By Casey Tolan, for CNN
In an ambitious plan to upgrade urban India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi says he will build 100 “smart cities” — cities outfitted with high-tech communication capabilities — across the country.
“Cities in the past were built on riverbanks,” Modi said in a June speech. “They are now built along highways. But in the future, they will be built based on availability of optical fiber networks and next-generation infrastructure.”
For Modi, who took office in May, building new cities is a way to deal with the country’s rapidly urbanizing population while also competing with China, which has made smart cities a centerpiece of its own policies.
Last week, Modi’s government announced a $1.2 billion investment in smart cities over the next year, with more funding coming from private investors and abroad.
Whether the proposal will be an empty slogan or the biggest city-building project in Indian history remains to be seen. Some doubt that India, where many people live without basic infrastructure, should be focused on sci-fi-esque designs.
But several smart city projects are already in the works, including in the state of Gujarat, where Modi’s record as chief minister suggests a focus on the country’s urban middle class.
What makes a city smart?
While there’s no single definition of a “smart” city, the term generally refers to cities using information technology to solve urban problems.
Think of sensors monitoring water levels, energy usage, traffic flows, and security cameras, and sending that data directly to city administrators. Or apps that help residents navigate traffic, report potholes and vote. Or trash collection that’s totally automated.
Older cities can be retrofitted with smart city technologies, but smart cities are also built from scratch. Because new cities have every detail planned from the outset, they allow urban officials to address problems like overcrowding or pollution before the first residents
“We can already anticipate the problems that these cities face and attack them at the source,” said Rahul Sharma, an executive at IBM, which sees smart city technology as a major new market. “India has a fantastic opportunity where we can work outside of the shackles of existing technology.”
India isn’t the only country jumping on the smart cities bandwagon. New cities are popping up in countries like South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and China, which announced an $8 billion investment fund in smart city technology this year.