As I have slowly started learning about smart cities during my internship with Zpryme, I’ve become more interested in examining why some projects work and others do not. In short, smart cities are urban areas that use technology to collect data that will be used to improve overall living conditions across the city. In this blog, I’ll introduce the failed smart city project of Lavasa, India, analyze why it came to be that way, and discuss the concepts of true smart city planning and vanity city planning.

Smart cities that fail are ones that are stuck on development and never “come to life.” They failed to deliver on what citizens needed and fell short of their vision. At the start of the twenty-first century, Ajit Gulabchand, an Indian multimillionaire, inspired by the beautiful Italian city Portofino, wanted to build a luxurious city named Lavasa a couple of hours from Mumbai by car. What struck me the most about Gulabchand’s plan was that he was essentially constructing a city from scratch – he had no structural foundation to work with. It was a very ambitious yet inspiring project to tackle. Unfortunately, there were so many red flags that ultimately led it to becoming a ghost town. As of 2018, Lavasa hosts 10,000 inhabitants out of its 250,000 capacity, corresponding to a very low 4% occupancy rate.

Lavasa, India      

Portofino, Italy

As I was researching Lavasa, I found out some of the main reasons why it ultimately failed. One reason was the treatment of its location. Although the designers’ vision was to build Lavasa at a specific location to replicate Portofino, as shown by the images above, they had to destroy a lot of fundamental land – land that was essential for natural water and wildlife. The project wasn’t authorized to be executed; by disobeying regulations, construction was halted by three years, which was detrimental to the project’s progress. It baffles me that this initial construction of Lavasa was able to start, knowingly disobeying regulations. This should have been an instant red flag and a warning of the problems that lay ahead. Another underlying problem was that the money used to build Lavasa was allegedly acquired through political corruption, more specifically that the land was obtained by coercion. This caused a ton of internal problems that made it harder to follow through with the construction plans. On top of all of this, when Lavasa was semi-constructed, buildings were so expensive that the demand for it could not ever reach the supply. No person of the working class in India could even dream of living here, nor would they want to. The more I read about Lavasa, I came to the realization that it wasn’t primarily built as a traditional smart city by definition, but rather built to imitate Portofino in an attempt to construct a luxurious city for the rich. Starting with no existing infrastructure and far away from an urban center was a huge red flag – one that started the series of unfortunate events.

The planning of Lavasa, in hindsight, could not have been considered true smart city development. It is important to make the distinction between true smart city development and vanity urban planning. Vanity urban planning, like its name suggests, is the attempt of creating a city under excessive pride or in admiration of its appearance and achievements. Lavasa fits the mold of vanity urban planning perfectly – it was built for its visuals and to create a luxurious lifestyle much like the one Portofino has to offer. I don’t think Lavasa in its current state could be considered “smart” at all, as the small amount of technology it has incorporated into its ecosystem hasn’t really created drastic positive lifestyle changes for its inhabitants. Vanity urban planning, in fact, is the antithesis of true smart city planning, as all of its characteristics are the opposite of what a smart city is trying to achieve.

If we take a quick look at a successful smart city – one with true smart city planning – and compare it to Lavasa, the differences really stand out. Let’s take a quick look at Singapore, a leading smart city. Singapore city planners had a “citizens come first” mindset and developed digital infrastructures that enabled citizens to become important stakeholders in the city’s development. A great example of this is how the urban planners implemented an ePlanner, which is a digital tool that “helps analyze datasets from different agencies to improve the design of urban spaces.” This ePlanner helped identify areas with certain population groups and establish travel patterns to help facilitate access to healthcare. All of this being said, Singapore urban planners also took privacy measures into account. Planners had a long term vision of what the city was going to look like in the future, and stuck with it. They also prioritized sustainability and worked with utilities to ensure the environment would not be harmed during the building process. This brief look at Singapore’s mindset allows us to understand why they were able to succeed. Everything they did was the opposite of what Lavasa tried to do. While it is true that Singapore had a better starting infrastructure, both digital and physical, than Lavasa, their mindset and clear goals paved a path to a success that Lavasa never had.

A picture of Singapore

Lavasa had the potential of being a magnet for tourism with its luxurious goals, improving India’s overall economy. Although it’s unfortunately not shocking that this project couldn’t come to life, reflecting on the reasons why this project failed can give very valuable lessons and insights regarding the construction of smart cities/city planning as a whole. Despite Lavasa’s failure, India is planning on building 100 new smart cities. Let’s hope they can take what happened in Lavasa as an example of what not to do.