Smart City India: mission impossible or mission imperative?

When I learned three years ago that India was embarking on a journey to build 100 smart cities I promised myself that I would find a way to be part of their Smart City Mission. Having been the Smart Cities Leader in the Benelux for a Big Tech company, I was one of the pioneers of smart cities in Europe. Using technology to help a nation of more than a billion people transform itself sounded like the ultimate smart cities challenge. The promise to myself however was not followed by any action and remained nothing more but a dream. So when last month the opportunity came to join the Netherlands Trade Mission to India as part of the Dutch Smart Cities delegation I did not have to think twice whether I should join.

India has over 8000 cities and villages. About 100 cities have more than a million inhabitants. The country is urbanising at record speed. Ten years ago Bangalore had about 1 million people, while today, depending on whom you talk to, the city has 10 to 13 million inhabitants. On a Saturday afternoon I witnessed the traffic grinding to a halt and a brave taxi driver that did not manage to get his car thru without damage. According to the World Bank 1 in 5 Indians is poor and 80% of those people live in rural areas.

The boldness of India’s Smart City Mission is impressive and inspiring. Almost a hundred cities have submitted plans and are on a path to execution. But like every great endeavour the Mission has its fair share of local criticasters. During a conference at the 2018 Smart Cities expo in New Delhi, the chairman of the panel asked the room to raise their hands if they thought the mission was a success. No one did. He repeated his question, thinking the audience may have misunderstood, and again, no one raised their hand. When he asked who thought that the Smart City Mission was a failure, about 50% of hands in the room shot up in the air. Someone on that same panel said that “… we in India must learn to adopt a 100% mind set. Europe has great smart cities because they go for 100%. We dig a gutter, lay state-of-the-art glass fibre, and fail of close the gutter. Changing this 80% mind set, also in our approach to smart cities, is imperative”. Another critique – particularly from the urban planning community – is that the vision is in place but that an overall masterplan is missing.

India’s challenge is daunting: lifting so many people out of poverty, getting a grip on their rampant urbanisation, doubling the income of farmers in rural areas, and creating inclusive growth for all whilst saving the environment are just a few of the tasks ahead. Doing this in a democracy of 1.3 billion people, living in 29 states and over 8000 cities and villages may almost seem like an impossible mission. The sheer scale of the challenge defies conventional ways of thinking and paradigms. It would therefore be a mistake to think that the smart cities lessons from Europe can be copied 1:1 to India. Given the size and the urgency of the challenge in India, the vast diversity of the country, and their possibility to leapfrog (e.g. through mobile payments, biometric citizen identity management), there may be lessons for Europe to learn from India. For instance on how to develop pilot initiatives that do scale. This notion of a two-way street is the promise of smart cities thinking the globe over.

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India has the technology to fulfil the Mission, the mind set apparently can be improved. A matter of building “soft skills”: a cultural shift in both the public and private sector, collaborative capabilities, and KPI driven change management. Capacity building, just like the building of houses and (digital) infrastructure, is key. This is widely recognised – actually India’s SC mission started out with engaging citizens – yet nowadays pure infrastructure projects seem to take precedence. I have pleaded before that these processes must run in parallel: the confluence of smart infrastructure, smart citizens, and a smart society is what makes a Smart City work. Smart Citizens is all about engaging citizen in such a way that they adopt responsible behaviour. In India the question often asked is: “Is it possible for citizens to engage on an empty stomach?” Yes it is, and it must be. The only way to sustainably improve people’s lives is to help people help themselves. So no matter how hard it seems and it also is, citizen engagement is the cornerstone of digital transformation, also in India.

Transforming a nation into an inclusive, sustainable and prosperous society, while maintaining a vibrant democracy is to me what Smart City India is all about. Technology must be part of the solution, not as a mere enabler, but also as a lever. Technology is what makes smart cities possible at the scale and scope that India needs. The vision is clear, the execution can be improved by new capabilities and the right kind of leadership. Combining the lessons learnt in Europe (scalability, ecosystem play, systemic approach) with the realities and scale of India seems the best way forward. After spending only three days in India, what started out for me as a dream, has now turned into an ambition. An ambition to be part of India’s imperative Smart City Mission.

plaatje blog juni 2018

Link to India Smart City Mission Transform-nation:


Smart Cities – Making humanities best invention thrive in the digital age

 “… Our culture, our prosperity, and our freedom are all ultimately gifts of people living, working, and thinking together – the ultimate triumph of the city”.  — Edward Gleaser, 2012



Since its conception by Big Tech companies e.g. IBM and Cisco at the end of 00’s, the Smart Cities concept has had a tremendous uptake, but has also taken on many shapes, forms and meanings. It is fair to say that the concept has become an “anything goes” notion, and as such stands the risk of losing its relevance. However, given the many exciting new initiatives with similar labels e.g. Resilient, BOLD, or Future Cities, it is clear that the notion of a Smart City resonates with some of the issues of our time and is here to stay. It is time for a new encompassing definition and an update on the raison d’ etre of Smart Cities. We will do so by first explaining the importance of cities and the reason why we are attaching to word “smart” to them.


About Cities

Cities first emerged some 6000 years ago in Mesopotamia, and as such cities are a relatively recent phenomenon given that home sapiens roams the earth for about 300.000 years. The word city comes from the Latin word “civitas” meaning civilisation, implying that the emergence of cities marks the beginning of humanities’ great accomplishments and flourishing. Cities are indeed the driving forces of economic development, innovation and collaboration. Edward Gleaser (2012) has heralded the city as humanities’ greatest invention. In a similar vein Lewis Mumford (1961) gives a more poetic description of the purpose of cities: “The great function of the city is to encourage and incite the greatest possible number of meetings, encounters, and challenges between all persons, classes and groups, providing a stage upon which the drama of social life may be enacted with the actors taking their turns as spectators and the spectators as actors.” Or, as put more succinctly by Matt Ridley (2012): “Cities are places where ideas have sex”.

But the city is not only a story of glory and triumph, the city is also the place where many of humanities grand challenges –  e.g. pollution, crime, crossing planetary boundaries, inequality – occur and where they can be solved. Today 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, and the UN expects that this number will rise to 70% by 2050. Cities account for 80% of our carbon-dioxide emissions and consume 75% of the earth’s natural resources. Changing populations due to ageing and migration, increasing pressure on urban infrastructures, and ever present safety and security threats are just some of the many problems facing cities.


The technology making Cities “Smart”

The promise of a Smart City is that we can use technology to cope with these grand challenges. As Digital Technologies are profoundly changing the way we live, work and organise it is believed by many that we are on the verge of the 4th industrial revolution. Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data, the internet-of-things (IoT), robotics, mobile, social, cloud computing, and blockchain are creating four underlying forces shaping our digital age: hyper-connectivity, hyper-intelligence, pervasiveness, and virtualisation. It is the confluence of these forces that makes digitisation so disruptive. This disruptive nature means that these rapidly developing technologies are both feared and revered.

The fear includes concerns like losing our jobs to AI and robots, losing our privacy to “big brother”, and losing control over algorithms that may run amok or even worse, have prejudices that go unnoticed. The fact that this technology is dominated by a handful of Big Tech companies that are getting very powerful calls for countervailing power by governments and vigilance of users, both of which are uphill battles. The admiration for this technology comes from the fact that digitisation enables us to have a far better sense of what is happening in the world – in real time – and helps us to predict and prevent incidents. It enables us to develop better services and creates many new economic opportunities. Its ever decreasing cost and distributed nature makes this technology available to everyone and is therefore seen to foster democracy. And last but not least, once we have convinced ourselves not to “compete against machines, but compete with machines” this technology promises to compensate our weaknesses and “augment our humanity”.


A new and encompassing definition of Smart City

So how do we keep, given the dilution of the smart city concept and its co-existing dystopian and utopian views, the conversation moving forward? By, first of all, refreshing the definition of the Smart City to encompass its many aspects. And secondly, by ensuring that our approach to creating Smart Cities is neither conservative nor overly optimistic, but realistic and comprehensive. An approach of Disciplined Imagination.

In our view a Smart City has evolved from a concept denoting only Smart Infrastructure to a comprehensive concept comprising three interrelated subsystems: Smart Infrastructure, Smart Citizens, and Smart Society. Smart Infrastructure refers to the use of digital technologies, including sensors, networks and algorithms, to build and maintain city infrastructure in a more efficient way. Smart grids, smart mobility and smart waste systems are just a few examples of Smart Infrastructure. With Smart Citizens we mean that citizens behave responsibly, are well educated and healthy, and engage and participate in the social and democratic top-down and bottom-up processes of a city. Finally, a Smart Society refers to a political, economic and social system in a city that makes optimal use of digital technologies for governance, innovation, participation, collaboration and the creation of wealth and wellbeing for all. As mentioned these components cannot be seen separate from each other as denoted in the following formula:

            Smart City = Smart Infrastructure  x  Smart Citizens  x  Smart Society


The multiplicative (and not additive) effect in this equation is enabled by advances in digitisation e.g. cloud, social and mobile technologies, and hence the real reason why a well-designed city becomes truly “Smart”.


The InterSpace

To model this multiplicative effect we introduce the construct of the InterSpace. This notion is a convolution of the terms “interface” and “space” and denotes the physical-virtual interface through which people, things and organisations in a Smart City interact and influence each other’s behaviour. Examples are piano stairs that nudge people to use the stairs, car speed measurement displays alongside roads, and smart billboards that respond to the person standing in front of them.

