India 3.0: Sustainable Cities Possible?

Can India ever clean up its cities?  Recently, I met an Indian woman who recently moved to San Francisco after working in London for a decade and made a disturbing remark:  “Many Indian expats don’t want to return home because of the terrible air pollution, which is just getting worse, and I don’t see an end to the problem.”

As a Silicon Valley native who introduced semiconductor companies in the mid-1980s to Bangalore, which had the ambitious goal of becoming “the Silicon Valley of Software”, I am worried that “pollution flight” will deprive India of talented people with international educations and working experience who will be needed to revitalize its massive economy.  Like China, the exodus of wealth and brains will hinder India’s transition to the new consumer economy.  What can India do to clean up its environment in order to bring back its expats, reduce healthcare costs, and improve its living standards?

Sweden, an environmental pioneer that coined the term “sustainability” in the 1970s, is taking the lead.  Recently, India and Sweden signed a Memorandum of Understanding on sustainable urban development, where Sweden will bring its sustainable technologies to India’s 100 smart cities being planned.  Mehmet Kaplan, Minister for Housing, Urban Development and Information Technology of Sweden, notes: “We need a holistic approach based on economic, ecological and social sustainability.” In the private sector, Ericsson signed an agreement with Sterlite Technologies to accelerate its focus on smart, sustainable cities in the country.

Other nations are jumping into India’s sustainable cities market.  In October, Ramboll and the Indian-Danish Forum explored how Denmark can bring its sustainable technologies to India’s smart cities.

In January, the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur signed a deal with Nikken Sekkei Research Institute to plan, design and implement smart technologies to develop sustainable habitats for India’s smart cities.

In February, India announced the first 20 cities for the smart cities program. As India’s growth accelerates, cities are projected to create an INR 73 trillion ($1.1 trillion) investment opportunity over the next 15 years.  Over a dozen Indian states and key cities are incorporating energy conservation into by-laws and mandating the Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) in their jurisdictions, which could save enough energy to power to over 350 million Indian homes.

To avoid being iced out by European and Japanese competitors, the U.S. will hold “innovation roadshows” in New Delhi, Gurgaon, Ahmedabad and Hyderabadfrom March 14-18.

At the grassroots level, Barefoot College is training “barefoot solar engineers” in the northwestern state of Rajasthan to install solar panels, charging stations, and small LED lights in houses, which would be an invaluable where 240 million people lack electricity.,

So, to my delight, India is moving faster than I expected to reduce energy waste and carbon emissions.  But what about government corruption and foot-dragging?

As I learned from Bangalore, which achieved its goal of building a software industry in the mid-1990s when Internet went commercial, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  When I asked the Bangalore tech park manager what challenges he faced in the 1980s, he replied:  “Poverty, bureaucracy, corruption, poor infrastructure, nepotism, xenophobia, and no venture funding.  Do you think we can still succeed in building a tech hub?”  I replied that Bangalore could succeed if all parties worked together and partnered with Silicon Valley.  As they say, the rest is history.  Bangalore totally surprised us in record time.

This time, India is moving in real time on the cloud, not slowly using faxes as we did in the 1980s.  Its 100 smart cities can retain their best and brightest by adopting sustainable technologies and partnering with foreign companies who can help India clean up its cities and develop sustainable technologies for export around the world, just as it has done with software.

My Virtual Oresund startup in Sweden is offering a VR platform that will enable Open Governance and APIs so developers and citizens can integrate Big Data, predictive analytics, Internet of Things (IoT), and other monitoring systems into their VR ecosystems.  We look forward to partnering with Indian smart cities developers.

Moreover, young Indians are already “voting with their feet” by moving to cleaner nations and cities.  If Indian cities want to keep these talented people, they will have to clean up.  My bet is that cities will compete to become cleaner and more pleasant places to live, with the “Dirty Dozen” becoming targets of much media and public derision.  In my experience, Indians are too proud to be laughed at, especially by foreigners; they want to become respected leaders in the world.  And, like Bangalore, they will clean up their cities and create new industries and companies in the process.  I look forward to seeing India 3.0.

Sheridan Tatsuno is co-founder of Virtual Oresund, a virtual reality (VR) platform for Sustainable Cities design and planning, which will be released in late April, initially in Copenhagen and Malmo.  For details, join VR Sustainalbe Cities:


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