If you’ve ever been to Mumbai, then you’ve heard of the summer monsoon season. You may even have avoided travel to India during the months of June through August, when the storms are in full effect.

For millions of people, such as Sumit Chowdhury, avoidance of the relentless rain and wind isn’t an option. Chowdhury calls Mumbai home; he loves living and working here. But right now he’s in the midst of a brewing monsoon—windshield wipers slapping, wind howling, waves crashing at the shore of the bay and threatening to douse Marine Drive, a six-lane thoroughfare and one of the city’s main arteries. Cars swerve around fast-forming puddles to the angry honks of other drivers.

Mumbai, like all cities in India, benefits greatly from monsoons, in terms of wind and water power and the health of its agriculture, but the city’s power systems can’t always handle Mother Nature. The storms’ effects can range from the costly inconveniences of power outages and interrupted train service to tragedies such as electrocutions and drownings.

In seeing “the un-manicured side of the country—” the poverty, the lack of opportunity, the struggling educational system—she recognized her calling: “I wanted to be in the dirt, in the grass and roots.”
Carnegie Mellon alumnus, Shabnam Aggarwal

Monsoons will be a big part of the discussion at the event where Chowdhury is headed, 1,400 km away (more than 800 miles) in New Delhi. The conference is a series of discussions under the umbrella “Integrated Intelligence: Smart Cities and Big Data.” The July 4 summit is being hosted by Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University, which has more alumni from India, 1,800, than any other country outside the United States.

And the ties between CMU and India will only get stronger as the university’s president, Subra Suresh, marks his first official university visit to India by signing an agreement that will support outstanding students from India who wish to pursue their doctorates at CMU.

That’s not all. Less than two months later, on August 25, it’s announced that the India-based corporation, Tata Consultancy Services, will donate $35 million to CMU for developing an innovation facility and supporting student scholarships. The gift ranks as the largest corporate donation in CMU history, the largest international gift to CMU, and the largest gift to a university by TCS, a global IT and consulting company with offices in more than 46 countries and clients in every major industry.

As for the July 4 conference, joining President Suresh and alumni at the conference will be accepted students, several faculty members, and other university leaders. Because Chowdhury (E’96, HNZ’98) is an alumnus and an expert on Smart Cities, the university asked him to be on the panel. He was pleased to accept. 

Chowdhury, who recently formed a company called Gaia Smart Cities, a communication technology and urban solutions consultancy designed to help cities manage local energy, water, transportation and other challenges like weather, traffic, population, housing, sewage, etc., knows that these are only some features of the Indian urban landscape that must be navigated, particularly as India’s cities continue to grow. The country is already home to nearly 50 cities of at least one million people, with some of the world’s most rapid urbanization rates.

There’s much to do to stem the tide of pollution and to provide citizens with better services such as health care, quality housing, transportation, and power.

Getting Our Bearings

The night before the July 4 Integrated Intelligence conference convenes, the news of the day is pure serendipity. Everyone is talking about it when another Carnegie Mellon alumna, Shabnam Aggarwal, arrives to the gathering at the hotel Taj Palace.

Aggarwal, a young CEO who was raised in Silicon Valley but has dedicated her career to social entrepreneurship in India, now makes her way through the entryway of cream-colored marble, past clusters of business people on brocade settees and fast-moving hotel staff in their colorful sarees. Between overheard conversation and reports from flatscreen televisions, she catches snippets of the news three times before reaching her meeting-room destination.

Today’s news: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi just announced in a national address a “Digital India Week,” calling for a digitally empowered society and knowledge-based economy, part of his effort to build 100 Smart Cities. Also announced that day was that cities have to compete with each other with valid Smart City designs and some of those proposals will be chosen and will be funded by the government to pursue their Smart City initiatives. Aggarwal’s home, Delhi, is one of them.

It would seem that Carnegie Mellon couldn’t have picked a better time to host the event.

At a cocktail reception that night, Aggarwal is pleased to meet Mary Suresh, wife of CMU President Suresh. Aggarwal finds the president’s wife so easy to talk to that soon enough she is relaying some of her life story. How does a young woman raised in the United States decide to build her life in India? Aggarwal explains how the first time she’d been to India without family was while earning her engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon in 2006. In seeing “the un-manicured side of the country”—the poverty, the lack of opportunity, the struggling educational system—she recognized her calling: “I wanted to be in the dirt, in the grass and roots.”

Mary Suresh has also spent much of her life in the nitty-gritty, as a nurse and former director of public health in Wellesley, Mass. She is impressed by Aggarwal’s progress. Wasn’t it difficult to raise money for her start-up in India’s male-dominated venture community? Aggarwal acknowledges that it was the most challenging experience of her life. She managed to do it, though, raising seed funds that helped her company, KleverKid, get off the ground.

Now KleverKid offers a Yelp-like service to crowdsource information on early-childhood and tutoring services for families in Delhi and Bangalore. With more quality options available through KleverKid, Aggarwal hopes, women may be able to build their careers and India’s stigma against working moms may slowly lift.

