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What is ‘Smart’ in Smart Cities (in the making) in India?



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Reflecting on almost four years of reviewing the Smart City (SC) literature and practices undertaken in both developed and developing nations, I find myself pondering such questions as: What is a Smart City? Who defines Smartness and for whom? Is there actually a Smart City? I have addressed some of these concerns as a part of my dissertation, which focuses on how two Indian city governments of Kakinada, in Andhra Pradesh, located on the southeastern coast, and Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh, located in the north-central part of the country, are conceptualizing smartness. As described by the Smart Cities Council, a SC is one that “uses Information and Communication Technologies to enhance its livability, workability, and sustainability” (2015). This essay offers a summary of a share of what I have come to understand about smartness and its evolution after reviewing the SC literature and interviewing government officials and industry professionals implementing Smart City projects in two Indian cities.

Some Observations on the Smart City Literature

With advancements in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), Smart Cities are becoming a popular urban development strategy among elected officials and city managers around the world to respond to various threats posed by rapid urbanization, such as environmental degradation and increasing inequality (Hartemink, 2016). Globally, jurisdictions ranging from small towns to mega cities are investing in smart city initiatives. Unfortunately, the prolific use of this term is clouding understanding of what it takes actually to achieve such a status (Van den Bergh and Viaene, 2015). As a consequence, communities are experiencing multiple implementation risks in realizing their smart city-related ambitions. These include social concerns (e.g., a lack of citizen participation), institutional challenges (e.g., inadequate local governance capacity), financial obstacles (e.g., the availability of funds), resource management and partnership exigencies (e.g., a lack of availability of land and contractors having SC expertise) and technological gaps (e.g., low technology penetration). Globally, these matters reflect the gaps or missing pieces in the current policies and organizational structures necessary for implementing SC projects. These mediating factors, necessary for smart city realization, can perhaps best be understood by exploring the experiences of specific communities trying to gain that standing. Indeed, this was an animating rationale for my dissertation.

In the late 1990s corporate giants, including IBM and CISCO, introduced studies in North America and Europe that discussed SC models and definitions that were aimed at profit maximization (Söderström et al., 2014). Later researchers criticized these early efforts for their undue focus on technocratic characteristics (Holland, 2008). Analyses of the guidance that appeared during the 2007-2010 period focused not merely on technology, but also on the outcomes of such efforts (Bakici, 2013). For example, scholars now examine the results of efforts to employ intelligent transport management systems to manage traffic more efficiently in cities and use environment sensors to track air quality. These studies suggested that the focus of what it means for an urban center to be a SC had shifted from adopting specific technologies to realizing beneficial results (Gupta and Hall, 2016).

Since 2010, a number of analyses have focused on identifying the factors enabling or hampering SC development, including, particularly, the role of citizen participation in successfully implementing such initiatives (Martin et al., 2018). However, very few studies to date have treated the challenge of SC strategy development and implementation holistically by highlighting both the process by which appropriate goals can be determined and strategies to address the contextual factors that mediate their effective realization (Caprotti et al., 2017). Importantly, these analyses are based on communities that have already implemented smart projects (or are close to completion of them). Researchers have therefore not yet closely observed the various aspects of planning and implementing a smart project, as cities are grappling with that challenge. Accordingly, it is now important to study diverse examples of communities, in developed and developing nations alike, which are currently implementing SC projects in order to begin to obtain a more nuanced awareness of such concerns and to develop strategies to address them.  

Learning from the Experience of Cities implementing projects under India’s Smart Cities Mission

The Smart Cities Mission (SCM) is a national initiative launched by the Government of India (GoI) in 2015 (Ministry of Urban Development, 2015). This effort required citizen engagement in all efforts to develop a city’s vision of becoming smart and establishing special purpose governance vehicles (SPV) to manage SCM activities at the local level. SPV, which are limited purpose firms incorporated under the Companies Act of 2013, are responsible for planning, releasing funds, implementing, monitoring and evaluating Smart City development projects. Led by a full-time Chief Executive Officer, Indian SPV governing boards have members representing the central government, state government and local government (Ministry of Urban Development, 2015). My dissertation examined SC implementation at the city level and thus included interviews with SPV members (city government officials) and industry professionals involved as Project Management Consultants in SC project implementation.

