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On urbanization and smart cities

More than 4 billion people, i.e. more than half of the world – live in urban areas. The global rise of ‘million cities’

smart cities

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  5 Aug 2020 1:57 AM GMT

Prof Bibhas K Mukhopadhyay

Professor of Management, and author of the book 'India's Economy: Under a Tinsel still Tough'. He can be reached at

Dr. Boidurjo Rick Mukhopadhyay

International Award-Winning Development and Management Economist. He can be reached at

More than 4 billion people, i.e. more than half of the world – live in urban areas. The global rise of 'million cities' has been unprecedented. Every week, nearly 1.5 million people become urban dwellers. By 2050, the urban population will account for more than two-thirds of the world's population. World population has risen seven-fold over the last 200 years.

For the first time in history, a large majority of the world's six billion people are living in cities – 55% of the world's population lives in urban areas, this is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. The UN estimates this milestone event – when the number of people dwelling in urban areas overtook the number in rural settings – first occurred in 2007.

The Institute of Demographic Studies projected that by the end of this century, there will be 10 to 11 billion people on the planet. World population will jump from the current 7.1 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050.

In India, the same is assessed to rise from 1.2 billion to 1.6 billion, while that in China will remain at the same level (1.3 billion). Urban population is expected to increase by 1.5 billion over the next 20 years and the number of megacities will double. Much of this growth will happen in developing countries. India is set to become the world's most populous country by 2050 with a population of nearly 1.6 billion people!

By 2050, projections show that India will have added 416 million urban dwellers, China 255 million and Nigeria 189 million. From a snapshot view - India, China, and Nigeria will account for 35% of the projected growth of the world's urban population between 2018 and 2050.

"Cities are evolving faster than ever and encountering unprecedented demographic, environmental, economic and social challenges. Sustainable urban development is the current global priority; however, most cities lack the capacity and resources to ensure that the city develops in a sustainable manner. Multi-stakeholder cooperation is essential to fill this gap and build transformation strategies to better shape urbanization outcomes and lead cities towards growth, well-being and prosperity for all…" the World Economic Forum observes.

The Smart Cities Mission is the Government of India's urban renewal and retrofitting programme, with an aim to develop 100 cities all over the country, making them citizen-friendly and sustainable – indeed, a very good example of a participatory approach between the Centre and the State. The Smart City solutions identified for the selected cities would have a far-reaching demonstration effect for the entire range of towns and cities across India.

The project leverages on the information and communications technology (ICT) to bring together people and governments. It eventually makes a city smart with productive engagement to enhance the quality of life and ensure a sustainable economic growth and optimized resource management.

What eventually makes a city smart is an integrated effort in smart technology, smart users and smart governance. The role of the local agencies, hence, becomes paramount in this regard.

At the same time, let us remind ourselves that urbanization is not a curse inasmuch as it creates huge wealth and opportunities, enabling the better use of assets and creating new ones. In most developing countries, urbanization – being a continuous and spontaneous process – is bringing about enormous changes in the spatial distribution of people, resources and in the use and consumption of land.

Equally important, however, is to realize that though such a process is strongly linked to development (social, technological and economic), many countries lack the appropriate policies and framework that can leverage it for increased development gains and can guide it towards sustainable patterns. In a word, these are not harnessed for development, and de facto urbanization's challenges often seem to outpace the development gains. Evidently, economic growth will increasingly come from the strength of innovative activities instead of factor accumulation as in the past.

Therefore, it is critical that societies and businesses also understand the key trends in urbanization over the coming years to successfully implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Undoubtedly, many countries will face further challenges in meeting the needs of ever-growing urban population. To ensure that the benefits of urbanization are shared with equity and inclusivity, policies to manage urban growth have to be shaped in a way that provide access to infrastructure and social services for all, focusing on the needs on the urban poor and other vulnerable groups for housing, education, health care, energy, decent work and a safe environment.

Recent researches also suggest that such innovative activities remain concentrated in high-tech clusters in globally-linked cities. Clearly, the near future of globalization and urbanization will bring enormous challenges as well as opportunities to both developed and developing countries.

Several socio-anthropological studies indicate that development is likely to be polarized in a limited number of urban regions. That is to say, while the convergence of production and income may happen across countries, divergence is likely to occur within each country as globalization will bring a concentration of activity to a few sites. The emergence of mega-urban regions with the development of world cities and links among them is a strong possibility. The formation of transborder regions, the development of international corridors, and the significance of international networking cannot be ruled out.

Following Mila Freire, World Bank, the wider challenges include: (1) the need to keep urban planning and management flexible and ready to adapt to new developments in the economic or social front; (2) getting the best possible technical analysis; (3) pushing the agenda of excellence; (4) thinking big and long-term; (5) looking at the big picture – overall competitiveness, labour market, environmental quality and standing as regards to capital and human capital; (6) engaging the private sector; (7) understanding and discussing with community leaders about the amount of limited-resource local governments can offer; (8) establishing contracts vertically with the Central government and horizontally with other municipalities.

There is an utmost need for the integration of urban development in national sustainable development policies. Such policies serve as enabling frameworks for transport corridors, job creation and, at the same time, development of (within and between) cities. Plus, they can also empower local authorities to work more closely with the national government.

The importance of developing national urban policies as levers for sustainable development remains beyond any shade of doubt. Clearly, successful national urban policies have the ability to yield multiple results: the identification of urban development priorities towards socially and economically equitable and environmentally friendly urban and national development; future development of the national urban system and its spatial configuration concretized through national and spatial plans for regional development; coordination and guidance of actions by national functionaries vis-à-vis lower levels of government in all sectors; and, of course, increased and well-coordinated private and public investments in urban development, which, in turn, lead to the consequent improvement of cities' productivity, inclusiveness, environmental conditions and people's participation in the development process.

At the same time, it is crystal clear that the near future of globalization and urbanization will bring enormous challenges as well as opportunities to both developed and developing countries.

We must seek to address major urban challenges and transition towards smarter, more sustainable cities in a rapidly urbanizing world. Collaborative action must be taken by the government, the private sector and civil society to achieve sustainable urban development, and include best practices and innovative solutions from around the world.

With both challenges and opportunities, the swift pace of global urbanization demands innovation in thought, planning and action.

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