Sam Pitroda, 75, is best known as the technology whiz who transformed India’s telecommunications industry to make connectivity widespread and affordable some three decades ago. Armed with a veritable carte blanche from Rajiv Gandhi, India’s prime minister in the mid- to late 1980s, he went on to lead technology-focused missions in water, dairy, literacy and immunization, among others.
Today, Pitroda is an evangelist for the global smart-city movement, a role he dons under his nonprofit think tank called The People for Global Transformation. The think tank, with offices in Boston, Paris and New Delhi, is advising mayors and implementing pilot projects in cities in the U.S., Europe, Latin America, India and the Middle East. It was one of the organizing partners of Cities for Life Paris 2016, a global summit on “inclusive, smart and resilient cities” held in Paris in November 2016.
Although Pitroda is rooted in technology, he is convinced that in order to be “smart,” cities first must be “happy cities” with a strong emphasis on non-violence. They also have to be made ready for technology infusion with empowered mayors and the right governance structures, he says. Technology introduced blindly and without those enabling mechanisms is doomed to fail and waste precious public resources, he warns. He draws upon his experience in India and interactions with mayors from around the world to offer guide posts for building tomorrow’s smart cities in an interview with Knowledge at Wharton.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: You’ve been called the man who connected India, the father of India’s telecom revolution. You’ve led technology missions in literacy, dairy, water, immunization and oilseeds. Could you talk about how you identify and define a problem, and find solutions that technology could provide?
Sam Pitroda: As I was growing up in a small little tribal village in India, I realized that we had very little of electricity, radio, television and telephone. But I realized more of that when I came to America [52 years ago], because I had never used a telephone [earlier]. I had never seen television before coming to America. And I saw that technology could be a great social leveler, second only to death. I realized that technology could put two unequal human beings on equal footing.
I also realized that the best brains in the world are busy solving problems of the rich who really don’t have problems to solve. And as a result, problems of the poor really don’t get the right kind of brain power. So when I went back to India and I had an opportunity to give a presentation [in 1981] to Mrs. [Indira] Gandhi (India’s then-prime minister), my main thesis was that connecting India would change the face of India. India is such a diverse country, a huge country, with multiple languages, religions and cultures, and all of that requires India to be connected. We are in an era where digital technology will hopefully help us connect India. But none of us then had a vision of the internet or mobile telephony. We were still focused on land lines.
The idea was to build the human capacity in software and digital technology. It was about changing the mindset, telling people that telecom is not just an urban luxury, but it is also a rural necessity. Telecom requires not just getting equipment from abroad, but also requires human capacity to be able to understand and build [the necessary] software and hardware. The idea was to focus on indigenous development.
Telecom was the entry point for me because I knew it a little better [than other technologies]. After having worked on telecom for three years, working with [then-Prime Minister] Rajiv Gandhi and building confidence in myself, in the team, and in the system, I felt it was time to take technology closer to people. Telecom was already on auto pilot with C-DoT and C-DAC (the Centre for Development of Telematics and the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, which Pitroda helped set up in 1984 and 1988, respectively). So we decided collectively to look at basic challenges related to water, literacy, immunization, etc. We were importing billions of dollars worth of cooking oil. So we thought [that] … we should be able to convince our people to change to oil seeds [cultivation]. Then [we focused on] milk production. We were still not the biggest producer of milk in the world. Now we are.
We felt these were the areas which required technology intervention. Technology was more an entry point as opposed to [being] an end point. We thought we could enter the system through technology to deliver benefits to a large number of people, and through that, bring about organizational changes, and changes in attitudes, systems, processes and priorities. Our idea was to use government institutions with public/private partnerships, get NGOs and get everybody [else] excited to solve the problem in terms of a mission.
For example, all those who were concerned about water would come together on a water mission, and those who were concerned about literacy would come together on a literacy mission. It was a national program that would empower, encourage and motivate a large number of people at the local level, in villages, districts and cities to solve local problems. The goals were, for example, to install thousands of water pumps, eradicate smallpox, eradicate polio, get immunizations, [boost] vaccine production systems, and set up cold chain equipment. These are all massive programs which require technology intervention. We had the political will from Rajiv Gandhi to go do these things, and that’s how we dreamed of this big canvas.
Knowledge at Wharton: How far has India come since then?
Pitroda: We have come a long way. These things cannot be measured in terms of 30% or 70% [achievement] because you are building a nation. People don’t realize that building a nation is a very complex process, especially in a democratic country.
“We are too focused on technology and all of that and not paying enough attention to fundamentals.”
No one ever thought that India would go from two million telephones in 1984 to a billion telephones in 2017. Even we had no idea. We have come a long way on connectivity. Of course there is a lot more work still to be done. Along with that, we could generate $150 billion worth of software services exports every year. Building the software services industry has given us foreign-exchange confidence and global recognition, and our own large multinational companies like TCS, Wipro and Infosys.
We have today $350 billion worth of surplus (India’s foreign exchange reserves were $378 million in end-May 2017, according to TradingEconomics.com). We never could dream of that.
