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Thursday 1st December 2016
Disruptive innovation and resilience
Cities Contributor: TARU Leading Edge

TARU Leading Edge is a leading Indian Think Tank exploring issues of climate change resilience in cities.

In 1953, a young female Macaque monkey in the south of Japan washed a muddy sweet potato in a stream before eating it. This obvious improvement in food preparation was imitated quickly by other monkeys and in less than 10 years it became the norm in her immediate group; by 1983, the method had diffused completely.

In 1956, the same monkey innovated again, inventing a technique in which handfuls of mixed sand and wheat grains were cast upon the sea, so that the floating cereal could be skimmed from the surface. Again, by 1983, this method of gleaning wheat had diffused almost completely throughout the local populations of Macaques.

Disruption as the new normal

The world is bombarded with technological innovations that are causing major disruptions in our lives. Miniaturised devices now can provide services such as water purification, mobile communication etc. Many of the disruptive innovations in the water, energy and waste management sectors have potential to change the way the future cities function. Diffusion of household reverse osmosis filters has enabled the families to improve reduce hardness and improve bacteriological quality of water. Rooftop solar panels can significantly reduce the reliance on grid power. The households and other users can potentially become producers as well as users, and reduce dependence on city level gridded lifeline services and improve resilience to power cuts and poor water quality. Similarly, 3D printing is causing disruption in mass manufacturing processes, enabling decentralised production of engineered materials with few facilities.

As the technology advances, these disruptive innovations are giving us opportunities to reorganise the life and reduce dependence on external resources. Fast diffusion of technologies has made the legacy technologies redundant and often lock us into situations that can potentially lead to inefficiency of the past investments.

Shrinking adoption cycles

By the end of 20th century, technology adoption cycle reduced to a decade from nearly 40 years at the beginning of the Century. The turnaround time between discovery to universal adoption has been reducing significantly, with new technologies reaching developing countries in about five years now. Large scale automated production systems and increasing speed of delivery through better supply chain management has made this shrinkage of adoption cycle possible. 



The technologists now feel that the cost of the services, especially electricity from decentralised sources is expected to reduce by at least a scale of magnitude over coming decades, which potentially would make decentralised electricity cost cheaper than the grid based transmission and distribution costs from distant generating stations. Similarly, disruptive technologies in electricity storage can potentially reduce the dependence on grid supply by ability to store solar energy for use during night times.

Reducing Shelf life of technologies

The aspiration of the people has significantly changed over the decades. A middle-class family wanting to buy a new house now looks for the amenities in addition to the floor space. Life-cycle of products have also reduced significantly with the increasing aspirations of the citizens, as one can see from products such as smart phones, cars another consumer gadgets. New models with additional features become available, even before the previous variant has become universally adopted. Planned obsolescence of products has become the norm in the industry, to keep pace with the miniaturisation and advances in technologies. Also, new disruptive technologies are reducing the life of previous version of products.

Incorporating Disruptive technologies in urban planning

The past and current urban planning paradigm relies on centralised lifeline services. With miniaturised devices available, use efficiency has increased and many long-life infrastructure (such as Concrete flyovers) planned and being built is expected to become redundant much before their end of design life span. 

Most of the urban private cars now sit idle for most part of the day, but since they make trips between work places and home, they need multiple parking places (at least one at workplace and one at home, in addition to space taken on the kerbs and parking places). When self-driving cars become readily available (potentially within a decade), the number of vehicles required to meet mobility demand of any city will reduce by about an order of magnitude. People would rather buy assured serviced kilometres rather than a private car. The flyovers being built now and near future (with life of at least 50 years) , may become redundant.

Anticipatory planning considering such potentially disruptive technologies is necessary to avoid maladaptation or investments in urban development. Let us explore a few of such potentially disruptive technologies relevant for urbanisation process. 


