Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Nov 19, 2018
University campuses should become innovation hubs for future cities in India

With the advent of the IVth Industrial Revolution, machine learning and artificial intelligence has become the talk of the town. Our cities are also not devoid of this trend. We have already begun the process of building our future cities that will be more inclusive, efficient, eco-friendly and progressive in nature. This process of urban transformation has however, just begun. Various government committees, public and private think tanks, urban planners and scholars are suggesting various ways of upgrading our existing cities into smart or technologically-advanced cities. Besides aiming to building Smart Cities, it is a challenge for our government to manage an increasing migratory population, leading to rapid urbanisation and expansion of towns. According to UN World Urbanization Prospects 2018 report, about 34 percent of India’s population reside in urban areas.

However, in this entire hullabaloo, we cannot overlook the role of our institutes of higher education in this futuristic development. The efficacy of implementation processes under such cities is heavily dependent on aspects such as smart citizens, a strong business ecosystem, effective governance and enhanced infrastructure. An evolved and aware citizen can effectively partake in this urban renewal process and also constantly upgrade and maintain it through its lifetime. Fortunately, India has a demographic dividend that can constructively contribute to this process. Which is where the role of higher education is extremely important. However, it is not limited to just producing skilled labour force, universities and institutes are the mainstay and cultural identity of any developing city in making.

Cities and higher education

Major universities across the world derive their names from the cities they are situated in. This shows the interlinked relationship between them – indicating their interaction with its surroundings, characteristic similarities and incubatory behaviour of these institutes of higher learning in innovation. However, in India, although universities essentially owe their nomenclature to their places of residence, there is little or no interaction with its development process. Institutes function in siloes and education fails to perform its primary task of giving back to the society. It is no different the other way - governments rarely reach out to universities for advice and involve them in urban planning processes. Students of architecture, design and urban planning read about nuances from textbooks that glorify international best practices but do not get these students involved in real-time problem solving in their own cityscape.

According to the National Policy on Skill Development and Entrepreneurship 2015, India will have to skill about 104.62 million fresh entrants in the workforce in the next four years, by 2020. This is also the population that will be instrumental in nation-building. So, universities and our institutes of national importance will have to up their game, to meet these behemoth challenges. They will not just have to create this digitally-equipped workforce, but also supply high-quality research on newer innovations for participatory stakeholders such as the government and the businesses.

While educating students for the future of jobs is a basic function of any university, Indian universities will have to go much beyond the basics. To effectively perform the role of being the fulcrum of innovations and supplier of manpower, institutes of higher education must become the research arm of the government, helping and advising governments finetune every policy decision. They must become the innovation hubs for this urban renewal process, suggesting sustainable ways of planning and designing infrastructure, waste disposal, energy consumption, landscaping, etc.

In the building of future cities and finding viable solutions to the problems of today, Big Data will play a pertinent role. Using and managing Big Data and constantly upgrading the processes need to happen within the boundaries of our universities. Capturing data, its storage, analysis, transferring, visualization, etc cannot be possibly handled by governments or industries alone. Both these parties have vested interests and are incapable of generating new knowledge on their own. Which is why it is time to recognise the role of HEI’s in accomplishing such task in partnership with other stakeholders. Universities and institutes are specialists in handling sensitive data and need to be trusted by governments while working on a shared aim of building liveable cities. This will also encourage transparency in processes.

Academia is fairly non-partisan, which is why its contribution in nation-building is of paramount importance. It is therefore desirable that the government deliberates on involving academia as a major stakeholder in the process of urbanisation.

Action on ground

While the role of universities is well established, there is a need to coin ways of renovating Indian universities for these newer challenges. Information Communication Technology (ICT) -enabled classrooms is not the only solution anymore. It has to be a continuous process of skilling, upskilling and reskilling. In India, some institutes have taken a positive step towards this:

IIT Roorkee in Uttarakhand, for instance, has signed an MoU with a Swiss technology giant to construct an operational smart electricity distribution network and management system (SDNMS) on campus, which will eventually serve as a pilot for the government’s Smart Cities Mission. According to a release by the institute, this duo will create Smart Grids Resource Centre and joint R&D facilities for efficient power generation and distribution with a focus on clean energy over the next five years. It has also set up a design innovation center called Navonmesh, with funds from the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which will address local issues of the Himalayan region with low cost solutions.

