Kochi, the commercial capital of Kerala, has made it to the coveted ’21 Places of the Future’ list by Cognizant, the only Indian city to do so. Here’s why.

Once a breeding ground for mosquitoes and notorious for water-logging and municipal waste, Kochi is slowly rearing its wiggly head to its original title: Queen of the Arabian Sea. The 14th century port city that did regular trades in spices for centuries with Arab, Chinese, and European merchants, is transforming into a high-tech knowledge hub with a burgeoning technology ecosystem, in an inimitable way.

“Like the cities in the U.S. that are beginning to supplant Silicon Valley, Kochi is forward-looking, with robust green-tech investments, human-focussed growth metrics such as literacy rate and life expectancy in place of GDP to drive its growth, and a new special economic zone designed to retain local talent and attract outside investments. The geographical specialities of the state also provide a good quality of life. If it’s a contest on quality of life alone, Kochi wins hands-down. The question is whether the city could become the next Bali—today’s quintessential digital nomad hangout. A blissful lifestyle and good connectivity are all it takes.

Fortunately, Kochi offers both,” says Manish Bahl, associate vice president, Center for the Future of Work, Asia Pacific and the Middle East, Cognizant.This impressive metamorphosis of a sleepy town is what made Cognizant pick Kochi as the only Indian city to be part of its coveted ‘21 Places of the Future’ list.

India’s major tech hubs are reaching their saturation point, and innovators are on the lookout for new places to expand. Cognizant considered a number of factors, including physical infrastructure, environment, lifestyle, culture and entertainment, talent pools, and affordability, among others.

What we have is a string of small cities. We are now developing a global city in Kochi. It is an integrated development of a city preserving the iconic features of the state. It is going to be an intermodal development complete with pedestrian walks, cycling tracks, and water metro [ferry services that connect islands]. It will be linked to many small satellite towns around, with excellent connectivity. The model has already won an award for its last-mile connectivity and seamless mobility from the central government.

Thomas Isaac, Finance Minister, Kerala government.

“Starting with a list of over 150 places, we used data from sources such as the World Economic Forum, World Justice Project and ESI Thought Lab to tally a final score for 75 of them. We employed a detailed methodology to select the 21 places featured in the report. Using the metaphor of an atom, we examined both the ‘nucleus’ and the ‘electrons’ of a place,” says Bahl, explaining the selection parameters.

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What has caught Cognizant’s attention is Kochi’s plan to ensure that its special vibe doesn’t fade away. It has found that unlike other Indian cities such as Hyderabad, Chennai, and Bengaluru, now bursting at the seams, Kochi is more mellow. The city with innumerable cantilevered Chinese fishing nets dotting its canals and the vast expanse of the backwaters, has fixed its focus firmly on sustainability. The lusciously green city is home to the only airport powered by solar energy. It connects Singapore and Malaysia with daily direct flights, and operates 14 flights a day to Dubai. The green Infopark in the city, which employs over 50,000 high-tech engineers, is growing fast, bringing in more investments.

What made Kochi stand out was its unparalleled focus on social infrastructure while setting its sights on high-tech innovation and entrepreneurship. The vast mix of people, cultures, and religions from all across the world, left behind by the roaring global spice trade over the centuries, now perfectly blended with the local flavour, added to its halo.

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Many believe that Kochi offers an alternative model for India—one that can accelerate it into a new, more sustainable future place of work. People in Kerala enjoy a quality of life akin to many leading developing countries. The average life expectancy is set to increase to 75-80 years (for male-female) compared to 69 years across the rest of India. Kerala has 96% literacy rate compared to the national average of 74%. Kerala has been catching up fast with the developed world since the Independence, as per the national census.

“While we are developing a high-end knowledge industry in Kochi, the two planned industrial corridors—Palakkad-Coimbatore and Kochi-Mangaluru—will ensure development of the small towns along the corridors. Wholehearted efforts are also on for the cultural development of the city, with a focus on events like [the Kochi] Biennale and such,” says Isaac, adding that the government is spending as much as ₹1,500 crore for the city’s development.

SmartCityKochi

Top-down hierarchies are a thing of the past in Kerala. The decentralisation process has empowered the local government bodies adequately to take quicker policy decisions.

“There’s an impressive network of spaces in the growing tech hubs of the city. The growing startup and incubation space at Kerala Startup Mission, after the completion of three more projects, will be the largest in the world. The Mission works at different levels, starting in schools. In colleges, they have set up entrepreneurship development cells,” says Caroline Styr from Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work. She adds that Kochi also has a super fab lab built in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the biggest outside the U.S. “It helps companies that seek an entry into the high-end hardware manufacturing and such,” adds Styr, who was in Kochi exploring the shift manifesting in the state.

Raphi Davis, creative director of Kochi-based Team One Advertising, believes the 3As formula (adopt, adapt, and adept) that is famous among Japanese engineers applies to the successful transformation of cities too. “Kochi has adopted a futuristic growth model that hinges on a green and sustainable way of life. But after ‘adopt’ comes the more challenging tasks of `adapt’ and becoming ‘adept’,” says Davis.

According to him, Kochi has some distance to travel in the area of ‘adapt’. “It has to shed its indolent and militant work culture. It has to undergo a cultural and attitudinal shift and bring in more liberal ethos to its soul. A more active night life and a safer environment for women to work are all part of that. Once Kochi adapts itself, becoming adept will be far easier. And fortunately, there is a generational shift happening in the demographics, which will aid this transformation,” says Davis.

A big issue paralysing the city, according to Styr, is brain drain. “It is true that there aren’t enough job opportunities in the city at present for the number of highly skilled knowledge workers that the state creates. When the city starts offering more jobs, Malayalees are expected to return to the state with an abundant knowledge that they have acquired working abroad or outside the state,” she says.

Many believe that Kochi offers an alternative model for India—one that can accelerate it into a new, more sustainable future place of work. People in Kerala enjoy a quality of life akin to many leading developing countries. The average life expectancy is set to increase to 75-80 years (for male-female) compared to 69 years across the rest of India. Kerala has 96% literacy rate compared to the national average of 74%. Kerala has been catching up fast with the developed world since the Independence, as per the national census.

Ben Pring, vice president, head of thought leadership and managing director, Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, tells Fortune India that they wanted to provide a framework for anyone interested in building the “jobs of the future” where they were, rather than think that those jobs are only in Silicon Valley, or London, or Mumbai. “We think that the `atom of success’ formula we propose in the report can help entrepreneurs, investors, policymakers, and ordinary workers participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution that is unfolding all around us now, and seize the incredible opportunities that technology is creating,” says Pring.

What is the time frame for defining `future’? “The medium term that is, the next three to seven years. Some of our places of the future, such as Tel Aviv and Haidian, are quite advanced already, while some, such as Portland (Maine) and Kochi, still have some way to go,” adds Pring.

Source: Fortune India