In order to understand better the perspective of city government officials and industry professionals in Kanpur and Kakinada concerning the SC initiatives occurring in their cities, I conducted interviews with them during a period of two months. Officials from both cities believed that becoming a smart city would result in principally physical changes in their communities. For example, most such projects afoot sought to improve traffic or solid waste management that would result in more effective services. Meanwhile, my interlocutors rarely mentioned such goals as ensuring that their communities’ SC strategies were implemented transparently or on the basis of effective and equitable citizen participation. Those with whom I spoke also did not address the challenge of ensuring ongoing effective collaboration with private partners and other stakeholders to secure SC aims. Although the interviewees highlighted crucial implementation risks and discussed several enablers of project success, including strong political will and robust institutional machinery (i.e., adequate human and fiscal capacities), these factors were not discussed as SC components that need to be developed as a part of changing an urban center into a smart city.

With city officials now intensively investing in SC initiatives, hoping to gain a better quality of life for their citizens, it is important that scholars examine the evolution of the concept and develop strategies to ameliorate or overcome the likely pitfalls of the implementation process so as to maximize opportunities for success. And as I learned in the Indian cities I investigated, the bulk of the smart projects now being proposed and implemented are aiming to increase citizen safety and improve the urban environment. However, city “smartness” is not simply the result of risk reduction or of physical transformation. To realize fully the potential of the smart city construct, government officials should actively design projects that seek to address known implementation process obstacles and that involve residents so as to raise the likelihood of successful implementation.


Bakıcı, T., E. Almirall, and J. Wareham, (2013). “A smart city initiative: the case of Barcelona,” Journal of the Knowledge Economy, 4(2), pp. 135-148.

Caprotti, F., Cowley, R., Datta, A., Broto, V. C., Gao, E., Georgeson, L., and Joss, S. (2017). The New Urban Agenda: key opportunities and challenges for policy and practice. Urban Research & Practice, 10(3), 367-378.

Gupta, K. and Hall, R.P., (2016). “Measuring Smart Cities in India,”, Poster presented at the Smart Cities Summit, Austin, 2016.

Hartemink, N. (2016). “Governance Processes in Smart City Initiatives: Exploring the implementation of two Dutch Smart City Projects: TRANSFORM-Amsterdam and TRIANGULUM-Eindhoven,”, Accessed November 4, 2019.  

Hollands, R. G. (2008). “Will the real smart city please stand up?” City, 12(3), pp. 303-320.

Ministry of Urban Development. (2015). Smart City: Mission Statement and Guidelines. Retrieved May, 2017, from Delhi, India:

Martin, C. J., J. Evans, and A. Karvonen. (2018). “Smart and sustainable? Five tensions in the visions and practices of the smart-sustainable city in Europe and North America,” Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 133, pp. 269-278.

Smart Cities Council. (2015). Smart Cities Readiness Guide. Retrieved June, 2018, from Söderström, O., T. Paasche, and F. Klauser, (2014). “Smart cities as corporate storytelling.” City, 18(3), pp. 307-320.

Van den Bergh, J., and S. Viaene, (2015). Key challenges for the smart city: Turning ambition into reality. Paper presented at the 48th Hawaii System Sciences International Conference (HSSIC), 2015.

Khushboo Gupta

Khushboo is a Ph.D. candidate in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization (PGG) Program in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), Virginia Tech. Her research interest spans from Smart City Development in developing nations to Regional Economic Development in the state of Virginia. Khushboo received her Masters of Technology degree in Civil Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (IITK), India. After graduation, she worked as a research assistant at IITK studying the impact of urban growth magnets such as universities on the surrounding areas.

Khushboo’s Ph.D. dissertation focuses on understanding smart city development in developing nations, which includes examining risk priorities within India’s SCM and exploring Smart City (SC) transformation in the cities of Kakinada and Kanpur. She also work part time for the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development as a Graduate Research Assistant. As a graduate research assistant at the VTOED, she has been involved in various projects including 1) conducting research on topics such as technology adoption, last-mile connectivity, entrepreneurial ecosystem, and urban-rural partnerships; 2) suggesting strategies for community economic development/place-making projects such as downtown revitalization and children's museum expansion; and 3) visualizing project findings using GIS and Gephi (network) analysis.

You can find more about her research projects here.

Publication Date

November 7, 2019