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Can urban living labs address India’s urban planning challenges?

On World Habitat Day, Vinaya Padmanabhan, our urban policy and planning consultant, discusses urban living labs drawing examples from India and abroad.

Already, one-third of India’s population lives in urban areas. The urban population and number of cities in the country are projected to grow exponentially. Given these demands, the Indian government has made investments into much needed urban infrastructure through central schemes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), and the Smart Cities Mission. However, daunting urban challenges related to the provision of basic services and climate proofing cities remain. Some of these challenges are the result of urban planning processes in India, many of which are not tailored to city needs, narrowly focus on one sector, and are implemented by several departments with overlapping jurisdictions.

As United Nations (UN)-Habitat and partners organise Urban October, to promote opportunities and challenges to sustainable urban development, we discuss the potential of Urban Living Labs in India. We explore if these labs - already well established in Europe - can address India’s urban planning challenges and help deliver urban infrastructure and services.

What are urban living labs?

Urban living labs are spaces that bring together policy makers, city governments, residents, and research institutions to collaboratively address urban problems such as traffic congestion, flooding, or the need for more green cover. Across the world, urban living labs have taken varied institutional forms. Some of these labs are initiated by the city government, while others function out of universities, or are set up by concerned residents.

Local solutions

A longstanding problem with urban planning in India has been the ‘cookie cutter’ approach. Schemes such as JNNURM, Smart Cities, and AMRUT provide cities with standardised guidelines and templatised project proposals. In addition, there is a lack of capacity at the city level to tailor these sufficiently to local contexts. Being geographically embedded in a city, urban living labs can help shape government programmes to city needs and contexts.

For instance, our Project Urban Living Lab (PULL) is working in the coastal city of Panaji with Imagine Panaji Smart City Development Limited, a city government body, on the  central government’s Cycles4Change challenge. To implement low-cost cycling interventions in Panaji the lab has conducted stakeholder workshops to construct a route for cyclists, collected feedback to understand residents’ challenges with cycling and identified ways in which the city can be made more cyclist friendly. Currently the lab is working on a cycling scale-up strategy, taking into account needs of local government and citizens.

Multidisciplinary focus

Another problem with urban planning has been its disproportionate focus on engineering and infrastructure-based solutions, over solutions from other fields such as sociology and ecology. Urban living labs approach urban issues from a multidisciplinary lens.

There is great potential to look beyond traditional engineering solutions in Indian cities, to incorporate the principles of urban ecology or nature-based solutions. For instance, in coastal cities, the restoration of mangroves and reefs can enhance resilience to coastal flooding. Urban living labs can compile locally relevant solutions to guide the city’s town planners on taking a more multidisciplinary approach, and consider nature-based solutions, as well as traditional engineering ones.

A test bed for new innovations

To nurture innovation in the urban sector central government has launched the National Innovation Urban Stack, a platform aimed at using data and collaboration to solve urban issues. All over the world, urban living labs orchestrate collaboration amongst different stakeholders including academia, business, the not-for-profit sector, and research institutions. These diverse perspectives can result in a review, rethink and even revision of urban planning practices.   

Not only do urban living labs bring diverse stakeholders together, but they can also function as  ‘test beds’ or ‘sandboxes’, allowing for innovations to be tested in real city contexts and on smaller scales. Often solutions or best practices from other cities are superimposed on Indian cities. For these solutions to work, they need to be tested in the Indian contexts. Even within Indian cities, context and local capacities vary from area to area, and small-scale testing can help the city governments make informed decisions about what solutions to back, especially important given limited city budgets.

Addressing fragmented governance

Finally, current governance structures in cities are complex. Several government departments at the city- and state-level are responsible for urban planning and governance and often have overlapping jurisdictions. In a departure from traditional urban governance in India, urban living labs can bring together government stakeholders to share data on key thematic issues and facilitate discussion through workshops, addressing institutional silos to affect change on the ground.

Are these labs the future?

For all these reasons, urban living labs seem to be a potential structure that can leapfrog over some of the challenges with urban planning. However, what needs more investigation is how they should be structured to operate efficiently. On one hand, situating these labs within the government runs the risk of creating institutional silos. But, on the other, setting up independent functioning living labs could be the solution to several governance challenges, and one that Indian cities need.


About the author:

Vinaya Padmanabhan is an urban policy and planning consultant for Oxford Policy Management.