[Urbanstudy] The Too Smart City

Vinay Baindur yanivbin at gmail.com
Mon Jun 26 02:15:46 CDT 2017


http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/smart-city-mission-urban-
development-4721785/



The Too Smart CityThe 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.



Written by Shalini Nair
<http://indianexpress.com/profile/author/shalini-nair/> | Updated: June 26,
2017 12:07 am
[image: smart city mission, list of smart cities,]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. (Representational.
Express photo)


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 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.

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
<http://indianexpress.com/about/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.

shalini.nair at expressindia.com
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