florence_engasser_wvtom_saundersAs the current government pursues its Smart Cities agenda, Florence Engasser and Tom Saunders highlight five citizen-initiated projects which have already had a significant impact in improving the quality of life in Indian cities.

On 25 June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi officially launched the India Smart Cities Challenge. One hundred cities across India will compete for a chance to access around ₹500 billion (£5 billion). Partnering with Bloomberg Philanthropies, organisers of the Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge, Narendra Modi hopes to inspire and support city and municipal officials as they develop proposals to promote good governance, improve quality of life in cities and create socio-economic impact.

Modi is a fervent believer that cities are growth engines, and that moving towards more people-centric, collaborative urban development is a necessity. This vision and recognition that the ‘Indian Smart City’ is also driven by its citizens is very encouraging. Innovation and creativity in Indian cities is far from new. Taking a look at the many citizen-initiated projects across the country reveals a huge talent pool that Indian municipalities can tap into to address some of the major issues facing Indian cities. Below we highlight five major initiatives that have evolved in recent years.

  1. Swachh Bharat Clean India mobile app

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (translated as ‘Clean India Initiative’) is a campaign launched by Modi in October 2014, covering over 4,000 towns all over India which aims to clean India’s streets. As a result, several apps are emerging that seek to engage the community in cleaning their neighbourhoods.

The Clean India mobile application, for example, encourages Indians to go about and “Swachhify India.” The app, launched at the end of 2014, to coincide with the Modi’s initiative, was developed by Mahek Shah, and allows users to take pictures to report, geolocate and timestamp streets that need cleaning or problems to be fixed by the local authorities. Similar to FixMyStreet, users are able to tag their reports with keywords to categorise problems. Today, Clean India has been downloaded over 12,000 times and has  5,000 active users. Although still at a very early stage, Clean India has great potential to facilitate the complaint and reporting process by empowering citizens to become the ‘eyes and ears’ of municipalities on the ground, who are often completely unaware of issues that matter to their residents. In addition to collecting and mapping citizen-generated data to create greater awareness of the problem and engage communities as well as local authorities, Clean India will soon be upgraded with new features, including a crowdsourced priority system, allowing users to vote for cases that require immediate attention from the municipality.

  1. IPaidABribe.com

Between October 2011 and September 2012, the estimated loss to the Indian economy from corruption reached ₹364 billion and India ranked 85 out of 175 countries in the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index. The country is increasingly aware of the negative effects this has on its development, and new creative solutions to fighting corruption like IPaidABribe.com are gaining momentum and popularity.

Screenshot of IPaidaBribe.com

Image: Screenshot of IPaidaBribe.com

IPaidABribe is a website and mobile app, created by grassroots non-profit organisation Janaagraha and launched on India’s Independence Day in 2010 to tackle corruption through crowdsourcing. Citizens can anonymously report and map situations in which they were asked to pay a bribe, feeding into city, State and country-level databases of corruption in public services. Today, more than 47,000 reports have been filed on the website in 630+ cities across India. Most reports are about officials and bureaucrats asking for illicit payments for routine services, paperwork and official forms. IPaidABribe is very successful in engaging citizens and empowering them, with greater legitimacy, and works towards improving democracy and public service. Janaagraha has now opened up the source code of IPaidABribe to help other countries to fight corruption.

  1. Safecity India

Safety is a major issue for women in Indian cities. Official data shows that reports of rape and sexual abuse around the country climbed by 875% between 1971 and 2011, from 2,487 to 24,206 cases. Safecity, created in Bangalore, is a crowdsourcing website and mobile app to ‘pin the creeps’, measuring local insecurity and sexual crime levels.

Safecity is a non-profit organisation providing a platform for anyone to share, anonymously or not, personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces. Men and women can report different types of abuses, from ogling, whistles and comments, to stalking, groping and sexual assault. The aggregated data is then mapped, allowing citizens and governments to better understand crime trends at hyper-local levels. Since its launch in 2012, SafeCity has received more than 4,000 reports of sexual crime and harassment, in more than 50 cities across India and Nepal. Safecity helps generate greater awareness, breaks the cultural stigma associated with reporting sexual abuse and gives voice to grassroots movements and campaigns such as Sayfty, Protsahan or Stop Street Harassment!, forcing authorities to take action.

