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.

Sumandro on data, people, and smart cities

For the second podcast of our Smart city podcast series, we have Sumandro Chattapadhyay, a Research Director at Center for Internet and Society (http://ajantriks.net/).

You can listen to the entire podcast below. We apologise for a drop in audio quality after 9.47 due to a technical glitch.

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

Some of the highlights of the conversation are in the post below.

Smart cities is the usage of certain sensor-driven methods of measuring various patterns of urban life, analyzing that, and acting upon that analysis through various network actuators,says Sumandro. In the Indian context, smart cities are seen more as an “infrastructural initiative” where the Government is interested in developing more efficient systems for urban management, and attracting private investment for such initiatives. He points out two areas where it is probably still early to say how things will pan out. One is about the kind of responsibilities private investment will have when it comes to public infrastructure and the other is about how different government verticals will talk to each other. In the past too, the Government has attempted to use information as a resource to better manage different verticals such as water management, waste management, etc. The challenge continues to be integration of these verticals.

Given Sumandro’s ongoing work with open data, another area where he thinks more clarity would be welcome is about how the Government would share open data related to smart cities. Though the Government has spoken about initiatives like a data portal for cities, it is still not clear what shape such portals would take, and what potential there is for the different kinds of data to be compared and understood across cities.

There are a lot of concerns raised about people’s participation in smart cities, and according to Sumandro, “participation is not a smart city issue – participation is a city issue.” Drawing a distinction between people’s participation in administration, people’s participation in democratic governance, and people’s participation in technological decisions, he says that while we have a sense of how to involve people in administrative processes, it is still unclear how to do the same when it comes to technological decisions. Overall, he says there is more clarity required when it comes to different aspects of technological policy and urban policy, and the ways in which these two overlap and inform each other.

Citizen Engagement in the Indian Smart Cities Challenge

ISCC

The Government of India has initiated the Smart Cities Challenge, where they let the states nominate cities that meet the necessary criteria. Among the different entries submitted, 98 cities were shortlisted for the challenge.

Between August and October 2015, the selected cities will further develop their proposals for the final round. It is interesting to see the different approaches being adopted by the cities in this round, while one consistent theme being online modes of citizen engagement. The city councils are planning to interact with citizens in various ways to get feedback about the kind of smart cities they desire.

While cities like Trichy and Vishakapatnam have prepared a questionnaire to share with citizens, but I couldn’t find the links, not sure where they are hidden. Nagpur, on the other hand, wants to go door-to-door and interact with citizens for smart city concepts. Rajkot came up with a unique concept of wanting to paint graffiti on city walls with ‘social messages’; which is a lot of work for artists, says our in-house artist Kshiraja. Agra Municipal Corporation invited intellectuals, social workers, doctors, businessmen and other dignitaries of the city to discuss the smart city project; it does seem to leave out large sections of the general population. Hubli-Dharwad distributed 2 lakh leaflets to its citizens, but I do wonder how that would translate to collecting the citizens’ opinions. Indore on the other hand, has its own website. IMC launched a social media campaign to get feedback and suggestions from residents. The Mangaluru City Corporation organised essay writing competitions for students and general public about smart cities. Kakinada City is quite active on Facebook and they opted to use the digital route to collect data and suggestions from citizens.

City Modes of Engagement with Citizens
Trichy www.mygov.in/group-issue/ smart-city-tiruchirappalli
Vishakapatnam www.mygov.in
Nagpur Door to Door Citizen Engagement
Rajkot Wall Painting Competition
Agra Agra Municipal Corporation invited intellectuals, social workers, doctors, businessmen and other dignitaries of the city to discuss the smart city project
Hubli-Dharwad
Indore Social media campaign to invite suggestions from residents on smart city project, www.smartcityindore.org
Mangalore The Mangaluru City Corporation has organised essay writing competitions for students
Udaipur Udaipur sets up 100 booths asking citizens’ priorities for smart city
Kakinada http://facebook.com/smartkakinada
Bubhaneshwar Children Voice Opinions on Smart City

 

It’s really interesting to see how every city has got its own approach in reaching out to public for their opinions and suggestions. Bhubhaneshwar engaged with children and they got some interesting feedback about transportation, waste management and also how elders need to change their behaviour toward children. One step closer to being a child friendly city!

Here is the link of 98 nominated cities, every city page has got its own feedback link where you can share your opinion and suggestions.