Impact Story

Building capacity to ensure smart, sustainable and inclusive cities

Published on 9 July 2019

‘Smart cities’ use new technologies to meet their most pressing urban challenges and become more sustainable. IDS researchers have been investigating how inclusive these solutions really are, with a focus on a large-scale smart cities initiative in India.

‘A man places plastic bottles on a scrap heap in an area slated for redevelopment.’ © Qilai Shen/Panos Pictures

The Indian government’s Smart Cities Mission aims to develop 100 cities, through technical solutions for problems such as waste management, pollution, congestion and disaster vulnerability and for improving life for citizens. But early signs are that some of the most marginalised citizens are being overlooked.

In January 2018, IDS began a three-year collaboration with four cities to test the effectiveness of various solutions with a view to building the technical and institutional capacity of those implementing them. The Capacity Building for Smart Data and Inclusive Cities (SDIC) project involves IDS Fellows Jaideep Gupte and Eric Kasper, India’s National Institute of Urban Affairs and municipal authorities in two northern cities (Bhopal and Jabalpur) and two southern cities (Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi).

Linking inclusivity to sustainability

In Jabalpur and Bhopal, the IDS team used a research technique called process-tracing to show how the city’s revamped solid waste management and household waste collection service was in fact missing some of the most marginalised communities – and failing to achieve its full sustainable potential. Other Indian cities have since used the technique to conduct in-depth evaluations of their new solutions and ensure these are really achieving their sustainable aims.

For IDS, the research highlights how a city cannot genuinely be ‘smart’ or sustainable unless it meets the needs of its most disadvantaged populations. On the strength of the work so far, Jaideep Gupte was invited to participate in the first UN-Habitat Assembly in Nairobi in May 2019. He was also a speaker at a UCL event in London, on Empowering Citizens Through Data. Bhopal and Jabalpur were shortlisted for the second stage of India’s Smart City Awards 2019.

Managing waste and the circular economy

Waste and pollution pose one of the biggest challenges to sustainability, with life-threatening impacts for many people, particularly those in poverty. A potential solution, lies in the circular economy – a key IDS focus within the Green Transformations Cluster.

IDS is contributing evidence on plastics pollution and waste management to strengthen advocacy on the issue, working with a coalition of NGOs including Tearfund, Flora and Fauna International and WasteAid.

IDS researchers have also been shaping government and donor thinking on sustainable consumption and production. For example, working with the Philippines government through the Asian Development Bank on a National Action Plan; and with the German Federal Environment Agency and environmental think tanks to identify sustainability criteria for the bio-economy.

Businesses are central to accelerating sustainability. IDS has been seeking to shape private sector debates around sustainability through activities such as a speaking slot at the  2018 Textile Sustainability Conference in Milan; a circular textiles background paper for the Clean Clothes Campaign; and a British Council award for IDS alum Mamunur Rahman’s Ella Pad business model on textile waste and gender equality in Bangladesh’s garment sector.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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