Cities with the smarts

Photo By: Bill Damon (CC)
Communities and the Urban Imperative

There is an emerging trend the world over of building “smart cities” representing “hardwiring” and infusion of technology to meet the key needs in urban areas such as fighting crime, and increasing adequate and need based service delivery and an overall focus on fostering growth.

As a policy level commitment by governments this trend has put data scientists, technology personnel, corporate bodies working at hyper speed. For the less developed countries like India, it remains an evolving and challenging concept given that rising number of urban residents – women and men - live in inadequate and underserved areas. With a Gender Inequality Index at 130 (U.S. stands at eight),  India presents an ominous picture where women in slums lack decision-making opportunities and experience greater difficulty in accessing resources and services tailored to their needs. Developed countries like the United States has made major strides in making this an urban imperative with a view consolidate the forces to build infrastructure that improves data aggregation to improve lives.

Nearer home

In the United States, the “Smart Cities” initiative is supported by $160 million in federal research and prompting more than 25 new technology collaborations to meet local needs and support community-led solutions. Four crucial elements are laid out namely, creating the grounds for “Internet of Things” and developing new collaborative opportunities; enhancing “civic tech movement” and forging intercity collaborations; leveraging Federal activities and finally, seeking international collaborations. 

One of the “smart cities” in action is Boston. The Boston Department of Innovation and Technology has developed apps for citizens to report neighborhood problems to the government bodies, locate street parking in the Innovation District, use smart parking sensors, collect data from Hubway cycles to check congestion on roads and so on. Placed in the hands of citizens these apps are empowering in that they are able to own and participate in the management of the urban space.

Much of the plan for a “functioning” smart city is also hypothetical and cities like Boston has begun to devoting time and money to lay the foundations for gathering city data. Corporate bodies like IBM and city government officials are considering partnerships with universities that can take this vision forward. What may be troublesome is that can all the apps fix the existing problems? And then again tracking citizens in some way is controlled voyeurism, isn’t it? It somehow impinges on personal and public space with software developed by private bodies following every move such as the mundane task of paying one’s bills.

In a book by Adam Greenfield called “Against the smart city,” he argues that cities are products of social geographies, social milieu and inhabitants. The rigors of data and informatics are not separate from the physicality of cities and “ourselves.”

“Selves” and smart

Inspired by the innnovative smart technologies of the western world developing nations such as India has set aside the $7 billion investment towards developing “smart cities.” And yet conceptually within India “smart city” remains wordy, loud, albeit undefined. The government document reads “what is meant by a smart city …the answer is, there is no universally accepted definition of a smart city.” And then quickly recovers from this fog by presenting some illustrative ways to refurbish cities with smart technology which is, by introducing e-governance, energy and waste management, urban mobility and so on.  With 100 smart cities being planned in a country where one in five urban households lives in a slum, is the focus on “smart cities” justified? Vast majority of urban India faces poverty, gender based violence, scarcity of water supply and sanitation, adequate health care and unemployment.

In addition, Dholera, a city in the western state of Gujarat, India is being developed as an exemplary smart city – “six times the size of Shanghai” – at least on paper and YouTube!. Foreign investment and corporate interests such as IBM, Accenture, CISCO are making forays to make the “hardwiring” possible.

Dholera is also being touted as a special investment region (SIR). And that means by law the state government can take 50% of the farmers’ land ( to build amenities like hospitality, entertainment) without compensation, and return the other half at a different site after “readjustment.” In other words, the locals engaged in growing crops can be dispossessed of their property and deprived of subsistence. Currently they are engaged in a protracted battle with the government to voice their protest against land grabbing.

Beyond smart, include!

The world over, there is lack of clarity in policy documents and details on “inclusiveness” have been left out.  The needs of women (and girls) who comprise 55% of the population do not feature in the blueprint for smart cities. Beyond usually highlighted problem of the gender digital divide, women bring different needs to urban planning, due to different mobility patterns related to work-life needs, care, and time use. Having witnessed first hand through my own field study in the slums in Delhi, there is overcrowding, insecurity, lack of security of tenure, water and sanitation, as well as lack of access to transport, and sexual and reproductive health services. As key decision makers at the family level, women are affected by  substandard or non-existent services - transport, water, toilets, disposal of solid waste and sanitation- and their attendant health and hygiene risks.

If technologies could help with improving existing conditions such as health, mobility, education, safeguard women’s rights, and alleviating conditions of those that are vulnerable socially and economically – and not just develop futuristic cities, it would make the process more inclusive and engaging. And again, we are not just users (of technology) but citizens as well.

This article is an extraction from my ongoing research at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. I thank the Student Scholar Partnership Program that provided Shikha Chandarana (Brandeis’17) with the opportunity to contribute to this effort.