Smart cities are not the solution to a social problem

  • Sanjay Srivastava, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 16, 2015 13:03 IST

Are ‘smart cities’ created through a rapid-fire application of advanced technologies?

Two recent urban dramas tell us that the ruins of urbanism within which we live cannot be simply converted into futuristic monuments through a large-scale injection of technologies that will, automatically, produce harmonious and productive city spaces out of thin air.

Cities are made of the dense air of social lives clamouring for recognition and Indian cities are made even more complex by the massive social and economic churning where — to paraphrase Karl Marx — all that was solid is in the process of melting into air.

Recently a motorcyclist in Delhi who brushed past a car was lynched by the occupants of the car in view of his children as well as bystanders. And, also quite recently, it is reported that the residents of an upscale, Hindu-majority locality in Bhavnagar (Gujarat) had managed — with some help from the RSS and similar outfits — to pressure a Muslim businessman who had bought into the locality to sell the property to a Hindu-owned business group rather than occupying it himself.

These are hardly stray events or examples of aberrant urbanism in India. These are, actually, the widespread ruins of the imagination of city.

But governments — irrespective of its political persuasion — insist on telling us that social problems are, in fact, technological problems.

What makes a city is how we relate to each other in an urban environment — fight, are kind to, behave as VIPs or everyday citizens — and it is a colossal waste of money and policy-intelligence to act on the belief that the solution to key urban problems lie in better technology.

This perspective is attractive for both politicians as well as foreign donors of ‘smart technology’ since it incorporates the promise of a quick-fix. Technophilia is also appealing to a gnawing sense of inferiority regarding ‘advanced’ nations and our own ‘backward’ State.

Technology — as the case of ultrasound machines that detect female foetuses tells us — always exists within social contexts and beliefs. Technology contributes towards social good only if social contexts are addressed at the same time as technological ones.

Smart cities are not those with high-speed Internet and but ones whose residents have the capacity for humane behaviour towards each other and the ability to deal with differences.

Let’s return to the examples above.

A great deal of road rage in Indian cities derives from two distinct but frequently linked factors. The first of these is the compressed process of social and economic mobility that is symbolised by the car.

In a deeply hierarchical society, the car has become the speediest symbol of achievement and status. So, car owners have a competitive relationship with each other and a hostile one with those who ride two-wheelers.

No amount of good public transport — such as the Delhi Metro — will convince large sections of the population to forego the status symbol that is the motor car.

When cars brush each other or motorcycles scrape cars, it is not metal that is damaged; it is the urban ego.

The other aspect has to do with aggressive masculinity. Urban violence of different kinds — road rage to neighbourhood brawls — are linked to perceived offence to ‘manhood’.

We live in cities of feudal mentalities and it is spurious to think that faster Internet connections will change this.

What of the attitude of the good citizens of Bhavnagar expressed through their efforts to dissuade a Muslim property owner from taking up residence in their locality? Is optic-fibre broadband the solution to creating non-discriminatory urban spaces? Can mobile apps rid us of deep-rooted bigotry?

Cities, our politicians refuse to acknowledge, are not mechanical contraptions that run seamlessly once all parts of the machine — an intelligent transport system here, a smart building there — are in place.

Cities are made up of fragile egos, aspirations, historically embedded inequalities and constantly jostling social identities. The best — smartest — cities are those that address these aspects as well as one other crucial aspect of urban life.

The latter has to do with dealing with strangers: A city consists of residents, the vast numbers of whom will never know each other and yet must deal with one another. However, we have no idea regarding how to deal with strangers except with hostility and violence.

The BJP-led NDA government is likely to bring the ‘Smart City’ project for Cabinet approval on April 22. It is entirely disingenuous to think that the problems of urban life in India can be solved through ‘smart parking’ and greater CCTV surveillance.

These may be excellent opportunities for greater profits for companies that make parking and surveillance equipment, but they have little to do with the social good. The latter is only addressed if we take up the messy topic of urban social relations. It is only then that we will resuscitate the urban imagination of genuinely liveable cities.

Sanjay Srivastava is professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University
The views expressed by the author are personal

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