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Building the Cities of the Future

Indian students can study the development of revolutionary smart cities at top universities in the United States.



From New York to New Delhi, cities around the world have evolved over centuries, developing their own fascinating neighborhoods, powerful industries, intricate transit systems and vibrant cultures.

However, even major cities face daunting challenges when it comes to running smoothly. Providing electricity, distributing clean water and disposing waste in a safe and healthy way are just a few of the puzzles that every city, regardless of its size or reputation, must solve. That’s why a new way of thinking about cities is fast emerging, backed by cutting-edge technologies. 

“A smart city is the result of actively thinking about the future of how we live, and not just the built environment,” says Colin Tetreault, a smart city and policy expert at Arizona State University’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. “Smart cities are also built from a technical and social perspective, keeping in mind the goals of justice and equity for everyone, and the natural environment, having access to beautiful outdoor spaces and resources.”

A truly smart city is a mix of these components and more, Tetreault continues. “Having a strong economy and society, and a great environment that brings a wonderful orientation to any future city, is key,” he says.

What is a Smart City?

The Smart Cities Council, based in Redmond, Washington, defines a smart city as “one that has digital technology embedded across all city functions.” According to the New York City-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, “A smart city brings together technology, government and society to enable the following characteristics: a smart economy, smart mobility, a smart environment, smart people, smart living and smart governance.”

Urban planners, scientists and other pioneers in the field of smart cities use complex data analyses and advanced computer modeling for their work, whether it’s designing a targeted bike share program to help cut down traffic jams and pollution or predicting and refining a city’s response to natural disasters. While such cutting-edge technologies are vital to smart city efforts, Tetreault sees them as key components to a more holistic approach. “The act of designing a smart city transcends data and gets to the fundamental fiber and core of a city’s people and culture,” he says. “How do we cultivate them, and how do we have an eye toward a future state?”

Tetreault teaches his students, whom he affectionately refers to as “change agents,” about smart cities via an innovative, workshop-style course called Smart City and Technology Innovation Challenge. The students learn from Tetreault and other guest experts, and collaborate to create smart city-themed projects. They ultimately compete for seed funding to help turn their ideas into reality.

Other U.S. universities also offer programs on smart cities. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosts a program called City Science, which teaches students to use data analyses, urban experiments, sensor technologies and more to understand both the structures within cities and the people who call these cities home. The Sustainable Smart Cities Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham covers topics ranging from environment-friendly building construction to public health and social psychology, giving students the tools they need to help create sustainable and healthy urban centers. Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design organized a symposium on smart cities in 2012.

Smart cities are not just an academic pursuit, but a pressing issue around the world. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a plan to invest $1.2 billion in creating 100 smart cities in India by 2022. “Cities in the past were built on riverbanks,” said Prime Minister Modi. “They are now built along highways. But, in future, they will be built based on availability of optical fiber networks and next-generation infrastructure.”

The need for smart cities goes even further. MIT’s City Science literature describes a current trend of “extreme urbanization,” with 300 million rural people in China alone expected to migrate to cities over the next decade and a half. “This will require building an infrastructure equivalent to the one housing the entire population of the United States in a matter of a few decades,” the literature continues, stating that cities will account for nearly 90 percent of the world’s population growth in the years to come.

Programs like Tetreault’s exist to meet these very needs, educating students from India, the United States and other countries around the world about the global imperative of developing better strategies for creating cities. “Our goal is to find change agents, inspire them with the opportunity to make a difference, and show them that they can do well and do good at the same time,” he says. “It’s important to have a steady pipeline of young people who will learn how to change the world for the better.”

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.