In a phantasmagorical rendering of the future of urban space that’s increasingly being made sentient through information technology, the Architectural League of New York held an exhibition in 2009 on the ‘Too Smart City’. Through “smart” public benches that respond to the issue of homelessness by toppling those resting on them for too long and “smart” bins that can squirt out the wrong kind of trash back at the person, architects and artists showed how the Smart City is just a step away from a dystopian nightmare.
While this might be one of the worst-case scenarios, with the Indian Smart City mission’s tantalising promise to transform 100 cities, perhaps, now is a good time to consider two issues: Whether the path it has chosen to leapfrog to the level of urbanisation in the developed nations entails creation of uneven geographies. And whether Indian cities, lacking in the most basic infrastructure, are ready to be restructured by technology.
In his book ‘Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia’, urbanist Anthony Townsend defines Smart Cities as “places where information technology is combined with infrastructure, architecture, everyday objects, and our own bodies to address social, economic, and environmental problems”. A growing cause of worry among Smart City critics in the West has been how big data is a veritable goldmine for data thieves and a surveillance tool for governments and private firms involved. For urban planners, a greater concern is an urbanisation process that accords primacy to technology — a field where the private sector has unchallenged monopoly — over the basic needs of the city.
The most defining feature of the Smart City mission in India is this: It not only looks at application of technology but also ensures that physical infrastructure of cities, which owing to considerations of social equity, were until now serviced almost entirely by local governments, are redesigned to create space for domestic and international capital. Already the model has thrown up numbers that show that almost 80 per cent of the funds are being channelised to less than three per cent area of the 59 mission cities. These are mostly well-off enclaves that already have decent infrastructure in place and are more likely to yield a dividend for private investors.
Several Smart Cities of the West have been officially conceptualised as “living labs”, that is, incubators for developing patentable and exportable devices for private firms. The UK Trade & Investment pegs the market for Smart City products and services at more than £ 900 billion by 2020. India is, no doubt, poised to be one of the largest market for the products developed by technology vendors in these “living labs”.
The issue is not only the parachuting of consulting firms and vendors for local IT and infrastructure solutions, but that such private partnerships would necessitate a return on investments unconstrained by concerns of social equity or justice. The abolition of octroi, the once largest source of municipal revenue for many cities, has had a debilitating impact on the fiscal sovereignty of urban local bodies. The Smart City mission further bypasses democratic processes by executing projects through Special Purpose Vehicles wherein private corporations can have up to 40 per cent share-holding.
As a corollary, the Union government has made it clear that increased user charges on essential services is the only way forward. Unlike octroi, this hits every citizen irrespective of their income level.
The catchphrase ‘Smart Cities’ latched on to the Indian imaginary when barely a fortnight after assuming office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spelled out his ambitious plan of creating 100 such cities where the focus shifts from “highways to i-ways”. It is alright to overlay the city’s infrastructure with technology but, for starters, adequate infrastructure must be in place at a city-wide level. Smart Cities might be an inexorable, and even necessary, step in the process of urbanisation but gentrification doesn’t have to be the default route.
Official data shows that merely half of the urban households have water connections, a third have no toilets, the national average for sewage network coverage is a low 12 per cent, and on an average only about 10 per cent of the municipal solid waste is segregated. Public transportation and public schools and hospitals are woefully disproportionate to the population densities within cities.
Unless this urban entropy is addressed first, an overbearing emphasis on application of digital technology or developing smaller areas in an attempt at instant urbanism can have disastrous socio-spatial consequences.