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.

Smart Cities and the Internet of Things

Since 2008 the urban population has been rapidly outgrowing the rural population; huge numbers of people migrate to the cities for a variety of different reasons (economic, environmental and health), even in developing countries the majority of people are expected to be living in cities by 2017.

This means two things – more stress on the environment in already crowded natural resource draining areas and far less individuals living in rural spaces. With more and more agricultural workers moving to the cities, farming areas are quickly being taken over by large companies and mechanized. This has a knock on effect environmentally and also socially as farming on a large scale requires carbon emitting equipment and the corporations leading this do not have the local peoples’ interest in mind – or even the consumer’s. Organic farming is quickly being phased out in favour of mass scale agriculture.

Whilst from a GDP perspective this is seen as beneficial especially for developing economies, this does not represent the full impact on human and natural capital. How can we more intelligently measure this impact on environmental and social sustainability?

With over 30 billion sensor enabled objects being connected to networks by 2020 and a huge amount of sensors already available, the impact of economic disparity and environmental damage can be measured across a number of different metrics. The key factor is being able to turn large amounts of data into something meaningful, take insights from it and find a point to target; collecting and aggregating data is unfruitful unless change is found. Being able to quantify data that was not even possible to collect before allows the bridging of the gap between the physical world and computer based systems – creating the possibility of new initiatives which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible to imagine. The real challenge is finding what data to measure, how to combine it and what insights/meaningful data can be derived from these aggregations.

This is especially important for inorganically growing cities like Bangalore. The definition of a Smart City is ambiguous; whilst it relates to technology the idea of automated traffic lights and timed sprinklers does not make a city ‘Smart’. It more importantly describes how a city can engage its citizens to enhance public resources and maximising its potential in a sustainable fashion.

₹ubbish! goes to Hebbal

So far we have played ₹ubbish! board game with participants from Hasirudala, ELCITA, city planners and researchers. This time we wanted to take this game and play at a ward level, which could give us some valuable feedback.

We chose to play our first game at Hebbal ward, I invited a few students to play this game. Two students from NMIT, two students from M.S.Ramiah, and 1 from Florence High School. The idea was to have a mixed audience from same locality.

As you can see in the picture, the game started with people going after well known wards like Koramangala and Malleshwaram thinking it would generate more waste, but in reality areas like Chikpet, Yeshwanthpur generate more waste. Amount of waste generated is based on real data, which was collected by ₹ubbish! game designers at FoV. The game went on till 14 rounds, the players could only manage to build in 9 out of 18 wards. The game went on for about 40 mins.

RubbishHebbal

Interestingly, the two final semester mechanical students from NMIT, who had opted for solid waste management as their elective were aware of the present situation in Bangalore. In the first 4 rounds they spent most of the money on expensive wards thus making it hard for them to generate money.

At round 8, the landfill started to rise and the game dynamics changed. Players tried their best to adapt to the situation as quickly as possible, but it was too late.

Participants enjoyed the game and it was an exciting end to our first game session at ward level. Some of the participants were not aware about most of the garbage problems and also said it was good to know about landfills and about other garbage related issues.

We look forward to playing the game in more wards, to see what the feedback we get.

A few comments on ‘Our Metropolis’

Traffic woes in Bangalore are now taken to be “a given”. With the urban agglomeration crossing a population of 1 crore, and the vehicular population crossing 50 lakhs, 70% of which are two-wheelers, it has been long argued that what Bangalore needs is a mass-transit solution. The Namma Metro project has thus been heralded as a panacea for the traffic woes of Bangalore.

While the political and popular media rhetoric around the Metro has been that of its delays and/or its usefulness, what has not been as prevalent in the media are perspectives from people who have opposed the project for various reasons, be it the lack of transparency, the effect of political clout, not identifying other possible options, etc.

Gautam Sonti and Usha Rao’s movie Our Metropolis is one such attempt to show the story of the Metro (along with stories of the road widening efforts, and development of flyovers/signal free corridors in Bangalore) from these perspectives. We attended the screening of the movie at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) on 24 August, which was attended by the creators of the movie as well as a few of the people featured in the movie. The movie itself is not from an activist’s perspective. As Gautam and Usha said at the discussion after the screening, they are movie makers and observers, documenting what is close to their hearts – the dramatically changing landscape of Bangalore. And they question whether these changes are always for the better.

The movie follows the story of the Metro from 2008 to 2013, to show the side of things where people lost their homes, a large number of trees were felled, and political and executive clout suppressed voices which spoke against the project. From a transportation policy perspective, the movie documents some of the effects a top-down, non-transparent, ostensibly non-inclusive, and uncoordinated policy making has on people who live in the city, through the lenses of a few exemplars. The discussions following the movie primarily focussed on the shortcomings of the Metro and road widening projects in Bangalore, with two of the people featured in the movie arguing for other mass transit options.

As one of the people featured in the movie says, “Somehow the problem has become that of moving traffic, not people!”. Transportation infrastructure and policies have to reflect a broad-based, long-term goal of moving from a personal transport based travel to transit-based multi-modal ways of mobility. This, however, is easier said than done. To achieve this lofty goal, some of the things required are systemic changes in how policies are made, how contracting is carried out, how the infrastructure is governed, and what role each of the stakeholders at the city and State levels have.

So if one were to ask if long-term mass-transit options, which sometimes require a heavy upfront capital cost, are needed in Bangalore, the answer is probably a yes. The costs and benefits of such projects are always hard to calculate, but what is imperative to see instead is who are bearing these costs and who are reaping the benefits?

Finally, what is also required is a space for dialogue between the conflicting groups of people. With projects such as the Metro, there is inevitably going to be conflicts. But with a lack of dialogue, what results are echo chambers operating in silos, with one voice overpowering the others.

Research in Play 1 – talk by Dr. Soundarya Chidambaram

Be it mohalla sabhas or mygov.in, community participation is in. But the question emerges, who can take part in these conversations, who does not, and what about those who cannot?

The idea of citizen engagement rests on the idea of citizen – someone who enjoys legitimacy, by having certain rights and responsibilities. This legitimacy is linked to legal sanction too – when you go to vote you have an id-card, something that proclaims your right to have your finger inked.

What about those who don’t have ration cards because they do not have a home or they live in spaces that are not valid in the eyes of law? How can they too be citizens, how can they too participate in these discussions of policy and law that affect their lives?

DSC04724Dr. Soundarya Chidambaram’s talk on ‘Community participation: panacea or pipe dream’ spurred the audience to debate these questions. She is a visiting postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University and is currently in India on a senior fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies for her project ‘Can the urban poor speak’. Her fieldwork in four non-notified slums in Delhi and slums in Bangalore focused on how people in the slums fight for certain services such as sanitation, and how community participation is used in different ways to pressure and be heard in order to achieve those services.

DSC04736

Even though for conceptual ease, slums are seen as a monolithic category, if you take into account the specifics related to services such as sanitation and water and land tenure, there are many differences between Delhi and Bangalore.

For instance in one slum researched by Dr. Soundarya, women in the slum faced safety issues caused by young men in their own slum. On the other hand, during conversations we had with women’s activists researching for the Convers(t)ation project, we were told that in slums in Bangalore, there is a sense of protecting ‘our women’. In both the cases, there is a patriarchal culture at play but in different ways. And understanding those differences becomes crucial in understanding the context – something that can eventually help in creating meaningful policy.

Dr. Soundarya Chidambaram’s talk was part of the ‘Research in Play’ series at FoV, where we host talks, discussions, and workshops at the intersection of theory and practice.

Fields of View at Anthill Hacks 2015

Anthill Hacks was one of the first open events I attended where we were free to propose and conduct sessions to a diverse set of audiences, with very few rules. The location of the event was extremely inviting too. We were going to play our games and hack on the picturesque and peaceful hills of Devarayanadurga. (This was also the first time I was going to drive on a highway – the fancy Bangalore – Tumkur connector.)

Kshiraja and I managed to reach the location by 10:30 in the morning while driving through peaceful state forests. It was a sunny but cool morning and the conference hall of the event overlooked the hills.

Anthill Hacks Event Location
Anthill Hacks Event Location
Conference room overlooking the hills
Conference room overlooking the hills

Dinesh (from Servelots) was our host and was there to greet us. He explained the events planned for the day and the overall objectives for the events.

The village we were at, and the surrounding villages are in a fairly remote location with very little digital communication to the outside world except for an occasional signal from a BSNL tower. Dinesh and his team have been studying methods and history of community content generation and dissemination as part of their research, including oral transfer of information, folk art and music, etc. He stated that these art forms and traditions served a similar purpose as the Internet in spreading information and local community and cultural development.

At the event Dinesh explained next to an exhibit of a colourful print from West Bengal, the tradition employed for content delivery in the form of prints and folk songs. He explained that it was common in small communities in West Bengal for local artists and folk singers to be employed to create prints and come up with songs to best convey everyday events, news and information to individual families. These songs would differ depending on information and intended audience and was ideal for the differently literate audience. Not everyone could read and write. We then discussed at what point we arrive at a definition of “literate” in a country where we had traditions for oral transfer of knowledge from one generation to another.

Dinesh’s team is involved in leveraging technology for mass communication and community development while promoting the use of open-source and freely accessible communication. His team is building a mesh network in the location to connect the remote village at the foot of the hill with other villages in the area and to the Internet itself using a gateway. Due to the remoteness of the villages and a small customer base, not all telecom companies provide coverage in the area.  It is interesting that Dinesh and his team are promoting open-source decentralised methods for connecting the last mile when there is a bitter argument going on nationally about Net-Neutrality in India.

Apart from the mesh network, he explained the use of community radio. He said that the challenge for community radio operators was the ability to respond to the overwhelming amount of participation. One of the tasks for the team is to develop possible apps to handle this process and open up community radio at the location.

Community Radio Setup
Dinesh explains the community radio setup

What is further interesting is how he intends to use all of this art and technology to demonstrate community action. He led us to a location where he had laid out various maps of the region on the floor. The current Open Street Map (OSM) of the area shows very little information except for the major roads. He contrasted that with an extremely old map of the area that was prepared to map the sources of tax collection. He now intends to use a group of a hundred school children, scheduled to arrive very soon, to map out the surroundings to make the area visible on an open platform.

Local Maps
Local Maps
Old Tax Map
Old Tax Map

On to our game sessions. Kshiraja and I proceeded to have some locally prepared poha and managed to get an audience to play a session of our “Rubbish! Kaasu Kasa” game based on the garbage situation in Bangalore. The audience included a mix of artists, open technology hackers, engineers, musicians, sculptors and researchers from around India. We had an interesting session of the game where the participants were involved in heated strategic discussions to do something about Bangalore’s garbage problem.

After the game session we were able to spend some time with Renu Mukunda, a veteran researcher in the area of Urban Poverty. We compared notes and discussed at length about each others’ research and notes.  We had a quick, simple and a delicious lunch of palav (not pulav!), before it was time to play again.

Kshiraja and I managed to rally another group of players to play a session of our City Game. This was definitely one of the most interesting sessions we have had. First and foremost we were playing a game session on the face of a gentle slope of a hill, under an open sky, overlooking all the hills and villages in the area. Second, we had an interesting mix of audience from researchers, artists to kids. And finally this was one of the first sessions that I had to do the briefing and de-briefing sessions in three languages, English, Kannada and Hindi. (Although I wish I could speak Bangla and Tamil in order to have communicated better with the audience).

City Game on a hill
City Game on a hill
City Game on a hill 2
City Game on a hill

It was an interesting city with fish markers, art institutes, schools and low income housing. It was agreed that it is somewhat a small city to live in. Dinesh was enthusiastically building garbage dumps, breweries and canteens all over the city.

We managed to complete the game just before the evening showers hit. It was time to get back to my thesis and Monday Morning Meeting in Bangalore. We thanked Dinesh and promised that we would return to the beautiful venue again very soon.

And finally, the frustration of Bangalore traffic hit us as it took more time for us to get home from the border of Bangalore than it took for us to travel to Bangalore from a different city! But at least we got to get away from the city and play at a beautiful session at the event.

What is a Smart City?

The Government of India has recently launched major initiatives for building a large number of smart cities all around the country. Discussions on smart cities in India are generating a lot of debate around what it means to be a smart city.

During such discussions citizens are represented as residents who live in the city, perform various activities and are passive recipients of the city’s services. The interactions between them and the city is often reduced to an economical or a transactional one, without acknowledging the complexity of the relationship. Everyone is assumed to be a homogeneous ‘user’, and thus it becomes easy for us to imagine new cities with infrastructure, autonomous and automatic systems, regional plans, lots of glass and sensors, landscaped gardens, and various portrayals one is familiar through brochures. We are then led to estimate and imagine how existing systems would operate better by reducing the amount of time, costs, size, complexity, etc. In the race to make cities more “efficient”, we have not considered the implications of working towards a narrow definition of “efficiency”.

We fail to take into account the diversity around us, despite the popular cliché quoted about India as a highly diverse country with a diverse set of cultures, languages, and aspirations. We are diverse in terms of scale of urbanisation,  geographic size, economy and population. We also face inequality across the dimensions of economics, social stratification, and gender.

The current rhetoric on smart cities lack discussions on one or more of the above factors. Furthermore, the question of inequality and hence isolation of the poor from the city’s services is one of the problems facing established smart cities.

As we are poised at the cusp of establishing smart cities in India, we are presented with a unique opportunity. We can collectively imagine what it means to be a smart city for the Indian context, and build on that conception to design smart cities for different local Indian contexts.

What we then need is a process to elicit from citizens what their requirements and aspirations are for a smart city, which will then give us the base to design the appropriate city for a given location in the country. We may be able to use this method beyond India to define smart cities in other parts of the world or to evaluate existing ones.

Anthony Townsend in his book, Smart Cities, envisions a smart city where citizens if they wish are able to participate in the defining, design and governing of their city. What we call for are technologies that create processes that enable citizens to participate meaningfully in their city’s future.

The question then is, how do we collectively imagine what it means to be a smart city in the Indian context?

At Fields of View, we are designing initiatives for citizens to participate in defining, designing, and governing their city.

In an effort to understand how the current discourse on smart cities has shaped our understanding on Smart Cities, we have created a quick survey. The aim is to understand how we visualize a smart city and if we have a certain visual definition of the smart cities we would like to live in.

Please consider taking the survey here.

To know more, mail us at info at fieldsofview.in

References:

  1. Townsend, A. M. (2013). Smart cities: big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia. WW Norton & Company.

How we designed waste profiles in ₹ubbish!

In ₹ubbish! each ward in Bangalore has a specific waste profile, which means that each ward generates a different amount of waste every round. What also differs from ward to ward is the amount of waste that actually reaches the DWCC. This is a reality in the city of Bangalore, some wards have a higher population, therefore they generate more waste.

After searching for some data we got our hands on detailed information about the amount of waste a group of DWCCs receives daily. This data was given to us by Hasirudala, and it was extremely helpful since now it was possible to make assumptions that were faithful to reality. Hasirudala manages 33 DWCCs in Bangalore, and they maintain information about the incoming and outgoing of waste daily.

From this data, we noticed that just a few wards actually received high amounts of waste daily. From 33 DWCCs, only 2 receive an average higher than 500 kg/day. And more than 50% receive less the 250 kg/day. The rest stays between 250 kg/day and 500 kg/day.

We used this information to create a simplified version of Bangalore. From 198 wards in the city we narrowed down to 18. Since the goal of the game is to build a DWCC in every ward, if the game had 198 wards each session would last a lifetime. Below you can see the current map of the game.

Rubbish! MapRubbish! Simplified map of Bangalore

This table shows our model of the wards in Bangalore and how much waste each of them generates every round. We also added how much that would cost to the player each round. The proportion between mixed, dry and segregated waste is something we had to speculate, since none of the DWCC we contacted could provide us with such detailed information.

Needless to say, this was a design decision we took to model this extremely complex context. Everything we designed is based in reality, not an exact representation of it.

Below are some of the cards we made to represent the storage in a DWCC, their waste profile and how much it costs per round.

DWCC Storage Cards

DWCC storage cards

What is education?

What does it mean to be “educated”? Does education necessarily mean a more heightened awareness about one’s role in society?

 

These are some questions that I was forced to ask myself after I met with John, the manager of the Dry Waste Collection Center (DWCC) near the Jayadeva Flyover. Let me tell you more about John. John comes from a family of scrap dealers. While thoughts of garbage generally trigger images of filth and refuse for most of us, the same object is a source of income for him. His grandfather forayed into scrap dealing in 1960, when Bangalore was still relatively small. His grandfather used to go around the city on foot and hand pick valuable trash. His father improved on this and bought himself an auto to collect waste. Now, he has enhanced his situation further by becoming the manager of a DWCC. He has a certificate to say that he has been trained to manage a DWCC, and he only recently passed the SSLC 10th standard exam. He calls himself “uneducated”.

 

John doesn’t consider himself a businessman, and isn’t in the scrap business for money. He himself admitted that since the DWCC doesn’t receive enough quantities of high value waste, he doesn’t cover the monthly expenses of running it. Curiously, this doesn’t seem to bother him a lot. Instead, John calls himself a social worker and thinks of his work as a service to society.

 

John was firmly convinced that if every citizen in Bangalore segregated their waste, garbage disposal wouldn’t be the problem that it is. “Today, we send our waste to landfills, dump everything into a hole and cover it up. We don’t deal with it the way we should. Maybe we can continue doing in my lifetime. But what about my children and grandchildren? They won’t have any more places to dump their waste, and they have to bear the brunt of our actions”, he said. A few bulk waste generators give their waste to John, and this waste is not segregated. When he tells them that segregation is very important if waste is to be recycled, they don’t listen to him, because “in their eyes, I’m only just an uneducated waste dealer”.

 

John believes that DWCC are a great way to make citizens more aware of the waste they generate. The landfill is like a black box – unsegregated waste is dumped there, and everyone except the people who live near the landfill are conveniently unaware of the repercussions of this unsustainable practice. Since DWCCs must be present in every ward, the citizens who live in that ward will be forced to come to terms with waste disposal, and the need to take some pro-active action (segregation, perhaps?) to ensure its sustainability.

 

After this discussion with John, we started walking on the footpath to catch an auto back. A man in a business suit nonchalantly chucked his used juice carton onto the footpath.

A Beautiful Encounter

Reading about phenomena often proves to be something fundamentally different than actually seeing something with your own eyes. Therefore, we decided that it was time for some field trips to experience how the new infrastructure provided by this new waste disposal law works in reality. We started at a place where garbage is generated: Madivala Market. Madivala is a traditional market where mostly fruit and vegetables are sold. Garbage is collected by two different trucks; one truck for wet waste, which is transported to the Karnataka Composting Development Corporation(or KCDC) and one for dry waste, which is suppose to be transported to Dry Waste Collection Centers (or DWCCs). We visited both the KCDC and a DWCC and made a short video about our field research, which can be found below.

Waste Wanderers from Fields of View on Vimeo.

The garbage generated in Madivala Market led us to some amazing people. One of the people we met in the DWCC in the Jayanagar Division, was John. John has been dealing with garbage his whole life. John’s father was a informal waste picker and worked for very low wages by doing heavy work in unhealthy environments.  John was most likely to end up working under the same bare circumstances as his dad. However, since the implementation of the new law in 2012, John was able to join a NGO which helps informal workers to formalize. Here, John was educated in recycling techniques as well as in management skills. At the end of the training, he received a certificate and identity card that establishes him as a formal scrap dealer. John now runs a DWCC in the Jayanagar Division in Bangalore, receiving between 400 to 500 kg of garbage a day. John weighs the garbage that comes in, documents it, pays the waste pickers and truck drivers, oversees the segregation of waste and sells the segregated waste to either wholesalers or recycling industries.

John manager of the DWCC in the jayanagar Division

John – manager DWCC Jayanagar Division

Even though John is very happy about his newly gained status and his now healthy working environment, he also pointed out a few problem concerning these DWWCs. First of all, he explained that Bangalore consists of 198 wards and ideally, there should be one DWCC for every ward. Although the BBMP has 204 DWCCs planned, only 147 are constructed and only 70 of these are functional. As a result, John’s DWCC has to cater to 3 wards instead of the proposed one. Although we speak about quantitative numbers here, we should note that these are highly estimated numbers, as there is a big lack of data about DWCCs in Bangalore. For instance, it is very difficult to find out their locations, the number of people working there, the amount of waste that it can process, the price offeredfor waste, where segregated waste is being sold to, etc.

 

A second problem John pointed out to us is the fact that the garbage that comes in to the DWCCs is often not segregated. Although the law now clearly states that every garbage generator has to segregate at source, for some reason this is still not happening. As they receive large quantities of waste, it is difficult for the workers at the DWCC to segregate it themselves. Although there are laws to penalize these bulk waste generators, BBMP doesn’t enforce them as the infrastructure for disposal is not yet in place. So although our initial research showed us that the legal framework for waste disposal is now in place, the reality of the situation is the fact that these laws are not yet fully enforced in society.

 

After meeting John we realized that these DWCCs have the potential to create more formalized informal workers, and thus, more John’s. We sincerely believe that this approach to waste disposal creates new jobs, helps the informal sector and will be responsible for a sustainable waste management in the future. But before this beautiful dream can come true, a lot should happen. Therefore, we formulated a new research question, which is as follows:


How can we aid in strengthening the infrastructure of solid waste management, which deemed a priority of the High Court, by focussing on the DWCCs which embrace a bottom-up approach and see the informal sector as legitimate?