The biggest challenge in water sector in most of the cities across India, is the lower availability and seasonal scarcity. On the other hand, almost all the cities are unable to recycle and reuse wastewater generated. In this “Once Through” water supply systems of our cities, we are wasting more than what we use by poor sewerage systems that you that pollutes our water resources more than what we use.

One of the potentially disruptive technologies in water sector is Capacitive deionization (CDI) technology. The CDI technology deionizes water by applying an electrical potential difference over two porous electrodes. Unlike reverse osmosis, which removes water from raw water, this technology removes the ions from the raw water. It is much more efficient than the reverse osmosis process and generates less wastewater. Due to low energy consumption, the CDI technology can revolutionise water sector, with the ability to treat seawater also.

Digital sensors to monitor transmit data from distant points is another major innovation that can disrupt current water quality monitoring and metering systems. A variety of sensors to monitor water quality, pressure and flow are readily available. The costs of these sensors have reduced many fold over last decade. Ubiquitous water quality and flow sensors in water supply and sewerage systems have become common in modern water supply grids. The continuous real-time water quality data stream without need to send samples to central laboratory is now possible with the increased sensitivity of the sensors. Now we can monitor contaminants even at to very low concentrations. The sensor network enabled by IOT technologies can provide both qualitative and quantitative information to the utilities, thereby enabling automated meter reading and quality control. Also, these technologies will enable identification of leakages and control of flow much easier.

The emergence of emergence of advanced water treatment technologies such as ceramic membrane filters, the Nano filters, and advanced oxidation and absorption technologies can be used both for potable water as well as wastewater treatment. Whereas the conventional wastewater treatment was restricted to reduction of biological oxygen demand, removal of nitrogen and phosphorus will be possible with emerging technologies. Extraction of these nutrients from the wastewater can provide valuable fertilisers without having to mining them. They will also enable the use of water or even drinking purposes as demonstrated by the “new water” by Singapore. These disruptions can potentially reduce total water demand of the city as well as reduce pollution of rivers and groundwater.

Ultraviolet light emitting diodes are at the verge of being commercialised. UV disinfection is a common technology used in household filters since last few decades. The existing UV systems for water and recycle wastewater disinfection is based on fluorescent which contain mercury and prone to breakage. UV-LED will be cheaper and more energy efficient and can have much higher life.


There are several disruptive innovations that can potentially change the energy scenario across the world. The electricity generation and usage efficiency as increased by several magnitudes over the last two decades. Decentralised energy generation through solar and wind have become a new trend driven by concerns of fossil fuel consumption and climate change. Efficiency improvement in modern devices has grown by at least an order of magnitude. Now we have LED lamps, which consume at least one 10th of the energy required for older generation incandescent bulbs. The inverter ACs consume only a fraction of electricity required for legacy air-conditioners. However, as the population and aspiration has increased, increased demand has offset energy gains from increased efficiency.

As we can produce more and more energy from solar photovoltaics, we are faced with the major challenge of storing the electricity for usage in the night. Advanced storage batteries are one of the major potential disruptive technology there can revolutionise the energy sector. Already, TESLA is offering batteries with the capacities of more than 6 kWh, that can power the homes for few hours. As this technology diffuses, the cost (~300 USD) is expected to reduce significantly, which will make it popular and affordable by common man even in developing countries.

The cost of solar photovoltaic systems is continuously reducing over the last few decades. Now it is already competing with coal-based electricity generation costs. It is expected that the solar photovoltaics will be able to generate electricity costs less than the transmission and distribution costs of current electricity grids.

As the world goes on warming due to climate change, increasing number of People will adapt by extensive use of air-conditioning of workplaces and homes. The fraction of energy air-conditioning load has become an important part of total energy consumption in cities, especially in tropical regions. This would mean increasing ratio of peak load to normal load on our centralised electricity grids. However, if the solar photovoltaics at building levels become popular, part of the peak load will be offset by local generation and storage.

