Prof. Solly Benjamin – Cities or Smart Cities?

For the fourth podcast of our Smart Cities podcast series, we have Prof. Benjamin Solly, associate professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology – Madras (IIT-M).

Prof. Solly begins by talking about the notions of a city, before delving into “smart cities”. He says that in its most essential core, “a city is a lifeform, built around multitudes of people, and has density as one of its characteristics. But the density also means that the people who constitute this ‘coming together’ can do so in very different logics of economics, the way they get access to land, transport, and shelter. The city is also a social and a cultural space where identities themselves get reformed.”

In such a context, Prof Solly adds, the notion of a smart city gets contested. What we instead need to ask, is what cities are and how do we understand them. Giving the example of Chandigarh, and the notions of top-down planning of Corbusier and even Nehru, Prof Solly talks about how historically cities have been threatening to top down planning methods. In this context, the concept of “smart cities” comes out “of fear – a fear of urbanisation, a crisis of planning, and a lack of control”. The assumption that planners and policy makers have is that cities are uncontrollable processes, which have to be disciplined – and the visionary alternate for them thus, is the smart city.

Speaking of citizen participation and the data collection, Prof Solly asks whether the assumption that there is no participation now is accurate, or it is just that the State is of the opinion that people participate but do so in unruly ways to shape governance on their terms. He gives the example citizen participation around the regularisation of revenue layout in Bangalore, and the complex negotiations around these. The crisis of participation, he adds, is the “expert rule” of “progressive academics such as myself”, or the “consultant researchers”, both of who are still disconnected “conceptually and materially” from how people are actually engaging with the city and its administration using politics to create these spaces. Thus, he offers a critique of both the rhetoric around smart cities, and of people criticising it: “The critique of smart cities, in its core logic, does not look very different from those people who are promoting it!”

You can listen to entire podcast below:

In case the embedded audio doesn’t work, you can download the entire podcast here.

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