But does this mean we have really solved all the problems? No, because [India’s] population has doubled in that time period (between 1981 and 2017) from 650 million to 1.3 billion. In literacy, we have come from 30% to 75%. In immunization, we have eradicated polio. We are the largest producer of polio vaccines, [and in fact,] we are the largest producer of vaccines in the world. In water, we have a long way to go, but we did eradicate guinea worm, we sensitized people on [setting up] water testing labs, on fluoride [treatment], excess iron removal, etc. We also have sensitized our people to move towards privatization, liberalization and globalization. It was part of the package.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are the top challenges policy makers face when they try to create business cases for smart-city projects?
Pitroda: “Smart city” is one concept that has been, to some extent, oversold and under-understood. It is not about sensors and gadgets and software and more routers and more IBM equipment. A smart city [endeavor] is more about building a happy city. We are not saying that existing cities are dumb, but we need to use technology to create an environment where people are better off in terms of pollution, traffic, education, health, jobs, living conditions and cultural spaces. All of these are very important aspects of building a happy city, including security. But the idea is not to bring more cameras and more police and more guns. The idea is to build better communities.
For example, we have built cities where people drive a half an hour to work. That’s not smart. Why can’t we design cities where people walk to work? But because of the car industry, and because of the Western model, everybody said, “Oh, that’s okay, we can drive 30 minutes to work.” And there are traffic jams everywhere. People who live in the north work in the south. People who live in the south work in the north. It doesn’t make sense.
Then we come to organizational issues. How are we organized in the city? What resources do we have in the city? We can do so much without any technology input today. Of course, technology will help a great deal. But let’s go see what we can do with what we’ve got and not jump into technology. By bringing technology to the existing systems, you’re going to create chaos, because the systems are not designed to adapt to new technology. We waste resources on technology if we are not equipped to handle the external input that technology brings.
When people talk about a hundred smart cities in India, they have no clue as to what they are saying. They’re naive. If you cannot empower the mayor of the city, how do you build it? [What about] organizational autonomy, freedom and flexibility? If you don’t allow your cities to raise money of their own for projects, how do you get cities to fund them? You have not really created autonomy for your cities. If you don’t do that, there’s no way you can bring technology to solve your problems.
Before we bring in technology, we need to look at how we organize our communities. Why can’t people live on the second floor and work on the first floor? Why can’t we create communities where they are responsible for their schools, parks, teachers and doctors, and not somebody from [New] Delhi?
Essentials of Smart Cities
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you see developed countries like the U.S. having already sorted out some of these problems?
Pitroda: No. There are many problems that are even tougher [to solve] in the U.S. because of exclusion. U.S. society is more exclusive [than others]. I’ve lived in Chicago for 52 years. The south side of Chicago has not changed at all in those 52 years. Violence. Drugs. Lack of employment. All kinds of crime. Prostitution. [All of those have] increased. Why? What does a smart city have to do with [those issues]?
In every city, we need to focus on inclusion and build local communities that bring trust, confidence in each other, and harmony. We don’t do that and then we wonder why there’s violence. It is because we have isolated people.
The first [aspect] is inclusion. Cities need to be inclusive. If cities are not inclusive you’ll have violence, and other problems. Inclusion is not just of minorities or about gender equality, but also in opportunities, education, health and employment opportunities.
Secondly, cities have to focus on human needs. How are we providing to the city all of the basic supplies, whether it is electricity, water, food, transport or whatever? Then you need to promote local economies. Why should a tomato travel 1,400 miles before it gets to your table? Why can’t we grow tomatoes locally? What can we do locally and what do we need to do globally? Those issues need to be very clearly articulated and understood. We have technology today for vertical farming. Can cities grow their own food as much as possible? Can cities teach [residents] how to eat properly so you don’t have problems with obesity and diabetes?
Then [we come to] the issue of non-violence. None of the cities promotes non-violence. There is very little conversation about non-violence in the cities, [or] in schools, colleges, universities and government forums. There are conversations on violence, but not on non-violence, which is very strange. How could you build smart cities and happy cities if you don’t have a conversation on non-violence?
Knowledge at Wharton: Could you elaborate on that? How could cities go about promoting non-violence?
“How could you build smart cities and happy cities if you don’t have a conversation on non-violence?”
Pitroda: Let’s take schools. Do we ever have a conversation in schools with children about non-violence? Non-violence doesn’t mean just [curbing the use of] guns; it is violence at home, violence with the family, violence against women, violence with the other children, violence in the neighborhood. In many places there is violence going on and people just walk by, and nobody would care. We are too focused on technology and all of that and not paying enough attention to fundamentals.
Knowledge at Wharton: At the summit you organized on smart cities in Paris, what were some of the issues that came up in terms of empowering mayors?
Pitroda: Mayors everywhere need to be given more and more power. It has to do with decentralization. It has to do with distributed architecture. Telecom in the last 15 years changed [connectivity in India] because of distributed architecture. It took us 115 years to get to a billion phones because there was centralized architecture — one big telephone switch, and 100,000 lines. Then came mobile phones and every pole had a telephone switch — [that is] distributed architecture. That changed affordability, scalability and sustainability.
