Can cities get smarter?

No one in his right mind can object to the concept of smart cities, where infotech and related technologies come to the aid of urban services. Thus, cities which have digitised their land records have certainly made life easier for the urban poor. Now, companies like Cisco, IBM, Tata Consultancy Services, and L&T are getting into the fray on a much bigger scale. However, the introduction of IT in such services presupposes certain factors.

It assumes that all citizens have access to the Internet—or can even hire such services for a nominal fee, as happens with online applications for passports. When six out of 10 Mumbaikars, who are better off than most of their fellow urban residents, live in slums, such assumptions prove untenable.

Imagine, then, the plight of those who will live in the planned smart cities envisaged in the path of the 1,500 km Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor, the brainchild of the UPA government, launched in 2007 but being pushed with a vengeance by the National Democratic Alliance government.

Nearly 80 percent of the urban development that will spring up on either side of the freight corridor is in Rajasthan and Gujarat. In neither state can the rural population be considered ready to join the ranks of the IT-enabled. On the contrary, this huge swathe in the north-west of the country, witnessing one of the biggest urbanisations the world has ever seen in terms of population, might only heighten the disparity between urban and rural if skilled people migrate there from other cities, leaving locals high and dry.

A smart city is not simply a city where people are technologically networked, but one which is livable and inclusive. Otherwise, we will be faced with what architect Charles Correa remarked about his home town: “It is a great city, but a terrible place!”

At the Urban Age meeting in Delhi in November, where global experts debated how urban governance could be improved, the last session was provocatively titled “Can cities get smarter?”Harsh Mander cited how the urban poor often prefer to sleep on traffic intersections, at great danger to their lives, because the traffic fumes ward off the mosquitoes. He made a simple suggestion: all schools, which lie unused for 18 hours a day, could be turned into dormitories at night for street children, of whom he estimated there were 50,000 in the capital.

Another instance of true smartness would be the provision of water and toilets throughout a city, which would make a tremendous difference to people’s health. These services, along with bathing facilities, could bear a nominal charge, and rid our cities of the scourge of open defecation. 

Yet another would be the restrictions on cars and the promotion of public transport. In Mumbai, with the active connivance of UnionEnvironment Minister Prakash Javadekar, the Bharatiya Janata Party is following in the footsteps of the Congress in building a coastal road, the extension of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link northwards. No matter that this link is used by some 30,000 less cars than was envisaged when it was completed six years ago.

A smart city administrator in Mumbai would know that only seven percent of commuters using motorised transport drive a car, but the entire expenditure is on extending facilities for motorists, who are a tiny minority, subsidised by the majority. Cars are parked on the roads haphazardly in a city where real estate values can reach `1 lakh a sq ft (1 feet equals 0.31 m) and they occupy such valuable space. Smartness would mean, as activists in the city advocate, that no major transport project should be contemplated unless at least half the users take buses or trains. Any takers?

Reinforce, not relinquish, society’s embedded energy
Promoting smart cities must be considered in the background of three types of global experiences (especially in the Global South) that time and again have been singularly disastrous.

First, promoting new towns and cities as growth centres to decongest city centres has never worked beyond yielding initial political mileage. Instead, these have resulted in massive economic and social costs. Simply put, this only justifies allocating scarce public funds into creating exclusive, gated economic zones in urban periphery equipped with high-grade infrastructure subsidised by tax breaks.

Secondly, urban renewal of city centres has been elitist and destructive to existing economic and social systems. This dubious idea, pushed by powerful lobbies to increase the floor area ratio (FAR/FSI), promotes high rise high-density buildings through associated instruments such as transfer of development rights. It transfers valuable economic space and public infrastructure, socially created by an economy dominated by small trade and manufacture, to the elite, who are otherwise unable to locate more centrally. 

Urban renewal almost always destroys this economy that provides almost all of employment and economic value addition. Arguments for additional FSI-centred, high-rise high-density areas are erroneous on at least three grounds. One, it assumes a single economic core, when Indian cities and many elsewhere are multinodal.

Two, it is premised on a singular big business-dominated economy as a growth driver, when our cities have a well-diversified economy, adding both jobs and economic value. Three, transfer of development rights is premised on large plot sizes housing large corporate firms, in complete contrast to ground realities. These points, especially the last one, underline the intents of a dangerous social engineering.

The third experience is that despite well-intentioned efforts of activists and academics towards proper rehabilitation and resettlement via housing, displaced groups never regain what earlier worked for them as social, economic and, most important, political space. Emphasising marginality of those displaced only strengthens those who lobby for such displacement. Witness the veritable industry of NGOs built on the agenda of such displacement and urban renewal and increasingly to manage the political backlash.

Several other aspects of the current ways of promoting smart cities make them even more dangerous from the environmental perspective. Take embodied energy related to both the central city areas sought to be destroyed and the new ones proposed to be built using high-tech material in urban periphery. It is not clear if extensive reuse of material and recycling technologies can substantially soften the blow, when currently most waste material ends up as some form of landfill, affecting productive agricultural land.

Disturbing our existing mixed-land-use city centres, which are vital economic nodes of low rise high-density buildings, will disperse populations into a wide area, resulting in massive traffic jams, spikes in fuel costs and pollution, as these people travel to central areas. As influential lobby groups, they will demand expensive expressways, which, in effect, will give rise to even bigger traffic jams. In such a scenario, real economic efficiency plummets, while posing environmental crises.

Smart technology can never be assumed to be socially neutral. It has to be posed in the intensely political questions of: who benefits, who decides, and on whose behalf? It has to relate to an existing economy and conserve what already works. Witness the difficulties in creating new jobs. We see that special economic zones are hardly contributing to employment and employment schemes have serious problems if they already are not a spectacular failure. A socio-economic technology has to be “spatialised”. For instance, there are significant opportunities in the existing low-rise, high-density areas. It is important that the “smart” technology is conceived to be incrementally developed and in pluralistic ways to respond to the people affected by them, and complex city systems.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)
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