launched an urban renewal and retrofitting program “India smart city mission” – to encourage and help cities get smarter, faster.
Just above 100 cities all over India are selected to become smart. His expectations can’t be limited to innovation in infrastructure and high-tech solutions but obviously also innovation in business models. Since the awareness campaigns and funding from the central government is far from enough to take care of the job ahead. An interesting example of a new model is that countries “adopt” and invest in a specific Indian smart city – getting benefits, rights and future profit in return.
Openness and cooperation – the key to success
For 3 days I went from seminar to workshops, saw panel debates and searched the expo hall for smart products. I saw a lot of hi-tech solutions, heard visionary talks. It was a lot of individual smartness, but everything need to be brought together. Working in silos won’t create smarter cities in India or anywhere else. So what is absolutely necessary is cooperation across sectors and government offices, across private and public, across small and large enterprises. Even successful public-private-people partnerships (PPPP) are required to succeed on this so important mission.
Critical components are cyber security, open platforms that everyone can build on, not to mention open public data that everyone can access. I am not the right to answer how soon that is likely to happen in India.
Much of the technology is already here and the citizens are ready to be smart. Everyone wants services on digital platforms. Hence, the longest steps forward is required in the areas of cooperation and coordination.
What about the very basic infrastructure challenges?
Indian smart city candidates face huge challenges with the basics; water, energy, waste and transport. Many would claim that the more pressing needs should be addressed first, before even taking the smart-word in the mouth.
If I know India right, the development won’t happen according to such logic. India is after all the country with more smart phones than toilets, so expect the development to be a little uneven. Expect the basics to develop side by side with sensors and Artificial Intelligence.
Smart – or is smarter good enough?
I agree with Smart City expert Renato De Castro that may be the term smarter is good enough for now. Really smart seems like a longer term goal. Small steps and then learn sounds like the best plan to me, but India hasn’t got the time for that.
To carry out this mission at the speed and scale needed, the not-so-unusual-in-India “more for less” approach should be implemented. Even the Jugaad mindset of Indians will come into good use.
So, I wouldn’t be surprised if after some initially chaos the Smart City pieces would magically come together at the last second – and smart cities were born.
Where were the Norwegian companies?
Despite very good initiatives from Innovation Norway and The Norwegian Embassy to organize a Norway pavilion and networking arenas, the NICCI efforts to organize a delegation – the interests from the companies should have been better. Only two Norwegian companies had their individual stalls at the Expo and just one Norwegian was listed as speaker in the seminar program. I expect this to improve considerably next year.
However, we ended up being a handful Norwegian participators visiting the event, learning a lot, sharing ideas and discussing how to join forces for next year’s Expo.
Sweden – one step ahead (this year)
Our neighbor Sweden had its own pavilion with more than 10 companies present. The Swedish Ambassador Harald Sandberg was one of the of the speakers in the Expo opening ceremony, creating awareness of the Swedish companies present.
Smart City roundtable discussion with Norwegian companies
Quite some Norwegian companies and organizations were present at the Smart City roundtable discussion organized by Innovation Norway at their Delhi office.
The smart trash-bin that spoke to me
I feel I have to give one example of an already existing smart product, and out of hundreds of products and concepts, I could have mentioned something related to energy or eHealth, but it was a trash-bin that impressed me a little extra. Solar driven, compresses the garbage, sensors let the system know when it is full and the route for the garbage trucks are automatically generated accordingly. Simple and smart on many levels.
Partner ecosystems – the way in for the small Nordic countries?
I had a talk with the Larsen & Toubro team – one of India’s largest multinationals with services across technology, engineering, and construction. I asked if they had figured it all out themselves, and covered all areas from core infrastructure to smart phone apps and sensors for home monitoring of elderly people. I was pleased to realize the answer was they hadn’t. As many others of the giants they are building partner ecosystems.
No-one doubts L&T will be playing a major role in making India’s cities smarter, so why don’t we explore how to team up with companies like them?
My main question before heading for Delhi was; are there opportunities for Norwegian startups in the Indian smart city landscape?
It obviously is. The most important innovations won’t necessarily happen in the Government or within the walls of the mega corporations. My guess is breakthrough innovations that happen in Nordic startups – very well could find its way into smart Indian cities through large-small company alliances or company networks. I have also mentioned the partner ecosystems of the giants as one possible way in.
The dominating optimist in me consider the door wide open for Norwegian and Nordic players. 16 years of navigating in India-business has developed a realistic side of me too. Even the realistic me consider the door open enough to make this one of my main priorities ahead. However, we really need to coordinate our efforts in identifying business opportunities and creating awareness for our products and services. We must develop a smart relation to India.
We still have 7 months to join forces and make a bigger Norway impact in the 2017 Expo in Delhi.