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Cities, Urban Design, Urban Planning

Signing up for the smart city

We have been hearing quite a lot about smart cities. The current definition of what a smart city is seems to be as follows: Cities which use technology, primarily data-driven technology, to manage urban infrastructure and improve governance. In this scenario, the citizens of the city will be both consumers and generators of the data that will determine how the city is managed. We hear stories which sound like something straight out of science fiction- wearables will be big, health will be tracked, and if you’re having a heart attack, a drone will bypass all the traffic and reach you with a defibrillator

People either have a utopian or dystopian view of smart cities, but there seems to be very little middle ground and very little debate. The idea seems to have been taken over by enthusiastic people running tech companies. These are people preaching to the already converted about the benefits of technology in giant tech conventions.

The problem with this techno-centric view of the city is that cities are primarily about people, not technology, no matter how sophisticated. The technology can only support or enhance the lives of people and their issues- social, economic, environmental, cultural or political.. Some of the pros are obvious- better and more equitable management of resources and infrastructure is a very welcome and necessary improvement which a smart city can help bring about. But there are also downsides. Cities are complex, and technology needs to be able to address this complexity and the related issues. Perhaps some of them have solutions. Maybe the smart city has already addressed some of these issues, and we just need to hear more on how it has addressed them.

We need more and diverse voices to debate the pros and the cons of the smart city- people from all walks of life and all strata of society. So I thought I would put down some questions I have in the hope of starting a conversation. Many of them are ‘what-ifs’, when things don’t work out as envisioned.

The vision of the city:

While smart cities are about the interaction of cities and technology, the nature of this city will depend on the relationship between the built environment, technology and people. It could be a utopian ideal where technology is used to reduce environmental impact and manage shared resources in an equitable manner. It could equally be dystopian- the SmartCityTM owned by a faceless corporation and harvesting data to control people. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle

What really, is the vision of the smart city? This is a big question for me, as this vision seems to be missing in conversations about the smart city. Cities are about people, and the ideas generated when people come together. How does the smart city in any way enhance or support this notion of a city? Why is no one saying a smart city will be like the classical Athenian city-state, where freedom from having to grow food was seen as an opportunity for freedom and individuality, which in turn gave rise to democracy, art and philosophy? Perhaps, if the idea of the smart city was that technology could free us from mundane tasks and allow us the freedom to either be Plato or a drunken vagabond on the street, I would be more excited.

As I currently understand it, the smart city is a very bland idea rooted in ideas of efficiency and management, with no thought for innovation, art or the soul. It envisions most of us having fairly routine jobs and lives (while the city and its systems do our thinking for us), and helps us become ever-more efficient worker bees. I am underwhelmed by this vision. What are the choices and degree of freedom in the smart city? What can it do for society? How does it help people and relationships? How does it contribute to the thriving, bustling dynamism of successful cities? While nothing might go wrong in the smart city (there are no power cuts, buses run on time), does anything exciting ever happen there?

Social

Cities bring people together, people of different types, as diagrammed by Doxiados. The city has artists, businessmen, visionaries, madmen, poets, rabble-rousers and drunken layabouts. It is this richness that enables the coming together of people and ideas. Ideas require experiments and a willingness to fail, hence the trope of the starving artist in his garret.

Cities degenerate. Sometimes disruption of the city and its systems are necessary for new ideas. The smart city seeks to ‘improve’ all of us, and is probably not very conducive to the idea of disruption or subversion, both of which are necessary for a vibrant and dynamic city. Can I be unemployed or must I remain in the rat race at all times to afford to live in the smart city? Do a group of drug-fuelled musicians have a place in the smart city? What about the Anarchists? Can a Futurist manifesto be written in a smart city? How much protest will be allowed against the institutions of the smart city?

What would a smart city community be like? Most of us already spend too much time staring at our devices rather than communicating with real people. Would the smart city accelerate the breakdown of human relationships?

Much as we would all like to buy into utopian visions, cities are always going to have poor, dispossessed and marginalized people.  This is especially true of the current situation in India, where a hundred smart cities are being planned. Marginalized groups in India exist outside of the formal framework of the city. Access to water or electricity is frequently stolen, something which seems unlikely in a smart city. How does a smart city treat its poorest?  Or will slums proliferate outside the formal boundaries of the smart city? To what extent can poor people access the smart city’s services- services they cannot afford to pay for? Are they cross-subsidized, or do they have access to a limited number of services?

Technology

Now, I like to think I’m not a Luddite. I am very grateful for the technology that allows me to type this blog post, make corrections and share my thoughts with a worldwide audience. But the idea of smart cities, as it is being propagated currently, has given rise to some disturbing questions in my mind. The beneficial role of technology is not being questioned with any rigor, which is more surprising considering the recent revelations by Wiki Leaks, Snowden etc. I have come across very few conversations or debates where the hard questions are being asked. There are exceptions, but too few.

Firstly, to what degree can you opt in to the systems of the smart city? If it is merely a question of smart management of water, power etc, through metering, it seems fairly innocuous. What worries me is the integration of wearables, smart phones etc. We already give up way too much data via our laptops and smart phones, and we have very little idea what is being done with this data. When I think of the amount Google knows about me, it is probably than I know about myself! Can I refuse to sign in to the city? Do I have to have health parameters monitored? Do the CCTV cameras have face-recognition technology? Who collects this data, what are the safeguards on it?

Secondly, we all know how fast technology changes. At a personal level, we all spend quite a bit of money upgrading gadgets every few years, as the rate of obsolescence increases. At an urban scale, the costs of upgradation would be enormous. I am yet to see a neutral cost-benefit analysis i.e. one that has not been prepared by a technology company looking to sell its smart product to a smart city. Yes, some of these systems will definitely save us money, by pinpointing water leakages or faulty wiring. But how does this play out against the cost of setting up, operating, maintaining and upgrading technology?  How much does a smart city cost?