The electric cars have already been introduced in the market, and their diffusion is expected to increase, especially considering the growing air pollution in the cities across developing countries. With energy efficiency of more than 90%, and a fraction of moving parts compared to gasoline driven cars, the diffusion of electric cars is expected to be much faster than fossil fuel driven cars during the last century. The working importance of autonomous cars are already running in many cities, which would require major challenges in insurance sectors. It may be very well possible that the concept of private car ownership may significantly change, with taxi aggregators, which is expected to change our attitudes. Buying serviced kilometres instead of owning cars may become the new norm. If that happens, the number of vehicles are required to meet the mobility and access demand within the city will reduce significantly, making the current investments on boards and flyovers redundant within a matter of few decades. Push towards public transport is already expected to reduce demand for new cars in the near future. The roads and flyovers are the worst waste of land in cities, and it will not be surprising if many of the old road infrastructure may have to be either destroyed or converted to other innovative land uses.


The current trend in housing is towards is increasing the energy and water use efficiency. The great building idea has become quite popular, but unfortunately we are saddled with huge stock of old buildings which are inefficient in terms of water and energy use. While there are several technologies to improve energy and water usage efficiency of these buildings, the incentive for such a change is constrained by subsidised water and energy in the cities. 

The solar photovoltaics, cool roofs, green roofs and flexible use and 3D printed buildings are going to change the way the people live in the cities. Modern construction materials as well as building practices are expected to revolutionise the way we live and increase the efficiency in the use of built spaces. We will require less space to do more work and the cost of buildings may reduce significantly with the introduction of new building materials and construction technologies. Also, buildings will be able to meet a significant proportion of the energy and water demand through use of solar energy, water recycling and simultaneously generate part of the food needs. Integration of Water-Energy-Biomass systems at building levels will be a major change in modern 3D printed building technologies.

Mobility versus Access in the age of driverless cars.

The biggest question that needs to be addressed how much a common man must commute daily to get access to work and to access his daily needs of water, food, amenities and lifeline services. In the late 20th century, Indian urban design was led by concepts such as low-rise high-density settlements and single-use zoning laws, which led to increase the distance between the work and living areas. Mixed land use zoning can significantly reduce the average daily commuting times of common man. Despite the diffusion of Internet, the travel times of common man has increased resulting in clogged roads and increasing traffic jams especially during peak hours. It is possible that in the oncoming information revolution, the need for daily commuting can be potentially reduce the significantly. The circular economy can potentially reduce the need for dependence on materials and services from distant sources.

The transit oriented development has become one of the new organising principles of modern cities. This is expected to reduce the building footprints of the cities. The densely-built areas neighbouring transit corridors and more open spaces providing options to locally generate and manage energy and water at city scales is expected.  If we want to build carbon neutral cities, we need to think about innovative solutions to mobility, and better public transport and reduced number of private vehicles. Large investments are being done to develop electric as well as self-driving cars, which are expected to change the way we commute. Also, mobility aggregators are rapidly taking over the taxi operations, which can reduce total number of vehicles is required to run a city efficiently. Buying serviced kilometres may become an alternative to buying private vehicles in the near-future. If these changes happen, the current and planned more infrastructure may become redundant and potentially release these areas for other uses. The smart city planning need to be informed about these disruptive innovations so that the cities do not maladapt by developing new road infrastructure to address current challenges of traffic.

Most of the cities are planning to expand public transport network as a part of smart city and other programmes. Driverless cars, taxi aggregators and public transport network can potentially disrupt the mobility and road transport network significantly over coming decades. Since most of the road infrastructure such as flyovers have an effective life of more than 50 years, it may be prudent to explore soft options such as better traffic control and enforcement of rules instead of locking transport investments on flyovers and concrete roads.

Need for anticipatory planning

The conventional urban planning has relied extensively on land use planning and more recently inclusion of networks in planning. The current urban development and planning models have ignored the anticipatory and disruptive technology aspects. The future planners need to explore the potentials of disruption from the innovative technologies, without which considerable current investments may go waste or lead to mal-adaptation.