Transforming Urban Ecosystem in India through Open Innovation

Photo by Alok Sharma on Unsplash

It is estimated that the Indian urban population will grow to 60 crores by the year 2030, from about 47 crores today, implying that the urban population is constantly increasing. While this rapid urbanisation helps in terms of job creation and economic development, but at the same time poses a lot of urban challenges.

These challenges are found across sectors of city administration including water management, energy management, mobility & transportation, governance, healthcare, etc. Some of the common challenges include improper waste segregation, increased traffic congestion, lack of access to clean water, and many more.

These challenges are not only complex, but they are unprecedented too—rendering old methods & technologies obsolete in solving them. For instance, the technology used in the traffic light system is almost 30 years old, and is probably one of the reasons why traffic congestion is a major problem in many cities. All these challenges not only hinder urban development but also has a negative effect on the quality of life of citizens.

The need for technology & innovation

To address unprecedented challenges, it’s obvious that we require innovative & technologically advanced solutions. This signals city administrators & officials to work with Startups, since innovations & advanced technologies often come from Startups, rather than large companies.

But there is a problem with innovations & advanced technologies—they need to be tested before they can be deployed on a large scale in cities. Because by definition, innovations are something new, something that doesn’t exist in the market yet. With it comes an inherent risk of them failing when deployed in the hands of users.

This risk can be avoided if these innovations are tested or piloted in the relevant urban environment, before they can be deployed on a large scale in the city and across multiple cities. This helps Startups to understand the users’ needs better and build the right product. On the other hand, solutions that are built inside the four walls of a building and tested only in labs, without any end-user interaction, has all the requirements to fail. The bottom line is that if an innovation or technology needs to successful, it needs to be co-created with the end-users.

Challenges with the existing system

City Administrators are constantly looking for innovations to address their city’s challenges, but often doesn’t succeed. The reason is that they are trying to find innovations through the “Procurement Goggles.” Procurement is the process through which government buys products or services. This process involves specifying all the details of the product or service that the city intends to buy.

While it’s really effective in buying existing products & service, but doesn’t work well for innovations. Because no one knows what the innovation or advanced technology would look like or work, as it doesn’t exist in the market yet. In a nutshell, the existing procurement system is quite efficient in buying proven solutions but has various shortcomings while trying to work with innovations.

So, wearing the “Procurement Goggles” city administrators only see existing technologies & methods to solve modern urban challenges, and not futuristic & sustainable ones. As the Mission Director of Smart Cities Mission, Mr. Kunal Kumar, puts it “we need to innovate the procurement process to procure innovations.”

Very few cities that are well-connected to startups, industries, and incubators may find it easy to find such solutions, while other — less connected — cities will still rely on traditional methods, often inefficient, to address challenges. Even well-connected cities may not have a proven process to engage with Startups. Also, each city starts from scratch to identify solutions—best practices are not shared across cities to learn from. Hence, this model is neither efficient nor is scalable to cities across the country.

The “Validation Gap”

There are about 12,500 technology Startups and about 2100 deep-tech Startups in the country as of 2020. But due to the challenges discussed above, we don’t see a meaningful number of innovations & technologies from these startups getting adopted into the urban ecosystem.

While startups want their solutions to be tested & validated whereas city administrators want only validated solutions, as they lack the mechanism to work with innovations. So there is a “Validation Gap” stopping potential solutions to mature from PoCs to MVPs to commercially procurable solutions. Thus the lack of a standard transparent process to identify and validate innovative & technologically advanced solutions is hindering the growth of cities.

City Innovation eXchange (CiX)

The City Innovation eXchange (CiX, pronounced as “six”) is an initiative by the Smart Cities Mission, strategised and built by Forge, that aims to remove the bottlenecks in bringing innovations & technologies to address urban challenges. Built on the principles of Open Innovation, CiX brings together city administrators from 4000+ cities and thousands of startups across the country to identify, collaborate, co-create, and validate innovative & technologically advanced solutions to address the pressing urban challenges.

CiX is a combination of People, Policy, Process, and Platform—those that are necessary to bring innovations & advanced technologies into the country’s urban ecosystem. This combination according to Vish Sahasranamam, the CEO of Forge, is the 4Ps of Digital Governance that can transform public sectors through entrepreneurial Open Innovation powered by startups as technology and innovation partners.

4Ps in action:

  • People include the various stakeholders necessary for bringing innovative solutions to cities—city administrators; startups & other innovators; incubators, industries & academia; and citizens.
CiX People, Image by Forge
  • Policy dictates the guidelines for cities and startups to engage to facilitate evaluation, identification, piloting, and procurement of innovative solutions; which the current procurement process lacks.
  • Process operationalises the policy by helping cities to identify, curate & host challenges; source innovations from startups; co-create potential innovations; implement pilots to validate innovations; and finally procure those validated solutions for large scale implementation in cities.
CiX Process, Image by Forge
  • Platform is a digital platform (cityinx.niua.org) that gives a tangible & digital form to the Process & Policy, enables it, and scales CiX among the People (stakeholders) across the country.
CiX Digital Platform, Image by Forge

Strengthening the Startup Ecosystem in the Country

Earlier this year, Startup India, Department of Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), Government of India, unveiled “Startup India: The Way Ahead,” an agenda for action to further fuel the startup movement in India. The document talks in details about the various actionable strategies to strengthen the startup ecosystem in the country, through various aspects like ease of setting up a Startup, establishing new incubators & accelerators, deeper engagement between the Government & startups, etc.

CiX operationalises two key agenda that DPIIT envisions. Firstly, “Mechanism to be created for enabling procurement of products or processes based on innovative ideas to improve public service delivery (Section 4.3).” It suggested that to facilitate procurement from Startups, it is important to have a “rigorous, open and competitive process” to select promising innovations. CiX enables this by forming the IIC (Internal Innovation Committee), where people (Stakeholders) from different disciples come together to identify potential innovations, guided by a solution evaluation framework.

Secondly, “to improve governance and public service delivery at the grassroots level by assimilating innovation (Section 4.8).” CiX does this by making cities adopt innovation, through a structured process, for addressing urban challenges found in various sectors of the city.

In short, CiX serves as a role model program that drives startup procurement within the public sector. It sets the stage for other Ministries & Departments to learn from and engage with startups. This could make India one of the biggest Startup Ecosystems in the world.

Conclusion

To sum up, CiX Accelerates Lab to Procurement of innovative & technologically advanced solutions to strengthen the Indian Urban Ecosystem—bringing economic development and positively impacting the quality of life of citizens in 4000+ cities across the country. Also, being a role model for other Ministries & Departments to assimilate innovation on a large scale in the country.

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Arun Suresh

Arun Suresh

I write about strategy, innovation, technology & startups