In Pursuit of Equity: Human-Centric Smart Cities

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This article takes a critical view of the smart city concept by asking an important question – are smart cities planned for the people? To highlight on-ground lapses in planning and implementation, evidence from Dholera in Ahmedabad is pointed out. The analysis attempts to show how smart cities are not what they appear to be and could very well be considered a ‘failed remedy’.

PM Narendra Modi, Launch of Smart Cities Mission

According to BSR Researchers (2017) ‘Smart Cities for All: A Vision for an Inclusive, Accessible Urban Future’, cities today accommodate nearly 50 per cent of humanity and generate more than 80 per cent of the global GDP. Amidst such rapid urban expansion, estimates predict population levels to surpass the 10-billion mark by 2050, when about 70 per cent of all human beings would be living in cities. Some of these cities do not exist yet, and those that do, will come under extreme pressure. It is in this predicament that the idea of ‘smart cities’ finds its genesis.

Smart City: An ambiguous concept

Even though a universally agreed definition is yet to be arrived at, a smart city is often defined as a ‘self-monitoring and self-response system’, which uses data and technology to make informed decisions. Referred to as the Technology Driven Method (TDM), this approach promotes the use of private capital in building critical infrastructure to enhance economic efficiency.

“TDM takes a compartmentalised view of urban systems, where top-down planning pushes sector-specific programs, to achieve growth which is expected to eventually ‘trickle-down’. Such a pre-occupation with market-oriented growth points to an enduring feature of neo-liberalism and in this writer’s view, is a strategy incapable of delivering equitable outcomes.”

For these reasons, development scholars argue for a participatory approach to smart city development called the Human Driven Method (HDM). Regrettably though, this approach remains unexplored as multinational companies which are at the helm of smart city operations, invest in models and celebrate academic literature that ‘reifies the vision of the smart city they wish to promote’. This begs the question – what do tech-multinationals stand to gain, or to look at it differently, what can we expect to lose?

Main Criticisms

To begin with, the ambiguity in the smart city concept is exploited by governments to gain political expediency for projects that would otherwise be opposed – under the garb of ‘smart’ development. This has been the case for Dholera, where extensive land-grabbing and forceful eviction of local communities by multinational corporations was challenged in court. To circumvent allegations of human rights violation, the government introduced a ‘Gujarat Special Investment Region’ (SIR) Act, 2009, which accorded a special status to selected regions. The SIR Act superseded the previously enforceable Land Acquisition Act, 1894; thus, enabling hassle-free corporate acquisition of local resources for large-scale industrial projects. In light of such state-sponsored breakdown of the local economy for more powerful interests, Dr Ayona Datta, who researched extensively on Dholera SIR (2015), argues that the smart city is a business model and not a development model; and, she is not wrong.

“Cisco-managed Dholera is being planned like a ‘private city at a gargantuan scale’.”

Considering that Dholera is medium-sized city in Ahmedabad state which has a GDP of $2,337 per capita, tech-powered developments are far from conducive to the region’s socio-economic condition. When compared to a smart city like Singapore, with a GDP of $55,241 per capita, Ahmedabad’s ground reality reveals the stark discrepancy between the local community’s needs and applicability of smart solutions.

“Given the present ease in regulations, it is multinationals at the helm of smart development discourse, for e.g., IBM, Cisco and Siemens, that stand to benefit the most.”

By remodeling how public services are delivered and laying the essential groundwork by building infrastructure compatible with smart solutions — tech-multinationals secure a ‘lock-in’ to state systems which ensures their long-term involvement and grants them substantial negotiating power.

For these corporations, access to civilian data presents enormous commercial opportunities, even as it poses grave risks for the government and citizens alike. Moreover, it raises pertinent questions about the role of citizens in a smart city: are they reduced to mere data points or viewed as consumers of technology. Thus, academic scholarship is quite critical of how smart cities are planned and implemented. Sharing final lessons from Dholera, Datta issues a word of caution that the smart city project is being ‘violently imposed upon landscapes and populations who were presented as lacking in development’, which brings us to the final criticism of smart cities – whose decisions count?

By design, smart cities exclude certain sections through what is known as the ‘digital divide’- the gap between the technology haves and have-nots. For instance, smart solutions like smart meters or internet banking are of no use to communities who lack access to electricity in the first place.

“Smart cities also misrepresent the geography of the city by not registering activities of disconnected sections. Therefore, it is argued that smart solutions are designed for the upper and middle classes, due to data ‘inflected by social privilege’.”

Corrective Measures

The shortcomings of the smart city concept lie in its focus on top-down implementation of tech-powered solutions, which are often conceived without giving due regard to local community needs and executed in contexts not adequately equipped to adapt to change. Since the aim is to address challenges borne off complex human interactions in political, social and economic realms of urban life, solutions proposed must be built on the wealth of their experience and insight.

By equating ‘smart’ with technology, developers are neglecting an invaluable asset which forms the essence of all that is human: experience. A balance between technology and people must be the key to achieving the ‘smart’ tag. Therefore, as a corrective measure, we must move to a Human Driven Method (HDM), where emphasis is on the role of human and social capital in development. According to development scholarship, a holistic approach to smart city development requires a synthesis between infrastructure, institutions, and individuals. In the case of HDM, the city is viewed as a large ecosystem with numerous sub-systems that co-exist and interact to influence mutually-decided outcomes.

“Rather than pursue a contracted definition of development, HDM aims to promote development through a partnership between different stakeholders and the people.”

In the end, no solution can be viewed independently of its context. A smart city project in a developed country might have the potential to address urban challenges efficiently. However, in a developing country like India, where about 40 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, and agriculture is still the largest employer — a bottom-up approach would be more conducive. Smart cities manifest a ‘survival of the fittest’ ideology; whereas, governments must attempt to accommodate everyone and make citizens equal partners in development. After all, the goal of development is not simply to increase the efficiency of an economy, but to enhance the equity within.