Urbanizing India: A Closer Look
Connect Karo 2015, New Delhi

This year’s CONNECTKaro conference focused on how Indian cities like Bangalore (pictured) can use technology for smarter development given the country’s rapid urbanization. Photo by Benoit Colin/WRI.

From April 15 to 16, 2015 in New Delhi, city and transport leaders from around the world came together for the third annual edition of WRI India’s CONNECTKaro conference. This year’s theme of Smart Cities for Sustainable Development and focused on the role of technology, sustainable mobility, and vibrant public spaces for Indian cities.

India will be one of the last major countries in the world to experience the urbanization of its population. In 2010, 31 percent of India’s people lived in its cities. By 2030, this is expected to rise to 40 percent. This means that an additional 220 million people will move to cities across the country.

Which cities will these people go to? Is it possible to create jobs for these people? Will they have a good quality of life?

An Enormous Challenge

Approximately 100 million people will go to or be born in the top 10 cities; and the next 100 million people will go to or be born in next 80 cities with populations of over one million. A McKinsey study quotes, “If India optimizes the productivity of its cities and maximizes their GDP, the economy could add more than 170 million urban workers to its labor force by 2025.”

Urbanization will bring wealth and also challenge equity. The number of urban households with true discretionary spending power is estimated to increase sevenfold—to 89 million households—in 2025. Will this additional wealth mean a better quality of life? This wealth will surely increase the competition for constrained resources—such as public finance, water, road space, and more.

The newly elected BJP government is committed to addressing these urban challenges. It announced the 100 Smart Cities program when it came to power, thereby setting the stage for one of the biggest urban renewal programs. Just recently, a top government panel approved Rs. 2.73 Lakh Crores (US$ 2,730 billion) to develop 100 smart cities and upgrade basic civic infrastructure in another 500 cities over the next ten years.

Cities and urbanization clearly have the potential to be an environmentally sustainable way to work and live. Life in compact settlements requires less transport, less energy for cooling and heating, and directly occupies (and therefore, alters) less terrain than more spatially dispersed settlements.

What Are Smart Cities?

There is no single, correct definition of Smart Cities. The idea behind creating them is to enhance human economic and social well-being, and to reduce costs and resource consumption. Collectively, the city has to work for all its citizens. A city has to be a place where its citizens can live, work, and thrive.

The discourse on Smart Cities includes a wide variety of topics—including governance, technology, citizen participation, transport, energy, health and pollution, water, and waste.


Today India’s top 10 cities occupy 0.1 percent of the total land area, and its top 100 cities occupy 0.26 percent of the land. This land area will need to expand as more people come to live in cities, and it will be important to ensure expansion happens efficiently. Land management will be a critical element of the smart cities program.


Indian cities in the last two decades have made large investments in building wider roads, flyovers, and elevated roads. This has only led to an increase in cars and associated negative results—like air pollution and road traffic fatalities.

Global evidence shows new trends are emerging that are transforming the mobility paradigm from “moving cars” to “moving people”. Emerging global trends include bus rapid transit (BRT), unified cashless transactions across modes, taxi aggregators, bicycle sharing, car-license auction policies, and others. Cities need to understand how to adopt the new paradigm, implement new trends, and ensure that all initiatives are complimentary and not competing.

Finance (and Measurement)

Governments, businesses, and investment funds are all beginning to understand the costs and implications of climate change impacts—such as water scarcity, extreme weather events, temperature rise—and want to invest in sustainable infrastructure.

Measuring environmental and social impacts is critical to ensuring that additional capital costs (in most cases) actually produces real results. Measurement methodologies will be key for cities to raise capital from the private sector, launch fiscal instruments like bonds, and access funds from the green climate fund.

Public Spaces

Public spaces are where everybody in the city can meet as equals. Cities need safe, clean public spaces. Streets are the largest public space in a city and fostering vibrant streets can prioritize human interaction and create great public places where people can rest, relax, and play.

Streets where one can walk or bicycle freely create sustainable and healthy lifestyles for everyone, regardless of age, gender, ability, ethnicity or economic background. The Raahgiri Day open streets movement is a great start in this direction.

Technology for Disruptive Change

Efficiency through technology is clearly useful. Many truly transformative services can be “disruptive”, and create entirely new value propositions that may turn our ideas of ownership, participation, measures, and experience on their head. So why not go back to a problem that is pressing and needs new technologies and disruptive ideas for solutions?

A Smart City may not have single definition but it will require a willingness to sacrifice old ways and single-minded pursuits. Decisions will need to be built on strategic and evidence-based foundations, transforming cites to become places we would all like to come home to.

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