Since its early conception Smarter City was seen as a “system of (infrastructural) systems”. And although many projects are taking off in the various sectors e.g. Energy, Public Safety or Mobility, the promise of a holistic approach is hardly ever fulfilled. Urban Platforms and Operations centers come close but lack the vision of the InterSpace to grow into more than a hub.  Maybe because we are trying to envision something new by using old “building blocks”, i.e. sectors.

If we take a different view, and not take sectors but humans and things and their behaviour as building blocks, we may get the new perspective we are looking for in search for innovative solutions. The concept of InterSpace is an emerging living, intelligent and adaptive system of mixed virtual-and-physical reality. Intelligence is gained by combining data emanating from all three subsystems feeding the InterSpace.  Things, people and organisations interact and influence each other’s behaviour thru stimuli e.g. information, nudges and physical signals. The distinction between the physical and virtual worlds disappears in the InterSpace and the stimuli help create the systemic behaviour that moves the Smart City toward achieving its objectives.

SC Interspace and Balanced objectives

Disciplined Imagination as an approach to reach Smart City Objectives

In a smart city digitisation helps the city to reach its objectives of becoming efficient, sustainable, prosperous and inclusive. These four objectives of a city, be it smart or not, are to be pursued in a balanced way – it is the combination of objectives that makes a city thrive.

Furthermore Smart Cities thrive if we adhere to a three pronged approach. First of all, we keep the conversation comprehensive and avoid the trap of reverting back to thinking in silos. In our networked world where everything influences everything, the construct of the InterSpace helps us to understand this entanglement and design truly Smart Cities. Secondly, we solve wicked problems using the quadruple helix, i.e. we ensure the involvement and collaboration of governments, businesses, knowledge institutions and citizens (directly or thru civic organisations). And finally, we view technology not as a technocratic goal in itself, nor as a mere enabler, but as one of the major drivers of change, next to Globalisation and Sustainability. The 4th industrial revolution is changing human behaviour and the possibilities to improve our lives and circumstances are endless. But we do need a deep understanding of the underlying technological and societal forces and apply our Disciplined Imagination.


Relevance regained

We need the concept of a Smart City as described here because cities are the “crucibles” where we can tackle wicked problems and because urbanisation is expected to grow exponentially for many years ahead. The role of an encompassing Smart City concept as defined in this article is threefold. First of all it gives us a world view that allows us to keep improving our discourse (Haijer, 2014) about the dynamics of cities. Secondly, it forces us to shift our paradigm away from silo-thinking which is highly inappropriate – if not disastrous – in a networked world. And lastly, the Smart Cities concept gives us a model to use for (re)designing and managing our cities.


Concluding Remarks

Since their emergence some 6000 years many cities have come and gone. History teaches us that cities die from either natural disaster, war, depletion of natural resources, or changes in the economy. The demise of for instance the great Mayan cities, believed to be caused by unsustainability of resource use and societal hierarchy, and the demise of Petra caused by a change in trade routes, hold many lessons for today’s cities and we better take notice.

Digitisation holds the promise of preventing demise from happening to our cities today. But let’s be aware that technology is a double edged sword that can be used for good and for bad. If this article leaves you with only one message, it is that the city is not going to become smart all by itself. Engagement, thru deliberate concerted action, is needed from all stakeholders in the quadruple helix, but first and foremost from citizens. So if the city, like Lewis says, is a stage on which the drama of life is enacted, we each need to ask ourselves: “Which role will I play as an actor – and not mere spectator – to make our world a better place?”

Blockchain is not a Hype, nor a Silver Bullet: four directions for finding game-changing applications

Blockchain technology has been likened to Internet technology: the World Economic Forum calls it the second generation of the internet, and terms like “word wide ledger” are in vogue. While internet tackled the problem of communication and information sharing, blockchain is tackling the problem of trust, something maybe even more profound to our socio-economic system.

Is it possible that in a world suffering from a trust bust –  trust in the banking system, in politics, in government, and in big corporations is at an all-time low after the financial crisis – that we can revitalize societal trust thru a trust-reinforcing technology like blockchain? This might be a bit of too much tech-optimism, but that blockchain has the potential to change our socio-economic system for the better is believed by many.

Just like with the introduction of internet technology, when very few at the time could envision its application beyond email, so today we have a limited vision of how blockchain will impact our society beyond crypto-currencies. Imaging new use cases for the technology is something everyone in business and government should be doing. This blog aims to give some directions where to search for these use-cases. But before we do so, let’s have a look at the features of blockchain technology.

What is the tech-essence of Blockchain?