Economic

While we are on about the topic of true costs of a smart city, there are other questions to be asked.

Who pays for the smart cities? And why should they? Is it the taxpayer? Is it private investment? What do they get out of it- an agreement to harvest data? Can insurance companies insist on access to health data of citizens in order to fund healthcare technology? Who pays for the poor to access services? What happens if a city goes bankrupt? Will they be forced (and allowed) to sell data to make ends meet? Will the SmartCityTM be like a shopping mall? Seemingly public, but privately owned?

This line can get very blurry between public good, private profit and individual liberties.

Political

What are the politics of a smart city? Is it really democratic? No one ever asked us if we want to be a smart city, or how smart the city should be. Shouldn’t such a significant move be rooted in consensus?

Who controls the data, controls the city. Can you have democracy when so much is known about you? If someone has access to so much information, am I not relying on their personal integrity to not misuse it? Can the data be used to suppress dissent and protest, necessary for a healthy democracy? For example, the smart city could use GPS to predict crowd movements in events such as Tahrir Square, and have police control it before it scales up in size.

On the other hand, if the city is so smart, can it enhance democracy? Can we imagine ways in which we can become more democratic? Will it allow us to chose where we would like our tax money be deployed? Will it increase citizen’s participation in governance? Do we need an elected government at all? Or can all decisions be democratically voted upon?

Surveillance

‘The prevalent ideas of the smart city remind me of the Panopticon, where the individual is under constant surveillance. The justification for this is seems to be “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide”, which is a flimsy excuse at best. There are many things I do which may not be illegal, but I would like to remain private. If I am constantly signed into the smart city, the people in charge of the data can know where I went, what my heart rate was at that point, how much money I spent, what my facial expressions were (if there is a data link to facial recognition software on CCTV cameras), and can almost know what I was thinking. This is not something I am comfortable with. Of course, the smart city may not link all this data, but from what I understand, it aims to maximize data collection and collation. How do I know what I am signing up for? Is it one of those endless license agreements where no one reads the fine print? Knowledge is power, so there is a problem if I am being asked to hand over information without any controls on who will use it, or any awareness of what I’m allowing it to be used for.

Environmental

One other concern is about the environment and the bio-diversity. What can smart cities do about this? So far no one seems to have addressed this. Will they obliterate more green fields to make room for data centres? Do stray dogs, cows and birds have a place in the smart city? What is the carbon footprint of a smart city?

What are the environmental costs of all the electronic waste generated by the smart city? Do we even know how much electronic waste would be generated?

Change

Cities need to constantly change and grow to remain viable as a social idea. How do the systems of the smart city cope with changes? What is the degree of change they can cope with?

What happens if a smart city becomes an overnight success beyond the wildest dreams of its planners- like Bangalore, Pune, or Hyderabad? The most basic urban infrastructure is unable to keep pace with such growth. How will a smart city, with its complex and interconnected systems, manage? How can it afford to manage?

What happens to the smart city if the technology fails? I am sure there are backups, but what happens in the scale of a large-scale natural disaster like we saw recently in Srinagar? When there are no mobiles and no electricity, if the data centers get flooded?

The need for debate

This is not meant to be a criticism of the smart city. It could be a very positive idea. Systems do need integration and management, and technology can help. I’m also sure the planners of these cities have already thought of answers to many of these questions. The problem is that the idea of the smart city is not being presented in a holistic way, choosing to focus only on technology.

To some extent, the people with dystopian visions of a 1984-esque or Blade Runner-esque world are right. A smart city could also be a very dangerous city. Which is why there is a need is to have a real conversation and a critical debate on it, with a range of stakeholders. Not a conversation at a tech convention where technology is god and accepted as uncritically.

Perhaps what we need is an urban version of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics for the smart city. Constitutional principles to ensure that our rights are not eroded by the smart city.

And I cannot end this post without this extract from the techno-pastoral poem, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace by Richard Brautigan, which for me sums up my ambiguity on the idea of the smart city

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

What is your opinion on the smart city? Do you have any questions? Or answers to the questions listed above? Join the debate below the line.

 

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Discussion

6 thoughts on “Signing up for the smart city

  1. Smart cities – a good idea for future India, certainly yes. Not from a geek’s point of view but from a convenience perspective. But IMHO, India is not yet ready for this. That is the reason all these questions & no answer apart from some superficial acknowledgements. Aren’t these issues supposed to be a given for this kind of proposition! But that’s not the case due to an overall lacking in education which surprisingly not being addressed too.

    Posted by suman paul | January 10, 2015, 3:13 pm
  2. Without a democratic demography, a city has no existence however smart it is. But that very basic criteria is so very compromised that it is going beyond the awareness of a grown up individual to pass on to a growing individual

    Posted by suman paul | January 10, 2015, 3:19 pm
  3. Suman, that is exactly the word to describe the current discussion- superficial. And while, like anything else, a smart city has its advantages and disadvantages, it’s being touted as a panacea for all ills, which it definitely isn’t!

    Posted by ajeetharanganathan | January 10, 2015, 3:29 pm
  4. Koolhaas’s take on smart cities (he seems to agree on their stupidity)
    http://www.metalocus.es/content/en/blog/smart-cities-called-smart-condemned-being-stupid

    Posted by ajeetharanganathan | March 1, 2015, 10:32 am
  5. The mission’s strategies talking about identifying specific areas of the cities for the implementation of these solutions. Given the desire to own land in India, would these changes not have a significant impact on the real estate and other market forces, causing further divide in the cities?
    Thank you for your insightful article!

    Posted by Raksha.Srinivasan | December 13, 2015, 9:48 am

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