Smart Cities Must Serve People, Not Profits

By Sai Madhurika Mamunuru

Last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Smart Cities Mission, wherein the Indian government promises to select, invest in, and build a hundred smart cities across the country over a period of five years. Though various definitions of a “smart city” can be rather nebulous, the concept essentially involves the efficient use of information and communication technology (ICT) and big data to provide improved services to people living in urban areas.

It is important to understand, however, the structure that underlies this initiative. Who pays for the Smart Cities Mission? Who benefits? Are the benefits felt by everyone? Does the plan reduce urban inequality? How does it redefine the urban experience and urbanization?

Illustration: Prathap Ravishankar

Illustration by Prathap Ravishankar for The Hindu

As they have been proposed, these policies of the Smart Cities Mission are meant to attract large private investment and are meant to be conducive for new age businesses. This is evidenced by the fact that some of the largest corporate giants (including IBM and Verizon) are the forerunners in smart city projects. One must then tread this path with utmost care and caution to safeguard the interests of all urban stakeholders.

The enthusiasm for smart cities among policy makers and academics (in India and the world over) comes in the face of increased urbanization of the world’s population. A majority of the world’s population is now urban, adding a lot of strain on the resources and infrastructure of currently existing cities. By promising to make everything from water and waste management to health and transportation “smart” and energy efficient, smart cities might just be the long-awaited solution.

In our fascination for everything “smart”, we must not forget that it isn’t just the quality of material services that define urban experience. For a large number of people, the urban life is ridden with uncertainty, disenfranchisement and acute inequality. New migrants to the city have to deal with employment insecurity, fragmented social networks and lack of adequate information on navigating the urban system. The true test of the smartness of a city would therefore be to make urban spaces more equal and inclusive. Following are three main things that might ensure a more inclusive and equitable city life.

First, the fact that information can be collected does not automatically ensure its accessibility to the general public. Efforts must be made to ensure that information about the economy and governance of the city must flow easily and readily to its residents. This would make people feel less excluded, garner a sense of community and spur bottom-up innovation. The Rio De Jeneiro Datamine, “an open data system on city information” is an example of how this has been successfully attempted.

Second, the governance of the city must be not just transparent but also inclusive and participatory. Access to information and a robust communication system will make democratization of governance that much easier and engender a healthy and fruitful politics. Arlington Way, in Arlington, VA is a case in point.

Finally, the biggest test for the smartness of a city is its ability to arrest the rapidly increasing urban inequality. Smart city technology promises to facilitate small scale, new age businesses, increase employment opportunities and efficiently match employers to employees. Whether this would be sufficient to ensure a more equitable landscape is, however, debatable – it depends not only on our technical know-how, but our political will and motivation.

Smart City technology, therefore offers an opportunity for policy makers, academics and industry experts to come together and create a materially comfortable and economically equitable urban experience. Perhaps only time will tell how this opportunity is exploited and who walks away with a giant share of the pie. Let’s make sure this technology is used to serve the urban citizenry of the world, not to line the pockets of the 1%.

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