Comparison of Smart Cities Programs in India and the US


In September 2015 the Obama Administration announced it’s smart cities initiative. It is part of the Administration’s overall commitment to target federal resources to meet local needs and support community-led solutions. (Office of Press Secretary, White House 2015). Starting only a few months after the announcement of the Indian Smart Cities Mission in June 2015, this initiative presents us with a unique opportunity to compare and contrast the difference in the two programs, highlighting the context specific characteristics of both. With the countries placed at a different position on the urbanization spectrum, we can understand how the meaning of the term “smart cities” varies in the two cases. As we look at both these cases, it is essential that we remember the differences in the planning processes in both the countries, the difference in levels of decentralization and the difference in urbanization in both the countries.

In 1992, the government of India passed the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA), which formally recognized urban local bodies. With this local-level empowerment came the opportunity to transform not only the way that citizens engaged with their government, but also the way that public services were delivered. But while this constitutional amendment was enacted over twenty years ago, only within the last decade has there been any real effort to implement these reforms in the urban sector. (MAHIN 2015)

The Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (SZEA) of 1926 and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act (SCPEA) of 1928 are what set the American planning process apart. Text on the APA website calls the two laws — known together as the Standards Acts — “the basic foundation for planning and zoning.” Silver says that the Acts have “allowed the orderly growth and development of cities in the United States” and offers that they help explain America’s more orderly transformation from agricultural to industrial economy to the transformations currently in progress in less-zoned China and — in particular — India. In an interview Mitchell Silver of AICP discusses their significance discussing the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “people were flocking to the cities in massive quantities. Cities weren’t equipped for mobility. There wasn’t adequate housing or sanitation. People were getting sick and dying. So the reason why this is so significant is that it put in place model legislation that states could adopt, which could in turn enable cities, counties, towns and villages to put these mechanisms in place that helped manage and plan for growth.” It is important to note that these words can easily be applicable to not so distant past in India’s context.

US Smart Cities Initiative

According to the White House Press Release, the American smart cities initiative pledges to invest over $160 million in federal research and to leverage more than 25 new technology collaborations to help local communities tackle key challenges such as reducing traffic congestion, fighting crime, fostering economic growth, managing the effects of a changing climate, and improving the delivery of city services. The document states that an emerging community of civic leaders, data scientists, technologists, and companies are joining forces to build “Smart Cities” – communities that are building an infrastructure to continuously improve the collection, aggregation, and use of data to improve the life of their residents – by harnessing the growing data revolution, low-cost sensors, and research collaborations, and doing so securely to protect safety and privacy. (Office of Press Secretary, White House 2015)

The white house also announced more than $35 million in new grants and over $10 million in proposed investments to build a research infrastructure for Smart Cities by the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology. Nearly $70 million has been identified in new spending and over $45 million in proposed investments to unlock new solutions in safety, energy, climate preparedness, transportation, health and more, by the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Transportation, Department of Energy, Department of Commerce, and the Environmental Protection Agency.  It also states that more than 20 cities participating in major new multi-city collaborations that will help city leaders to effectively collaborate with universities and industry. Key Strategies of the initiatives – as press stated by the press release – are: creating test beds for “Internet of Things” applications and developing new multi-sector collaborative models, collaborating with the civic tech movement and forging intercity collaborations, leveraging existing Federal activity and pursuing international collaboration. (Office of Press Secretary, White House 2015)

Comparison with the Indian Smart Cities Mission

India’s Smart Cities Mission is a $15 Billion urban development scheme, largest of its kind in scale of expenditure and number of citizens affected. As world’s greatest democracy, India’s urban development agenda is in the spotlight for the widespread impact it will have on generations to come and on this stage, the Smart Cities Mission is the flagship scheme which is meant to drive the nation towards a sustainable and inclusive future.

Indian and American Smart Cities programs have many differences including budget, timeline, implementation plan, recipients of funds, method of engagement of the cities and citizens, role of government department, role of states and involvement of private, non-profit partners and educational institutes among others. Their key difference lies in the approach and this is a result of the different stages of urbanization the countries are in. 80% of Americans live in an urban area as compared to the 31% of Indians. Additionally, there is a vast service delivery infrastructure gap that India needs to cover. And while the number of Indians in urban settlements is expected to increase rapidly, the scale of urbanization defines the goals we see taking shape in each of the countries. India’s smart city mission focuses on local capacity building and evolution of planning and management of the city for implementation of smart solutions, while the American Smart Cities Mission focuses a more collective search for solutions to the urban problems.  By understanding this key difference in the nature of the two programs, we can see the logic behind the different systems of execution they have.

The Indian Smart Cities mission is a city driven exercise, it is managed by the Ministry of Urban Development along with the coordination of respective states. Its focus is on development of smart city plans for 100 cities which are comprehensive and informed by extensive citizen engagement in solving the urban problems. It is a program which not only engages a wide range of government agencies and departments, it also works with multiple urban schemes currently being implemented including AMRUT, Swachha Bharat and HRIDAY. It works with a horizontally integrated and bottom up planning and management approach adopted by the Indian Smart Cities Mission.

The American Smart Cities Initiative is driven through various agencies and organizations – public, private, academic and non-profit. The key word here is adaptability. With many cities already engaged in comprehensive planning in some form at the local level, this mission is bringing innovation and technology closer to the ground.  With a total of $160 million grant from the government, different departments and government agencies such as Department of Transportation, Department of Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency are proposing their specific schemes. Each has their own set of goals and agendas and agencies have also identified non-government partners in some cases. For example, US Department Of Transportation has pledged up to $40 million, under the competition titled Smart Cities Challenge, (funding subject to future appropriations) to one city to help it define what it means to be a “Smart City “and become the country’s first city to fully integrate innovative technologies – self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors – into their transportation network.  (US DDOT 2016), Vulcan will contribute $10 million, as well as technical assistance and guidance for the seven finalist cities to help improve their proposals for final consideration. (Vulcan n.d.) Many cities and organizations have already been working on projects related to smart cities for a while. Collaboration between City of Chicago, University of Chicago, Urban Center for Computation and Data of the Computation Institute, Argonne National Laboratory on Array of Things is one such project. Array of Things has recently secured $3.1 Million from the National Science Foundation. (DAN CORREA, White House 2015)

The smart cities mission is part of India’s broader urban agenda which aims cover the gap in service delivery infrastructure. Working with missions such as AMRUT and Swaccha Bharat, it is meant to provide ICT enabled solutions for improving quality of life. AMRUT, the largest program of all covers 500 cities and second largest Swaccha Bharat covers 476 cities. Complementary to the area based comprehensive planning driven Smart Cities Mission, both these programs are infrastructure heavy and are implemented through specific projects.

Both the programs are a reflection of their countries’ urban scenario. As discussed earlier, the differences in their urbanization, the levels of decentralization and the planning practices and processes are all essential in shaping the nature of both the smart city programs. As both the countries move forward, they have an opportunity learn from each other’s successes and mistakes to improve upon their activities in the future.