Undergrads Design Frameworks for Smarter Cities in India, Bay Area

Isabelle Lee, BS 16, and three classmates are working to make Ahmedabad, India, safer by making it smarter.

With 6.5 million residents, Ahmedabad faces a high crime rate with an understaffed police force, says Lee, who is enrolled in the Building Smart Cities course at Haas. After traveling to Ahmedabad, Lee's Team Oakland (pictured below with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, center) recommended security technology, including video cameras and a video command center.

“Safety-wise, Ahmedabad is better than cities like Delhi, but we realized it’s still lacking in the safety department,” Lee said. “We didn’t want to just advocate for more police.”

The 19 undergrads enrolled in the course are developing frameworks to help transform four of India’s developing cities into smart cities. They are also working with Bay Area mayors to determine how smart city ideas could be applied locally. While the smart cities concept is interpreted differently around the world, it broadly refers to city departments that are using digital technology and public/private partnerships to reduce costs and resource consumption, improve quality of life, and enhance engagement with residents.



Working on their cases, students combined the Open Innovation concepts learned in their class with the latest, most cost-effective technology options from companies. (Open Innovation is Haas Adj. Prof. Henry Chesbrough’s pioneering idea that advocates sharing technologies your organization doesn't use with others, and bringing in innovations from others to use in your organization.)

The teams spent the first three months identifying issues in India, ranging from public safety to resource management to traffic reduction in the four cities. For the second half of the course, students shifted focus to their Bay Area work.

During their winter break, the undergrads traveled to India for two weeks, stopping at existing and developing smart cities and meeting with government, academic, and business leaders.

“Indians think frugally and their approaches are different for smart cities in India than for those in the U.S., but there are cross benefits to be found in technology and design,” says course instructor Solomon Darwin, the Executive Director of the Garwood Center, who was invited to India’s first Innovation Round Table on March 7 and 8.

From crops to congestion

On March 5, the students presented their solutions for India to a global panel that questioned and commented on the presentations. The panel members included Venkatesan Ashok, the Consul General of India; Gunso Kim, CIO of the Seoul Metropolitan Government; Robert Locke, a senior vice president of corporate development at Tyco; and Miguel A. Gamiño, CIO of the City of San Francisco.

Team San Jose presented a case for the city of Vizag, where Darwin grew up. The city has experienced 650 percent population boom  in the last decade; the students explored the cost and feasibility of using technologies from Cisco and IBM, among others, to address congestion, pollution, and safety.

Team Berkeley proposed a network of wireless sensors in an effort to make farm crop yields more profitable in the city of Ajmer.

Saundarya Mehra, BS 16, and Team San Francisco presented on the Gujarat International Financial Tec-City (GIFT), a smart city currently under construction, which aims to be a financial hub. The team looked at security, safety, energy conservation, and design.

“What we learned in India was that Smart Cities don’t have to be high-tech,” Mehra says. “They can simply have the right infrastructure, city design, and government engagement with the public.

Shifting to the Bay Area

Last month, the teams met with Mayor Tom Bates of Berkeley and Mayor Schaaf of Oakland at Haas to discuss smart cities and Open Innovation.

Bates, noting Berkeley's enthusiasm for innovation, discussed ongoing concerns: aging infrastructure, maintaining a strong educational system, environmental stewardship, and promoting living and working downtown.

Meantime, Schaaf defined four major issues the city faces: community safety, sustainable infrastructure, food and housing, and government transparency. She noted the need for better policing and community-oriented public/private safety programs—which says aligned with the issues they worked on for Ahmedabad.

Lee says her team plans to meet with Schaaf a few more times before her team again presents its final case before the judges on April 15.

From the India trip to the final presentation, both Lee and Mehra agree the class has provided a once-in-a-lifetime experience to travel, network, and learn about the growing global smart cities movement.

“This program has not only given us to opportunity to fly to India, but also enabled us to meet these incredible people who are passionate about making a difference,” Lee said.

Related: Students Tap the Power of Watson