• India wants to become $US 5 trillion economy by 2025.
  • Concerns accelerated growth contributes to 'urban degradation'.
  • Sanitation, air quality, water shortage, landfills - all need tackling.

India’s pollution woes have been grabbing national and international headlines lately. Delhi has come under the special spotlight due to record levels of air, water pollution and waste management disasters. But these problems are not exclusive to the city of Delhi alone. When Delhiites were finding it difficult to breathe in the city around Diwali, at least 13 cities in India had higher air pollution levels than Delhi, according to the data by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). What is not well known, are problems like lack of right disposal of human waste, which flows back into the food and water leading to myriad problems. While this issue is subterranean, it is not less pernicious than air pollution. As India rapidly urbanises, we are facing a very real threat of unstoppable urban degradation, and the first victims are the poorest of the poor.

These problems, like almost all affecting quality of life of our citizens in urban India, have a unique characteristic – they are truly 'wicked problems' with many interdependent factors. Adopting linear approaches with one silver bullet driven by one large group is rarely likely to succeed, as wicked problems do not give way to linear approaches. However, the approaches of the sector and government still remain linear.

India’s city, state and national governments have stepped in and launched various action plans and measures to reduce these massive levels of pollution but these efforts remain isolated and not being able to create significant and long term impact to solve problem of solution and prevent public health crisis. A study released by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) in New Delhi pointed out that Indian citizens are likely to breathe air with high concentrations of PM2.5 in 2030 with current policies and measures.

market value pollution masks India 2013 2023
Market value of pollution masks across India from 2013 to 2023
Image: TechSci Research, Statista

So what can be done in India to accelerate the pace of reforms in the urban governance and implementation of best practices at scale to fight massive scales of pollution? We need to look at Indian cities as highly complex systems where communities, organizations and people interact with infrastructure like roads, parks and buildings & public stakeholders. To curb problems like poor governance, weak accountability mechanisms and low capacities which result in massive pollution levels in these systems, we need to find holistic scalable solutions which can be deployed fast. Now the question remains who can identify these solutions and how?

The answer might come from the field of medicine.

Can we learn from another complex system which has solved such wicked problems successfully – the human body.

At the end of 19th century, American medical education was largely disintegrated with medical schools lacking updated curriculum impacting quality of healthcare across the country. After its opening in 1989, Johns Hopkins Hospital (JHM) introduced rigid entrance examinations and updated curriculum for medical students in line with the contemporary best practices to improve the quality of medical education. Since the beginning, Johns Hopkins Medicine’s founders believed in bridging the gaps between teaching, research and execution of best practices in modern medicine to accelerate progress in the field. The integration of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Hospital also helped to accelerate the practice and research at JHM.

Today JHM has evolved into USD 8 billion integrated global health enterprise producing groundbreaking medical research, teaching and medicines to the patients across the world. In terms of numbers, the JHM has produced 21 laureates in physiology and medicine and employs around 40,000 full-time faculty and staff members.


Key learnings from centres of excellence like JHM for urban transformation to solve wicked problem in India:

Multidisciplinary thinking: Think of a city as an interconnected system which requires expertise from multiple disciplines

Platform Approach: Multiple stakeholders from public and private sector should come together in collaborative manner to solve wicked problems

Agile innovation: Create fast innovation and implementation cycles which reduce gaps between research and practice in fields.

While the urban city systems are different from human body system, we need to derive learnings from COEs like JHM in medical field to scale solutions to fix urban governance. India needs to identify several high potential organizations which can help to scale these solutions to national and global levels through COEs like JHM. India wants to become USD 5 trillion economy by 2024-25. But such massive growth can only be achieved with thriving urban centers with a high quality of life created by COEs.

It is indeed heartening that governments and non-government organizations in India have started realizing the importance of COEs to push urban governance reforms in India. India’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) has created Peer Experience and Reflective Learning (PEARL) network to encourage knowledge sharing and cross-learning among cities which participated in Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission- a city modernization scheme by the central government. Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI) one of India’s most respected and oldest civil servant capacity building bodies, has recently started a centre focused on urban transformation and innovation based on the premise of Centre of Excellence.

Similarly, Janaagraha- an organization working to improve quality of life in Indian cities City-Systems Reform Network (CSRN) plans to share the best practices and on-ground application of experience and learnings among top 23 cities to foster urban governance reforms across India.

Pollution is a local, regional and global problem which can be only solved through collective action and accelerated pace of urban governance reforms. It is indeed high time, all stakeholders interested in citizens enjoying a good standard of living, come together to build, support and work with high impact centres of excellence, and move rapidly on the path to solving these wicked problems like sanitation, air quality, water shortage, landfills affecting urban India.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the future of cities?

Cities represent humanity's greatest achievements - and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of humanity is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner, greener and more inclusive.

These include hosting the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, which gathers bright ideas from around the world to inspire city leaders, and running the Future of Urban Development and Services initiative. The latter focuses on how themes such as the circular economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed to create better cities. To shed light on the housing crisis, the Forum has produced the report Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities.