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.

Innovation and Consumerism in Cities: Pavan Kumar

For the third podcast of our Smart Cities podcast series, we have Pavan Kumar, founder of Workbench Projects.

 

“What would you really consider a smart city? Technology, people smart about consumerism? It’s a tricky question to answer,” says Pavan. The popular rhetoric around smart cities has come to us from popular media, industries, and the government, who push for these kind of ideas in the name of development. It is imperative for individuals to introspect and figure out for themselves what they want from a city, rather than such ideas being pushed down, according to Pavan.

 

Our discussion with Pavan primarily was around sustainable consumerism, and innovation in cities. He discusses the nature of consumerism in cities, and asks “what are we consuming, where are we consuming from, and is our city smart enough to produce these kind of things in a sustainable way?” Is it the city that is smart, or the city dwellers, he asks, and says we have to “look at it holistically instead of myopically looking at just traffic or connectivity. A city where people start introspecting what a city means to themselves. People are smart then city is smart.”

 

One of the founders of Workbench Projects, a makerspace in Bangalore, Pavan also talks about the importance of such spaces, which enable people to “come, congregate, and explore different things: it could be next best phone using sustainable materials, or a bicycle, skateboard, or terrace gardens.” Cities provide that sort of ecosystem, and these are they sort of innovations that at a high level can change cities, says Pavan.

 

You can listen to the whole podcast here:

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.

Prof Vinod Vyasulu – Governance and Smart Cities

Given our ongoing research on cities, we are keen to explore the emerging discourse on smart cities. As our work involves creating spaces for dialogue, we have planned a series of podcasts, where experts from the government, academia, industry, and civil society reflect on the idea of smart cities, especially the ways that they see this idea being shaped in the Indian context. For our first podcast, we interviewed Prof. Vinod Vyasulu.

Prof Vinod Vyasulu is an Advisor at the Centre for IT and Public Policy in IIIT-B. He was previously an Associate Professor of Economics at IIM Bangalore and then the RBI Chair Professor and Head of the Social Services Management Unit at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. He set up the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, Bangalore in 1998 and was its Director until December 2010. Here are the highlights from our discussion with him.

Prof Vyasulu asks “since when did cities become smart?” “It is citizens, and people who govern cities that make a city smart,” he says, adding that perhaps the awe around information technology makes people believe that such technologies will solve all their problems.

While there is “some truth in the fact that IT will help improve a city,” Prof Vyasulu says it is also how we use IT, how we ask questions, and pose problems that define what ‘smart’ is. Citing examples like Melbourne, often ranking high on lists such as the Economist’s list of smart cities, Prof Vyasulu explains that his conception of a Smart City is one where people can “do their ordinary businesses of life without too much trouble”. For example, Melbourne has retained trams as a means of public transport (while Kolkata has not), and uses numbered bus stops which helps easily identify them. “A Smart City is any city that meets the basic needs of everybody.”

A key issue in talking about the role of IT and the notion of Smart Cities is data. Drawing from one of his works called Essays on Bangalore, which he co-edited in 1985, Prof Vyasulu talks about the problems of different government agencies working on their own and collecting data in non-standard forms such that they are unusable across departments. These problems have not been alleviated to date, and no “city or any government can be considered smart if they collect the same data over and over again!”

Another challenge which he thinks will arise in the current implementation of the 100 Smart Cities Mission is that it was conceptualised and designed in a top-down manner. While the intentions may be good, this has created a “rigidity where it need not have existed.”

Prof Vyasulu then talks about how Bangalore was never governed as a city, but as part of a state. He briefly discusses the history of Bangalore as a city and its governance, the growth and decline of the public sector, followed by the growth of the large private sector. He unravels different threads of history which led to the rapid growth of Bangalore, leading to the creation of Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP, roughly translated as the Greater Bangalore Municipal Corporation) in 2007.

Going forward, citizen engagement is what is pivotal to making cities ‘smart,’ says Prof Vyasulu.

You can listen to the entire podcast here.

In case the embedded media does not play, click here to download the podcast.