  1. Next Bengaluru

In Bangalore, an initiative by the MOD Institute, a local NGO, enabled residents to come together, online and offline, to create a community vision for the redevelopment of Shanthingar, a neighbourhood of the city. The project, Next Bengaluru, used new technologies to engage local residents in urban planning and tap into their knowledge of the area to promote a vision matching their real needs.

The initiative was very successful: in just three months, between December 2014 and March 2015, over 1,200 neighbours and residents visited the on-site community space, and the team crowdsourced more than 600 ideas for redevelopment and planning both on-site and through the Next Bangalore website. The MOD Institute now plans to work with local urban planners to try and get these ideas adopted by the city government.

A key aspect of the Next Bengaluru campaign was to identify abandoned urban spaces, often used as places to dump rubbish, and a major source of concern for residents. Residents were asked to help map these spaces on the Bengaluru Change Map, to start a conversation with city officials about what could be done. In addition to this, the project has also developed a pilot app that will enable people to map abandoned urban spaces via smartphone and SMS in the future.

  1. Kumbhathon

In August and September, around 30 million pilgrims are expected to pass through Nashik (Maharashtra) to celebrate the Hindu festival Kumbh Mela, when the city is normally home to only 1.5 million people. An initiative by Sunil Khandbahale, an entrepreneur from Nashik, and Ramesh Raskar, head of the Camera Culture Group at the MIT Media Lab, Kumbhathon is an innovation platform which can be used to crowdsource the challenges of the 2015 Kumbh Mela and create impact entrepreneurship through an open innovation platform.

The concept is simple: to re-imagine Kumbh Mela through collective intelligence and collaboration. All through 2014, over 500 issues were received through the crowdsourcing platform. Working with citizens, students, local entrepreneurs and innovators, businesses and city officials, these issues were aggregated into a list of target themes and concerns (health, transport, payment, food, etc.). Regular Kumbhathons (similar to hackathons) were organised throughout 2014 and 2015, bringing in experts and innovators to transform ideas into low-capital solutions for Nashik, whether hi-tech or low-tech, able to be deployed quickly for maximum impact. Kumbhathon aims to tap into the brainpower of citizens to create smarter cities as well as draw lessons and best practice from Nashik’s experience, to help address similar issues in refugee camps, festivals or other developing cities around the world.

Towards a smart city for people

These examples represent only a tiny proportion of the inspiring ‘bottom-up’ initiatives that citizens are developing in cities across India to address urban challenges. While inspiring, the majority of these initiatives are still operating at a very small scale with limited resources. There is a real need for effective support to ensure these initiatives deliver impact, and share evidence of effective models with other cities, to help tackle the huge range of urban challenges India faces.

Building on these examples, here is a starter for ten on recommendations for Narendra Modi’s India Smart Cities Challenge:

  • Avoid the temptation to focus on capital intensive, cutting edge infrastructure projects. As others have argued, basic infrastructure such as functioning public transport and sanitation need to come before city-wide Internet of Things networks.
  • Ensure municipalities, in their effort to develop a smart city vision, build on the unique advantages of Indian cities and the great work that citizens, community groups and SMEs are already doing, rather than starting from scratch or adopting ‘best practice’ from developed world cities.
  • Support the potential of social entrepreneurs and other grassroots smart city initiatives initiatives by working with intermediaries that already work with these groups. For example, the growing number of social and business incubators, makerspaces and NGOs are essential in supporting the development of creative people-powered and people-centred smart city initiatives.

This article originally appeared on the Nesta blog.

For more on Nesta’s work on how to make smart cities work for people see: ‘Rethinking smart cities from the ground up.’

Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

About the Authors

florence_engasser_wvFlorence Engasser is a research assistant within Nesta’s International Innovation team, examining new global trends and practices in innovation, with an emphasis on emerging economies. She is currently researching how to improve support for social venture incubation in India. Florence holds an MSc in Urban Policy from the London School of Economics and Sciences Po Paris. Prior to joining Nesta, she worked as a Junior Associate at 21c Consultancy, an ICT innovation firm specialised in understanding how technology can improve public services and citizen engagement. She tweets@FEngasser.

tom_saundersTom Saunders is a Senior Researcher working on international innovation. His current work is focusing on the Chinese innovation system.

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