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The truth is smart cities mean the death of democracy

The analogy and choice of words such as “concubine” in the party’s newspaper Saamna are condemnable

mumbai Updated: Dec 16, 2015 00:08 IST
The Sena objected to the diminishing power of elected representatives in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, where it has been in power for more than two decades, when the smart cities project is implemented by a specially created organisation without people’s representation.
The Sena objected to the diminishing power of elected representatives in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, where it has been in power for more than two decades, when the smart cities project is implemented by a specially created organisation without people’s representation.(File photo)

If one half of the Maharashtra government, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has its way, then a few strategically placed and corporate-friendly areas such as Lower Parel and Bandra Kurla Complex will become “smart cities” within Mumbai. The other half of the government, the Shiv Sena, has turned against its own government because this will transfer “Mumbai’s administration from the civic corporation to a private gang of corporate honchos, builders and the mercantile class who have always treated Mumbai as their concubine”.

The analogy and choice of words such as “concubine” in the party’s newspaper Saamna are condemnable. But this is the least of the problems in the smart cities context. The Sena objected to the diminishing power of elected representatives in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, where it has been in power for more than two decades, when the smart cities project is implemented by a specially created organisation without people’s representation. Mindfully or otherwise, the Sena zoomed in on the aspect of smart cities that urban thinkers across the world fret about: The gradual decimation of democratic rights and powers of citizens.

The truth is that smart cities, in the end, will destroy democracy or fundamentally change it to the needs of big business. The vision of a technologically-fitted and data-driven city imagines a citizen as an end-user, whose movements and decisions are collected and stored in vast data bases, and the city’s movements tracked on large multi-screen control panels such as the one in Rio de Janeiro, bringing alive the concept of Big Brother.

In the last decade, smart cities across the world have had two issues related to democratic liberties and rights. The first is the unnecessary surveillance of citizens leading to “predictive policing” and evoking the idea of Panopticism (based on the circular prison design called the Panopticon) which allows a central authority to see/monitor citizens at all times. The second is the overwhelming dominance of technology conglomerates, specifically multinational IT companies, in shaping and governing the smart cities.

As Adam Greenfield at LSE Cities in London School of Economics points out in his 2013 book, Against the Smart City, “The notion of the smart city appears to have originated within these businesses (giant technology companies such as IBM, Cisco and Software AG) rather than with any party, group or individual recognised for their contributions to the theory or practice of urban planning”. Indeed, tech companies, technologists and a few politicians have been enthusiastic about smart cities; urban thinkers, planners, civic activists, citizens themselves less so.

In a city dense with cameras, sensors and drones tracking their every movement, what role would citizens have in determining their urban space, its uses and its future? Even smart city evangelists have no clear answers except to suggest that such a city can have open data. But can data collected for profit be truly open? A city is nothing without its people, without the complex ways of human interactions and emerging possibilities. Democracy allows these to reflect in urban governance. A top-down tech-driven city threatens to rupture these and make it undemocratic.

The apprehensions expressed in the Sena’s newspaper are, therefore, not totally unfounded. But coming from the Sena, which mocked democracy many times in the past, it is hard to believe. Clearly, the Sena is shadow-boxing with the BJP using the smart cities issue. Here lies the danger. When the critique of smart cities is hijacked – in a narrow self-serving way – by the Sena and its politics, it is not complete or honest.

Of course, technology that enables people to lead improved lives in better cities is welcome, as happened in Medellin in Colombia recently. The city of notorious gang wars and problem favelas (shanties) was transformed not merely by technology but by reintegrating the favelas into the city with publicly funded facilities for transit, sports and recreation. Now, that’s a smart city model Mumbai can have instead of the one where technology – and its controllers – rule over citizens.