The power industry hasn’t learned its lesson from the telecom industry. Power is still centralized. There is no distributed power. The basic problem is we have the wrong architecture for power now. It was okay in the early days, but the technology has changed. We need distributed power architecture. Why should my power come from 500 miles away? These are the issues cities need to address.
Knowledge at Wharton: What could be done to remove obstacles to funding for smart city projects?
Pitroda: We need independence for cities to raise their own money, and take on the responsibility. If they can raise money, they should be able to spend that money for the public good. That model works in the U.S. and everybody should adopt that model. In other places people will just not be honest enough. There won’t be enough openness; there won’t be enough transparency. You need all of that. Everything goes hand in hand.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do mayors have to focus on monetizing smart-city investments at a fairly early stage in the investment cycle to be able to attract subsequent rounds of funding?
Pitroda: Of course. With any project, even if it’s traffic management, you’ve got to be able to show a benefit. Let’s take cars. If I were to design a city from scratch tomorrow, I would say transportation would be free for everybody. You’ll be able to order automated cars from your cell phone, go wherever you want to go and leave [them at the destination]. Today, for 90% of the time, cars are parked either at home or in parking lots. You don’t need that. You need a few cars in the city that are constantly moving 24 hours a day. You don’t need parking lots. You don’t need a garage at home. You don’t need a driver’s license in a sense. You don’t need insurance. That’s the future, when you talk about smart cities.
Knowledge at Wharton: How could that pay for itself if it is going to be free?
Pitroda: People will pay tax. Today I pay my motor vehicle bill, so I’ll pay my car tax. I’m doing it indirectly. [Today,] I’m heating my garage. [With free transportation], I don’t need a garage. I don’t need to pay for parking every time I go into the City of Chicago. Why do I need so many parking lots in the city? Sell that land. You’ll make millions out of selling parking lots. In many U.S. cities, parking lots take up half the floor space.
Knowledge at Wharton: You would replace all that with mass public transportation?
Pitroda: Yes. Even if you don’t have mass public transport, everybody should be able to order a car and go wherever they want. You could say that at minimum you’re given 100 miles a day, or 50 miles a day or 10 miles a day, or whatever. You pay your tax accordingly. If you have a car all day, then you pay more tax.
Knowledge at Wharton: What would be the hallmarks of an ideal governance structure in smart cities?
Pitroda: The organizational architecture has to be in tune with the information technology. It cannot be hierarchical. It has to be a flat organization, and it has to be project-based and not in vertical silos.
Knowledge at Wharton: How could smart-city projects survive political changes?
“There is more to life than money. Friends. Family. Environment. Peace of mind. Time to enjoy literature. Travel.”
Pitroda: All of the projects would be based on a technology mission kind of approach. Everything would be a mission.
The developed world can learn from [India’s] technology missions. A study done by the United Nations on India’s technology missions said every country should have missions to get things done because missions require missionary zeal, dedicated staff, funding, time-tables, measurable milestones, and missions get completed after a while.
Knowledge at Wharton: What is your next big transformative project?
Pitroda: Well, I’m 75. I don’t need to do anything [more]. I’m happy with life. I’ve had a great journey. I have a wonderful family, a wife I have been married to for 51 years, great children, and two great grandchildren. So I don’t need to really look [any more] for peaks.
But I have to be busy. So I’m building five or six companies because I still want to be technically active. [For example,] I’m building [a project with] Stanford University on using satellite images to predict agricultural yield. I’m writing books. My next book is on redesigning the world. I want to begin a new conversation at a global level. All of the stuff we are doing is obsolete. It doesn’t make sense to build a world like this. We are creating more inequality, we are going to have more tension, we are going to use technology for the wrong stuff and people will remain poor and few will become so rich. We publish a list of the 400 richest people in the world all the time. But we don’t publish a list of the 400 best teachers, the 400 best doctors, or the 400 best journalists. It’s all about money, money, money, money. Today Gandhi is more relevant than ever before.
Knowledge at Wharton: You’ve talked about happiness and about how the world measures success by the wrong yardsticks. Bhutan uses a gross happiness index. Would you recommend that to other countries?
Pitroda: You find your own index. But the point is, “Don’t judge me based on GDP, GNP and how much money I have in the bank.” How do you value my children? I may not have a billion dollars, but if I have a billion dollars and my children were on drugs, what does it mean? You decide.
If you want to go after money and spend your entire life and fight to have cash in the bank, great, that’s your life. But there is more to life than money. Friends. Family. Environment. Peace of mind. Time to enjoy literature. Travel.
I think we will see a world where transportation will be free, telecom [today] is almost free, food would be free, people will not have 40-hour workweek jobs, and we will have a lot more time for cultural and personal activities. That’s the world I would like to create.
Knowledge at Wharton: And we’ll live in a non-violent society.
Pitroda: Absolutely. Why should I fight with you? Gandhi talked about it. He lived with it. Why can’t you and I learn to love everybody? It can be done. People are jealous. People are competitive. We are taught to be competitive. Come on, we don’t have to be competitive; we ought to be collaborating. But that’s what people teach in schools, to be competitive. You have a national competitive council (the Competition Commission of India). You don’t have a collaborative council. It’s crazy.