India in 2050: Future of Cities

India’s cities are the real powerhouses of the national economy. But because the majority of our population is still rural – they have to generate enough resources to sustain themselves as well as their rural neighbors.

Authors - Nisha Dutt (L) & Dipika Prasad (R)
India in 2050: Future of Cities

India is transforming from a rural to an urban country. To prepare our cities for the future – we need to reimagine concepts of shelter, utilities, culture, health, and economy. Unless we plan today, we will build cities that codify inequity and unsustainability.

In the next three decades India will transform from a rural to an urban country

Approximately 1,800 Indians move from rural areas to a city every hour. The pace at which Indian demographics are shifting from rural to urban is unprecedented. Major cities such as Mumbai and Delhi are no longer “cities” as traditionally defined but megalopolises – a collection of urban conglomerates whose borders have merged to become the Mumbai Metropolitan Region and Delhi NCR respectively.

Consider this: by 2050 60% of Indians will live in cities. Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata will be amongst the world’s largest cities and cumulatively become home to nearly 100 million people. How will these cities that are already bursting at the seams ensure basic quality of life for all these new citizens?

The answer is in reimagining the construct of cities. We need to shift away from thinking of cities purely in terms of fixed locations and physical infrastructure such as roads and buildings, and towards cities as dynamic living systems. We have an opportunity ahead of us to overhaul our existing cities and carefully plan new ones as we prepare for the future. Resilience to natural resource scarcity, extreme weather conditions and human-made disasters, as well as inclusive growth will need to be the bedrock of the future of Indian cities. At Intellecap Innovation Lab, we use five lenses of enquiry to think about these future-ready cities:

Shelter: Where do citizens live, work, and play?

Growth in density of cities is inevitable as limited natural resources such as land and water are stretched to cater to increasing populations. Given this, the predominantly horizontal or flat construct of most Indian cities will start to turn into vertical constructs – with high-rises becoming the rule rather than the exception. The opportunity we have is to choose whether we replicate Mumbai’s dense concrete jungle in all our future growth plans, or we think about verticalization very differently. At the very minimum, we will find that zero carbon buildings are not just better for the planet, but more economically viable as we start to pay the true cost of climate change. But to truly imagine a future three decades from now – we have to think about how mega trends in technology and urban planning will converge. Future planners are starting to design and evaluate cities under water, underground, and elevated from the ground level.

In addition to verticalization, the other trend that will become the norm is the emergence of a basic building unit of cities – combining spaces for living, work, and play in a small area. The era of cities that have single zones committed to housing and industry is coming to an end. With 15 kilometers long traffic jams becoming a common occurrence in cities such as Gurgaon; we do not have much of a choice anymore. Cities of the future will instead comprise of interconnected islands or “mini cities” which are self-sufficient.

With growing religious/far-right extremism and rising temperatures – cities are in war-mode with nature as well as man. Law and order reactive responses will become faster and more efficient. However, the real game changers are likely to be technology and design. They will help our cities fight ghettoization by identifying and removing bottlenecks to flow of opportunities. Medellin is an excellent example – its cable car system and public libraries in narcotic gangs-run neighborhoods have helped to transform the city in one generation. They will also help to make cities expandable and built to take in waves of migrants. Mecca has lessons to offer. Each year it leverages innovative urban planning, technology, and data to better ready itself to take in the influx of 3 million pilgrims. These tools will also help cities prepare to tackle natural disasters such as storms, earthquakes, and floods – such that damage is minimized and time to return to normality shortened. India can take inspiration from Washington DC which is using green infrastructure and an innovative infrastructure finance mechanism to create solutions to the city’s storm-water menace.

Utilities: How does the city serve its citizens?

India’s cities are the real powerhouses of the national economy. But because the majority of our population is still rural – they have to generate enough resources to sustain themselves as well as their rural neighbors. As demographics shift from rural to urban, and urbanization policies become friendlier, more and more resources will become available for city-level utilities to improve. As more capital and intellectual prowess is directed towards better utilities in cities, our expectations of utilities will change – we will start to demand always-on and clean water and energy, high quality transportation services, and clean air. In fact Singapore, a beacon of hope for future cities, is currently piloting an initiative to not only clean but also cool down outdoor air in open public spaces. Once commercialized at scale, the technology might be a cheaper alternative to building-wise air conditioning in India as well – and we might come to expect it as our basic right in return for taxes!

The first major shift we will see is in integrated management and distribution of utilities managed by AI-enabled “nerve centers” that allow for dynamic and instant responses to challenges and disasters. IBM has set-up such a nerve center in Rio, which communicates with citizens on a real-time basis via Twitter and smartphones. Nerve centers will become indispensible for Indian cities quite soon – helping administrators and service provides find, isolate, and tackle challenges on a real-time basis. Examples of these challenges range from the mundane such as traffic snarls and utility break-downs; to life-threatening disasters such as flooding, crimes, and terrorist attacks.

