A rural scene in Sakti Valley in India. Photo by: Axel Drainville / CC BY-NC

While there is growing talk of smart cities in conversations on global development, a majority of people in emerging market economies live in villages.

This is leading some to ask: what about smart villages?

In India, where about 70 percent of the population lives in villages, Prime Minister Narendra Modi followed his smart cities campaign with a smart villages campaign, to address suboptimal conditions and to provide people with reasons to stay, rather than move to the cities. As they build smart cities, governments and their partners — from the world of technology to the global development community — tend to overlook villages. But India offers a model of how to pursue both plans.

“There is an increased urbanization due to the fact that urban centres are perceived to provide more opportunities and comfort,” said Jinesh Shah, founding partner at Omnivore Partners, a venture fund investing in early stage agriculture and food technology companies in India. “A smart village will help the rural population with increased opportunity and comfort.”

Via Devex YouTube

Part of India’s smart villages campaign is an attempt to remove hurdles for the agriculture sector, he said, but reducing the pressure of increased urbanization is also a motivation. More equal access to opportunities, as well as improved sanitation, health care benefits and job prospects in rural areas will help to reduce social unrest, he argued.

A model village

In September 2014, Prashant Shukla, national technology officer at Microsoft, made his first visit to Harisal, a remote village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Shukla described it as a back breaking journey through twists and turns in the mountains to a place with no mobile phone connectivity, let alone access to the internet. Yet Microsoft has chosen this village as the basis for its Digital Village project, providing residents with digitized services and skills.

“The reason why we chose this village was [that] if we can solve the problem here then we can set a model that can be used anywhere,” said Shukla.

Microsoft and the Maharashtra government are working together on a framework for smart village adoption, which they hope to use as a guide to replicate smart village strategies across the country. After working to determine the challenges faced by the villagers, Microsoft concluded that the most important interventions would be to improve agricultural yields and vocational skills, Shukla told Devex. Their partner AirJaldi then launched TV white space — a way of delivering the internet — in the village, once Microsoft saw how connectivity was key for improvements ranging from computer-aided instruction to telemedicine.

“Microsoft is the technology glue that could bring all this together, but you need partners who have expertise in each of these areas,” Shukla said.

Remote working

Microsoft is a key partner for Modi’s Digital India initiative, which aims to create digital infrastructure, deliver services digitally and improve digital literacy, both in cities and villages.

Entrepreneur Varun Chandran, the founder of Corporate360 — which helps IT companies streamline their sales and marketing efforts — hires talent in Kerala, where he grew up.

He wants to demonstrate that people can perform tasks such as data formatting, email campaigns and internet research, whether they live in rural or urban settings. His call for more companies to consider hiring talent in rural areas might be easier to answer in Kerala than elsewhere, however, as this will soon become the first state in India to declare access to the internet a human right.

“India has the largest youth population in the world,” he told Devex. “How do you create jobs for them and how do you make use of that human capital?”

Most young people are living in villages and small towns, he said, which lack the infrastructure and therefore the opportunity for many of the jobs they might pursue.

“There’s a talent drain there. There are smart kids there. We have intellect there. But we’re not giving them the right opportunities,” he said. “There are smart city initiatives, smart nation initiatives, but India should focus on building infrastructure in smart towns.”

Over six weeks, Devex and our partners will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.