A reflection on smart city and urban future

Source: dailymail.ac.uk

Since its inception, the smart city concept has gone through many criticism and transformation to be finally adopted in Indian context. First, the central government was convinced to change their policy from 100 new smart cities to 100 smart cities including upgrading the existing cities infected with urban challenges to be smarter. The logic behind the criticism were: first, a sense of superiority complex: why cannot any city be a smart city? Second, why investing in building new cities instead of resolving existing urban issues? The logic that the existing cities would become unliveable in some years, and hence, these new smart cities would replace them, was challenged. The idea of revitalising old cities and infrastructure was brought in instead (which is complex in terms of implementation and hence challenging). On the other hand, the potential of new smart city models are also not to be undermined, especially in terms of showcasing sustainable urban future, and how complex it is to deliver sustainability and low-carbon environment. In fact, both existing cities and new cities would showcase such properties, whereas private sector developers have argued that it is (undoubtedly) easier to implement in a greenfield development. The main issue with such Greenfield smart city development is that those models are developed at the urban periphery, and through private sector intervention (for example, see here and here). Such models do generate environmental negative externalities, which raises question about sustainability of the wider settlements. Moreover, there has been debate around land acquisition issue, which also encourages (or read enforces) the farmers to shift their sector of economy. Finally, such models do exclusively cater the upper middle class and elite groups, which makes the development model open to criticism in Indian context. Scholars have cautioned us against the social apartheid created by the fancy smart city model (here).

Second, in Indian context, smart city is not ‘just’ about digital development or ‘internet of things’. To contextualise the concept, smart cities in India are those that (ideally) provide/ commit to provide shelter and food to all, which is a contextual urban challenge, and which is an appropriate understanding of ‘smartness’ (smart being defined as adopting to a context)(Urban Future Meeting video). Smart cities in India converge with policies like eco-city and place making. In addition, without doubt, the idea of old cities being upgraded as smart brings in challenges too. For instance, there was a talk about Varanasi’s (the holy city: here) narrow alleys being demolished as an outcome of the city being upgraded to smart city, whereas such narrow alleys are the city’s heritage. Just to add, I have experienced myself how Varanasi has developed an ‘invisible infrastructure’ (digitally) to allot its prime spaces to the foreign tourists (Neoliberalism?) through virtual networking (this was long ago Varanasi was designated to be smart city).

Third, however, smart city initiatives in Indian context mean digital development too. While the phrase ‘start up’ has been formalised from the government, there are plenty of private sector actors involved in the business of service delivery and city making through such forms of ‘start up’. For instance, one of my favourite is water ATMs that puts an end to low-income communities’ daily struggle with the messy pipes of private sector water tanker. Other examples would include city-making initiatives such as taxi services like Uber (that in certain context attempt to replace public transport (here)), shopping app like Grofers (which may make a city liveable for aging population). While these are city-making initiatives to certain extent, the attraction is grabbed by major initiatives like self-driven cars (I have personal interest in self driven bikes, anyhow, policies should be convergent too!!). Personally, I have faith in technology and my proposal for smart Bengaluru would start with more efficient public transport system (installation of ‘state-of-the-art’ bus station to improve citizens’ experience with public transport, considering the city already has improved public transport in place and with the city spreading far, communication between two points is time-consuming) and regulating the ground water table, which is the source of water for private sector water vendors (the city recently is currently facing challenges in terms of sharing its surface water with the neighbour state and in terms of drying up ground water table due to unregulated ground water table exploitation by small scale private sector vendors). Both would use technology and would address most critical urban challenges for the city. The reason behind including the above image is that some of these features are already mentioned in the diagram. However, as of today, I’ve seen or known nil or very little of specifically these features (for instance, in relation to public transport) to be implemented. The known part is that there could be challenges related to digital authentication, specially in the light of contested citizenships.

This section explores smart city in the light of “urban future”. Quoting Davoudi (2016): urban future can be visualised both ways: ‘future of the city’ and ‘cities in future’. Following the logic, one could think of ‘future of the existing (upgraded to smart) cities’ and ‘role model ‘independent’ smart cities in future’ (also exclusive models delivered by private sector). Interestingly, in both the cases, private sector intervention is common. In simplistic term, digital technologies are mainly used in the sense of city-making to deliver ‘future of the existing cities’. The revitalization of existing infrastructure, and specially inter-relation amongst different sectors of infrastructure, are complex to implement. The models of independent smart city as ‘cities in future’ implement such inter-dependency with ease from the scratch. However, there would be high dependency on private sector companies for the finance and specialised skill for sophisticated technical interrelation and interdependency of various sectors of infrastructure. In fact, financing model for the existing ones and the new ones are different. To certain extent, the new smart city models are more or less completely funded by the private sector actors with their own business model (also reflected in spatial planning), while the existing cities are depending upon the central government fund. These complex interrelation between various components of project and financing are yet to be fully explored. I would be in specific interested to explore/see how digital development can inform citizens making better decision to combat climate change.


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