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  • Writer's picturePrasanth Nori

Where did India's smart cities go?

(Post #1 in a series for the DPI 670 class at Harvard Kennedy School)

Fig 1 : Map of the land of oz

“If we walk far enough," says Dorothy, "we shall sometime come to someplace.” ― L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Background : The India Smart Cities Mission

In 2014, in a widely publicised event, Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India announced 'The Smart Cities Mission'. This was kickstarted with the '100 Smart cities Mission' a project to transform 100 of India's smaller cities into spaces that are sustainable, user-friendly, informed by data and driven by technology. The project was approved a budget of approximately USD 7 Billion$.

Almost 5 years since, here is where the project stands:

  • As of March 2018, only 1.83% of the allocated funds were utilised.

  • The mission guidelines indicate no existing definition of what a smart city constitutes.

  • Only 33% of approved sub-projects (for the first 20 cities) are listed as complete.

  • The project is allegedly distributing resources unequally, benefitting areas that were already better-serviced, thus furthering inequality.

The ruling government continues to call the project a 'success' despite it's clear lack of progress and direction.


While at first glance this may not seem like an IT failure, I believe that this is pre-cursor to multiple IT failures because most of the project is heavily focussed on setting up IT infrastructure from scratch.

Here are a few of my theories:

  1. Lack of definition: The project literally uses the word 'smart' and has a very vague definition of what the government wants from these smart cities.

  2. Structures without content: The entire mission requires cities to set up a special project vehicle' - a company-like entity that formulates and manages the project. It has meticulous procedures in place for hiring a CEO, on-boarding a consulting firm and raising required funding. What it completely lacks is the understanding and content for the exact nature of IT infrastructure that is needed. By letting cities decide their definitions and projects independently, the mission is setting us up for failure when there are future attempts to integrate and consolidate these projects.

  3. Non user-centric design: Individual state project vehicles are supposed to apply for projects, subsidised by national funding and powered by local funding. It is likely that they find funding by improving services in areas that have more influential residents.

  4. Lack of expertise and vision: The project is using the word 'smart' very frivolously. Large scale IT projects like this are set up for failure when they have neither an elaborate vision for the larger scheme of things nor the intricate expertise to get into the details of it.

Much like the imaginary land of oz, India's smart cities remain imaginary. With billions of dollars allocated and some of it spent, it is disappointing to say the least. Over the course of this class, It will be interesting for me to go deeper into the sub-projects and investigate individual IT projects to understand their successes and failures.

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