Both women certainly agree that Smart City projects should emphasize the importance of social concerns like education and health care, and they hope these won’t take a backseat to the dazzle of technology, the sensors, the networks, the data. It will be crucial that social entrepreneurs stay in the mix, the two women agree.

The next morning, Aggarwal is one of five alumni to speak at a Q&A session for incoming Carnegie Mellon students on what to expect their first year. Seventy-five eager faces greet her and another alumnus who has organized the event, Ponnurangam “PK” Kumaraguru (CS’07, CS’00). An assistant professor at IIIT New Delhi and a co-founder of several IT ventures, Kumaraguru shares a few thoughts about his Carnegie Mellon experience with the audience but, seeing that the students and parents are anxious, opens the panel quickly to questions.

Aggarwal is prepared to discuss what she deems crucial: how to stay on top of studies, what to expect from professors, the university’s interdisciplinary approach, and the opportunities it presents.

But instead, the questions skew toward the more practical. How do we get from the airport to the campus? What is campus security like at the school? Where do we go to get our ID cards?

It just goes to show, when a city is completely new to someone, there’s an order of priority. A Smart City must be about more than the big concepts. Sometimes it’s simply about getting our bearings.

The Soul of a City

So, what is a Smart City? The question is on Rahul Rathi’s (TPR’2000) mind as he waits in the audience for the room to finish filling up for the “Smart Cities” panel. And fill it does, with nearly 200 people seated and some standing, the impressive line-up of panelists straightening their microphones and sipping from their waters: Sumit Chowdhury of Gaia Smart Cities, Anita Arjundas of Mahindra Lifespaces, Devansh Jain (DC’07, TPR’07) of Inox Wind, and moderator Ramayya Krishnan, dean of CMU’s Heinz College.

Rathi feels that the entrepreneurial spirit in the room alone has made the trip worthwhile—he’s come more than 1,500 km from his home in Pune, India. He can sense it in the air, hear it in the bits of conversation he catches—people want to jump into the double-digit growth climate of the Indian business world. Rathi remembers having that same hungry spirit. He started his company CapMetrics, a risk analytics and investing business, the old-fashioned way, in a garage. But in those days, the opportunities were more modest. Today he employs 400 people, and although only 2 percent of his business once came from Indian customers, now that figure is at 45 percent.

He’s expecting an increase in investment buzz around Smart Cities projects among his colleagues and clients in India. But where to begin with a shift so huge? The panelists’ discussion returns repeatedly to the urbanization figures: the United Nation’s prediction that we’ll add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050, such that 66 percent of people will live in urban areas. India, today a country with the largest rural population at 857 million, will undergo one of the world’s most profound shifts, projected by 2050 to add 404 million to its cities.

“We’ll look back at the years 2009 and 2010 and no one will talk about the economic slowdown. They’ll say this was the time the world entered the digital consumer era.”
Natarajan Chandrasekaran (“Chandra”), CEO of Tata Consultancy Services

Much of the panel’s discussion is about the definition of the term Smart City. It’s a new idea—something people weren’t talking about just a couple of years ago. Rathi is particularly struck by the musings of Arjundas, managing director and CEO of Mahindra Lifespaces, an Indian-based company considered a leader in urban planning. She describes greenfield developments she worked on—small cities built from scratch in former rice paddies outside major city centers. Her teams found the funding, the businesses to create jobs, the technology that made each city a perfect picture of urban planning. “But they had no soul,” she said, and the residents failed to mingle. Or they might drive 50 miles into the nearest established city for entertainment, even though the planners had tried to make local attractions part of the quality-of-life offerings.

Whether it’s being built from scratch or completely overhauled, how does a city gain, or retain, a soul? And how can technology foster that process? There are no simple answers. Part of the purpose of this event is to ask the questions that get people thinking.

Wi-Fi and Monkeys

Next to speak on the Smart Cities panel is Chowdhury. His harrowing drive behind him, not to mention his flight and a long night of networking, he is seated beside Arjundas, and he relays the story of his parents, who recently told him that their small city, Kalyani, on the outskirts of Calcutta, is a Smart City. What makes it smart? They told him: free Wi-Fi. The audience laughs.

That’s a start, he acknowledged, but with further probing he learned that they rarely left their home to see their neighbors, because they shared the neighborhood with wild monkeys, and the monkeys weren’t much into sharing. Chowdhury wonders, again to the laughter of the audience, what was smart about a city that had free Wi-Fi but hadn’t solved its monkey problem.

“In Pittsburgh, they have a deer problem,” he says, drawing from fresh knowledge, having just spent a summer teaching a new Smart City course at the Heinz College. With Carnegie Mellon’s newly formed Metro21 initiative tackling problems like storm-water management, cloud-based analytics for building-energy management, solar-energy impact analysis, and crowdsourcing of rental-property data, Carnegie Mellon can be an important resource for countries such as India that have committed an intense focus to the Smart Cities concept.

The view must always be holistic, Chowdhury says. If overpopulation of deer is causing traffic accidents and Lyme disease, or if monkeys are keeping people from feeling safe enough to leave their homes, the most technologically advanced city may not be a smart one. In Pittsburgh, it’s blizzards; in India, it’s monsoons. Either way, you must take a systems approach and look at the whole, integrated picture.