With dwindling natural resources, the economics of utilities will change and we will start to respect water and air with the fervor of today’s climate activists. India’s cities and citizens will soon know what it is to pay the true cost of utilities – either upfront or in damages caused by extreme weather conditions and conflict over ownership of resources. To deal with this changing future, we gradually have to move away from single-source utilities to decentralized, green, and multiple-source utilities. This might sound like a dream today, but prepare for water farmed from air, spray-on solar films for energy generation, vehicle and pedestrian traffic as a source of power, and end-to-end public transportation comprised of multiple links. Expect them to see them in your locality and city within the next decade.

Culture & Identity: How do citizens relate to each other?

Historically, cities have tended to exacerbate income and opportunity inequality instead of bridge it. As a case in point, consider the sharp growth in inequality in US cities between 1980 and 2006. What can we do to prevent a repeat of this in India? We need to actively intervene to build cohesive cultures and systems of self-identity that allow citizens to live and function together despite heterogeneous income strata and backgrounds. This will need significant behavior change – and once again design and technology can help to reduce the friction of this adaptation. In addition, active policy intervention will be needed to avoid some of the “built-in faults of cities”.

Foremost of these challenges is ghettoization, which causes pockets of cities to become sanctuaries for the wealthy and almost cut-off to others. Mandates on mixed-use properties or purposeful allocation of resources for creating public infrastructure such as museums and parks in low-income neighborhoods are some ways to combat this. Another equally daunting challenge is the tendency of urban markets to move towards economic efficiency despite human costs – the coming era of automation is a result of this. It will likely be the primary trigger of the next generation’s culture and identity conflicts. Not just amongst citizens, but perhaps even human vs. AI rights and identities. Universal Basic Income (UBI) can help those who lose jobs to automation tide over periods of unemployment as they learn new trades. Five countries are piloting UBI concepts around the world.

Health & Wellness: Quality of life in cities

Cities in India are breeding grounds for ill-health. On the one hand, dense populations and a reactive public health system pose communicable disease hazards. Annual dengue outbreaks across major cities are testament. On the other, they also expose citizens to air pollution and stress - two major triggers of chronic diseases. Cities will need to take responsibility for the impact they create on physical and mental health, else pay the cost in terms of health spending and lost productivity.

Cities will likely start with the basics by actively managing, reducing, and predicting disease triggers. But to truly ensure health and well-being, cities will start to take accountability for health outcomes. Different measures for this include spaces to encourage physical activity, urban planning to encourage mental well-being (e.g. through greenery), and overall strengthening of health systems to focus on preventive and primary healthcare. There are several examples of efforts in this direction. WHO has started a Healthy Cities project, working groups such as Alliance for Healthy Cities are being formed, and our own Lab is working on rewiring urban health systems to tackle chronic diseases amongst vulnerable communities.

Economy: How is wealth generated and distributed

Perhaps the one lens where answers are still unclear and solutions will need to be truly innovative is the economy. Multidisciplinary efforts will be needed to surface, test, and scale new models of trade and wealth generation that are inclusive of disadvantaged citizens. Governments, startup ecosystem players, universities, urban planners, and futurists will need to sit at the same table and ask hard-hitting questions while keeping open minds about answers. Unless we discover new cross-sectoral lenses to understand this old problem of how to make the economy work for all, and start to speak the same language, these changes will not happen. For instance, consider this specific economic challenge. India needs US$ 950 billion for urban spending in the next 20 years. Public funding will be insufficient. So we are going to have to design new and innovative capital stacks to build our cities of the future.

Decide well, and cities are magic

It is up to us to identify what the building blocks of inclusive cities that secure identity, safety, shelter, and wealth for inhabitants will look like. Adam Rogers’s words are a call-to-action for our generation - “The cities of tomorrow might still self-assemble haltingly, but done right, the process won’t be accidental. A city shouldn’t just happen anymore. Every block, every building, every brick represents innumerable decisions. Decide well, and cities are magic.” We need to stop to take stock and change what doesn’t work with today’s cities. Otherwise we will end up codifying inequity in our buildings and streets and utilities, making it difficult if not impossible for people to break-out of cycles of poverty and injustice.


Nisha Dutt
is Chief Executive Officer of Intellecap, a Global Firm building entrepreneurial ecosystem focussed on South Asia, South East Asia and Africa. She serves on boards of listed companies . Her career spans across 15 years of experience in strategy and operations in national and multinational corporates.

Dipika Prasad is setting-up the Intellecap Innovation Labs; a new initiative focused on leveraging exponential technologies to solve challenges faced by low-income communities in emerging markets. She has spent the past 7 years conceptualizing, testing, and scaling social entrepreneurship and innovation models across South Asia and East Africa.

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