Planning for Innovation for Smarter Cities

India has some of the worst urban indicators across the board, but has far worse urban infrastructure and management than other cities in countries of comparable wealth and human development indicators. Why is this?

Urban problems are intractable almost by definition, because they are highly overdetermined problems — that is, there are multiple stakeholders involved in the system, and multiple competing definitions of both the problem and its correct solution, all of which are overlaid upon each other. These problems are also called wicked problems, because no management or engineering approach is likely to solve them — rather they require both design and design thinking, as well as leadership, and the creative reconciliation of divergent approaches to the same set of problems.

I sat down with Rakesh Ranjan, the Director of Housing and Urban Affairs at the Planning Commission, who works closely with Arun Maira, a Member of the Planning Commission who has also been guiding the Design Public process. We talked widely about what innovation means in administrative contexts, and why innovation is not seen in the context of Urban Management. Ranjan proved widely knowledgeable about prior attempts to reform India’s urban systems, especially the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission of 2005, which while ambitious and well intentioned has not had the kind of impact it should have had. Ranjan talked to me about financial incentives, about localized decision-making, about the tensions between urban monies and rural monies, about the need to elevate the role of Mayors. These ideas are even now being scripted into the 12th plan, on the basis of a series of deliberations undertaken last April, which were developed into an urban management working paper led by Arun Maira.

There are powerful disincentives for urban administrators to avoid making decisions that might come back to haunt them. There is therefore a bias in favor of conservative indecision. No one wants to make an unorthodox decision that might result in a courtcase, a civil suit, or the perception of impartiality. To overcome this requires a whole array of administrative changes, he said, so that a new mindset can be allowed to flourish.

Rakesh Ranjan will be a key contributor to our breakout session on smarter cities, which is being led by Jeby Cherian of IBM and Namrata Mehta of CKS.

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