Real People, Real Problems

As for those students’ seemingly endless questions about bus service and dining cards, Aggarwal thinks she’s done her best to answer them. She hopes that whatever work they pursue will be meaningful to the everyday citizen. That’s how her career has unfolded, in part because of an unlikely meeting.

She had been working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for a social enterprise that paired disabled and disadvantaged people with data-entry jobs. It was 2008, and Cambodians were still struggling with the after-effects of the Khmer Rouge reign—life was difficult, and work was scarce. The 15-year-old she befriended there had escaped a brothel and was selling books outside Aggarwal’s apartment building. Aggarwal learned that although the books were mostly in English, the girl didn’t speak it. They started lessons in Aggarwal’s apartment, and soon the girl brought along other friends, mostly in their teens, who had been through similar horrors. But they all had phones, Aggarwal noticed, and they all wanted the same kind of access increasingly enjoyed by the rest of the world.

Aggarwal has spent her life exploring technologies that will do more than just make it easier to order a cup of latte. She wants technology to help people like this girl from her past achieve a better life for themselves.

A Transformed World

The “Transformative Impact of Big Data” panel is as packed as the Smart Cities panel had been, if not more so. Carnegie Mellon’s provost, Farnam Jahanian, moderates a panel including Banmali Agrawala, president and CEO of GE South Asia (Parent: DC’18); Natarajan Chandrasekaran (“Chandra”), CEO of Tata Consultancy Services; Gary Fedder, associate dean for Research, College of Engineering; and Kumaraguru, who had earlier been answering the questions of incoming freshmen. The panelists discuss applications, from health care to manufacturing. They acknowledge challenges, from managing for flawed data to addressing privacy concerns.

Rathi listens, his mind still turning over the big question of a city’s soul, when Chandra, one of India’s most respected businessmen, says, “We’ll look back at the years 2009 and 2010, and no one will talk about the economic slowdown. They’ll say this was the time the world entered the digital consumer era.”

During this lively discussion, it seems possible that a city’s soul could be found in the egalitarian nature of technology—in access and flatness, in the breaking down of hierarchy, in the free flow of information, in that digital life for the masses that Chandra is identifying.

And yet, the monsoons! This time they appear in the form of a question from the audience, directed toward Chandra. The parent of an incoming freshman asks, “Why can we predict so much—financial fluctuations, the path of epidemic illnesses—but we can’t manage for these monsoons?”

We’re getting better, the panelists say. Chandra mentions applications for farmers to test storm impact on soil, applications for fishermen to plan their work around weather patterns. Such projects are still in the early stages but improving all the time, getting closer to the ubiquitous.

The consensus is that there will always be real problems in the way of technology—monsoons and blizzards, for example—and that sometimes our innovations will contribute to new problems, at least in the short term—such as displaced workers, security and privacy concerns—but with our hearts and minds in the right place, with a commitment to addressing problems with the right design, with mindfulness to avoid forcing technologies in the wrong places, we should be able to tackle them.

The Best Is Yet to Come

After a day of such heady thinking, it helps to let off steam. To close out the event, the Carnegie Mellon community has a chance to mingle over dinner in the Grand Ballroom. Entertaining them will be Joshua Gross, a musical theater major from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama, which can boast more Tony Award winners among its alumni than any other university and is ranked the top program in the country by The Princeton Review. Gross does his alma mater proud with his rendition of “The Best Is Yet to Come.” The audience, at least 300 gathered for dinner, goes wild with appreciation for the junior’s performance.

Chowdhury and his table mates share huge smiles over their clapping hands. Like a Smart City, Carnegie Mellon knows the arts are as important to building a vibrant place as the infrastructure. It was Carnegie Mellon’s interdisciplinary strengths that committed Chowdhury to the systems approach, allowing him to bring together aspects from multiple disciplines together to think about a problem in a new way. His PhD dissertation had committee members from four different schools.

After Gross’ performance, President Suresh takes the stage. He announces that Carnegie Mellon has created a new partnership with the government in India. The agreement will provide support to students from India who want to pursue doctorates in math, science and engineering at CMU. Signed by Carnegie Mellon and India’s Science and Engineering Research Board, the deal will provide $2.4 million in fellowships to deserving students from India. The fellowships will support a minimum of five Indian students each academic year, beginning in the fall of 2016, for the next five years.

Looking around the room at all the enthusiastic faces, both fresh and seasoned, Chowdhury knows this is the future. Whether traffic or monsoons, health care or education, no social issue is too big for the enthusiasm and technology know-how in this room. As President Suresh is saying before the audience, India is a massive democracy, a young demographic with a fresh entrepreneurial spirit already being tapped to great success. And everyone in this room nods as he says that technology is useful only if it connects to the human condition. He says it’s time to revise the famous line of Andrew Carnegie’s, “My heart is in the work.” People work hard at Carnegie Mellon, he says, but there is another side, equally important. It should be “My work is in the heart.”