At IIT-Mandi in Himachal Pradesh, students and faculty are working in teams with students of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), USA, investigating urban renewal initiatives in Mandi town, designing smart filters that can detect and remove iron and biological contamination in water, all season plantation for food security, etc.

Early in the year, IIM-Bangalore’s Centre for Public Policy conducted a series of seminar in association with the Planning Programme Monitoring and Statistics Department of the Government of Karnataka to analyse government policies in governance, sustainability, agriculture, healthcare, urban mobility, law and justice, among others. The seminar report uses public access reports and strengthened them with inputs from state executive, subject experts from academia, members of private industry, and citizen groups to analyse government initiatives and evaluates them for efficiency in Karnataka. Such a dialogue among stakeholders gave rise to fruitful discussions and policy solutions for improvement of government projects.

While these are a few constructive steps taken by premier institutes, other public universities also need to participate as more than 90 percent of our student population is contained in them. Besides research, universities and institutes need to also contribute towards capacity-building of the existing workforce by being the training hubs where entrepreneurs, technology experts, academia and skilled manpower can interact and constantly upgrade themselves.

International perspective

Institutes of higher education are making significant contribution in the growth of cities around the world. In fact, in every other part of the world, the governments are working hand-in-hand with the universities to build new technology and implement processes under the development of their urban landscape. Some examples worth mentioning are following:

At University of Bristol’s first flagship cross-disciplinary research institute Cabot Institute, researchers are trying to explore the possible future between “environmental apocalypse and technocentric Smart Cities”. Research is done using the knowledge of social science, behaviour change, digital infrastructure, energy and other cross-cutting disciplines. Some of the research topics include Resilient Cities, Sustainable Cities, Inclusive Cities and Smart Cities. At the institute, students commit to 1,00,000 hours of research and volunteer work, where postgraduate students are given to solve real-world city problems.

At New York University’s Stern Urbanisation Project, rapid urbanisation is looked at from two perspectives – expansion of existing cities, and emergence of newer cities. MBA students at Stern work on applied research projects with municipal officials each semester on topics such as city planning in Ethiopia and Columbia, SEZ’s in Liberia, challenges faced by New York Police Department, among others. The aim is to make realistic long-term preparations for urban expansion across cities in the world, and fast track reform and mitigate global migration through start-up cities.

Such initiatives clearly show that research in this new form of urbanisation has to be interdisciplinary and need to involve the academia, industry as well as the government.

The way forward

The challenges are humungous, but it needs collaborative approach. Research institutes cannot operate in siloes and government cannot keep data confidential from its academic institutes. For this to happen, the government needs to make education a priority addition in its building of future cities.

For this urbanisation process to take off, universities will have to set up interdisciplinary labs and help government make sense of all the data to optimally utilise them to retrieve effective solutions. Universities however, will need extra funds that should be part contributed by the government and industry, and part raised by the institutes themselves. While our premier institutes may have the required capacity, the research and skill building will need to happen at an accelerated rate with the participation of all our multidisciplinary universities. The industry and public administration need to converse with our institutes to arrive at a few areas of urgent research that will be needed in this first stage of development.

The government, in consultation with the academia, needs to identifying services for which it cannot trust private sources, such as water pipelines, electricity grids, solid waste management, CCTV, intelligent traffic management, etc. This is where institutes can step in and provide unbiased research, consultancy and solution to help the government arrive at an outcome.

In doing so, institutes and government need to reach out to the best of the foreign universities that have already done some fruitful research in this area. Most importantly, social sciences need to be involved. Building of cities is not just a scientific process, it involves the socio-cultural development of its inhabitants as well. As social scientists are important to the research on Artificial Intelligence, they are imperative to the building of future cities as well. Which is why our premiere social sciences institutes need to be the core partner in all such initiatives.

The idea is to innovate and not simply replicate. With the pool of knowledge and availability of a young workforce, universities will have to transform themselves to become innovation hubs for our future cities.

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Priyanshu Agarwal

Priyanshu Agarwal

Priyanshu Agarwal Student Member Centre for Law and Society Gujarat National Law University

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