There are many good explanations about the working of Blockchain technology and we will therefor suffice here by summarising its main features:

  • Cryptography is used to replace trust (“in cryptography we trust”)
  • A distributed ledger creates redundancy and ensures that the system is tamper-proof
  • Smart contracts can be added to the blockchain to automate transactions
  • Permissioned blockchains are closed systems with some form of (centralised) governance.

These features ensure an immutable ledger, with the full history of assets and transactions, and with visibility to all. This combination of transparency, authenticity and immutability ensures that all transactions recorded on the blockchain can be trusted. By doing so blockchain technology reduces the need for individual trust and replaces it with systemic trust. This means that entities are who they say they are (as far as their public address is concerned), and that the assets they claim to own are really theirs.

Four routes to game changing use cases

The technological features of blockchain unleash two forces of change that enable business transformation. The first force is organisational change, which is a direct result of the “trustless” nature of transactions on the blockchain. Trust is embedded in the technology and we therefore no longer need intermediaries to ensure trust. Processes can be streamlined by discarding steps that were included to increase and manage trust. The second force unleashed by blockchain technology is that of secure authentication. Using blockchain technology to manage identities and access, reduces the risk of online lives and business falling victim to identity fraud and intrusion.

We envision that the combination of these two forces gives us four application areas in which to search for game changing blockchain applications for individuals, business and government (click on chart).

  • A single version of the truth
  • Disintermediation of trust
  • Autonomous systems
  • Secure authorization and authentication


Don’t pave cow paths!

Blockchain use in these four application areas enables new business models and the reengineering of business processes within existing business models. This reengineering of business processes (BPR) reminds us of the introduction of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) some 30 years ago. As then, be aware not to use the technology to automate the current way of working, but use the opportunity to rethink the way we do business. The warning “Do not pave cow paths”, issued by the fathers of BPR, Hammer & Champy, is as much applicable today as it was then. On a similar note, however, it really does not make sense to introduce blockchain in transactional systems that work efficiently and effectively. A final word of caution for tech-optimists (like myself): this technology, despite its trust infusing potential, is not going to solve the more fundamental problem of disengagement resulting from the rampant speed and complexity of digitisation.

Energy is the catalyst of society: can energy companies also be the catalyst of change?

“You are all dinosaurs – this is Jurassic Park up here” exclaims the moderator in response to his panel’s reluctance to agree to a decarbonised future. This is the opening panel of POWER-GEN 2016 – the industry event for the Power sector in Europe. On stage are the leaders in the business – people with great influence and great experience. The moderator is a seasoned journalist who clearly knows how to provoke a discussion. No luck this time. The panel is unanimously convinced that a future without coal and gas is not possible in the foreseeable future: 1.2 billion people in the world do not have access to energy today. Emerging markets want electricity for their people too, they want is soon, and they want it at affordable prices. Does this mean that the Paris Climate agreement is just a dream? No. These industry leaders are betting on making fossil energy cleaner and more efficient. Apparently this can be achieved with technology that is already available. Are these leaders trapped in their carbon cages? Was the combustion engine developed by the steam engine people? Would Edison have invented the light bulb if he came from the gas or candle industry? Will the power energy sector be able to transform themselves from within? There is reason to be optimistic. Most of the panellists recognize that digitisation is the most disruptive force for the industry. And the fact that consumer behaviour, the energy prosumer, needs to change is also on their radar. These concepts – far removed from making “big power plants talk” – have apparently reached the Boardroom. This is good news for a sector that is in their own words “the catalyst of society”. Can you imagine a world without energy? You probably cannot. So, good news indeed.

Will the Energy Company manage our Life Dashboard?

Many of societies pressing problems are behavioural problems. Making a city smarter by making the infrastructure smarter, e.g. with smarter buildings or smarter sewage systems will only take us half way in solving these problems. We also need to make the citizens smarter by engaging them and getting them inspired to act. Nudging, the art and science of triggering behavioural change, becomes even more possible in this digital age, where we spend so much of our time “connected and on-line”. When energy companies give clients information about their daily energy usage they significantly reduce their energy consumption, up to 15%, without any other incentive being offered. We, the people, seem to be open to being nudged into new behaviour as witnessed e.g. by the uploading of our personal “quantified self” data to the clouds of the likes of Jawbone in order to improve our physical fitness. Energy companies through smart meters are already gaining significant share of people’s life. What nudges can they co-create with their clients? And how can they become the trusted party to serve as the personal data platform for individual citizens, combining e.g. loyalty, banking, and mobile phone data? Combining these data sources gives a fair picture of a person’s behaviour. With our consent the energy company could develop a Life Dashboard and may even devise Life Coaching strategies to improve our carbon footprint, health and financial situation. What is keeping Energy Companies from doing this? And what is keeping us from welcoming the EnCo*LifeDashboard?