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:

 

Fields of View turns 4!

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The door is ajar, slightly. It is a moment of anticipation, that tiny space of time before something happens. In between lists, trips, emails, and meetings, something stills. Pauses. The possibility of someone to come. The promise of conversations.

We turned four-years-old last week.

Over the past four years, we have built a foundation, a foundation based on a culture of curiosity and camaraderie. We hope to build on this foundation and there’s a strong undercurrent of excitement underlining this moment of anticipation – of ideas becoming real and conversations turning into collaborations.

For the third consecutive year, we have been featured in the Global Go To Think Tank Index Report by the University of Pennsylvania that ranks public policy research organisations worldwide in the ‘Best New Idea or Paradigm developed by a Think Tank’ category. (http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=think_tanks)

We wish to thank all of you, without whom the journey so far would not have been possible.

Warm regards,
The FoV team.

P.S. We have a new website : http://www.fieldsofview.in/

Field visit of Bellandur lake – ‘Why are Bangalore’s lakes foaming?’

Bellandur Lake – Field Visit

Our visit to the lake was spread over two days, Oct 21st and Oct 22nd, 2015, to understand what the people who live near the lake understand about the frothing issue. The first day, we walked from the Bellandur bus stop through the busy (with motor vehicles) Outer Ring Road and equally busy (with a mix people and vehicles) Lake Road.

Location 1: Our first encounter of the lake was an outlet canal running southwards towards Varthur Lake. As we walked past the bridge above this outlet canal we came face to face with the white water due to foaming. This foam however looked milky white from far away and hence was romantic with its snowy look. But once we moved close to it, we were repelled by the smell and the need to protect ourselves from the flying foam. This moment reminded us of the warning issued in various newspapers that the water and the foam were extremely hazardous. Another strange sight was that the canal bank and the bridge that had turned black. This could be due to the burning of the foam and their continuous exposure to the foam.

Image 3: View of the Outlet from the bridge with foaming water (On the right: Blackened bund wall)

Location 2: There is a traditional worship area on the bund below two large trees, which we encountered after crossing the road. The road that connects Outer Ring Road and HAL road is exactly on the bund of the Bellandur Lake. On the other side of the road (opposite to the bridge and even the worship spot), you can spot a huge residential development (named Lake View). We are unsure if the foaming issue has had any impact on the real estate market.

           

Images 4 and 5: The Worship area and the residential development (On the right: the canal)

Further, we noticed that the foam formed after the slope and had not formed where the water was still in the lake. The water in the lake was not foaming, however the water was turbid and black. Hence we felt that the foaming of the lake was not an accurate statement; the issue is better described as foaming in the outlets of the lake.

Location 3: On walking further on the road, we came across a temporary settlement of migrant labourers, mostly from Bihar. They were working in a new development coming up, and we saw that the settlement was made by filling a trench. Further filling was happening on the other side of the road. The labourers had said that the lake had ‘ganda pani’ (dirty water) and could not be used for any domestic purposes. They got water from tankers and were satisfied with that supply. This was the end of the first day trip, as it had already become dark. The next day we started from the settlement and found some residents from the settlement who informed us that this was a serene view of the lake and they had seen two girls taking pictures of the lake. However they were not much worried about the lake since they were new to the place and thought that the sewage from all over city came and fell into the lake.

Location 4: On walking further we came across a teenage boy (Ravi) from Yamlur who was collecting vegetation from the fringes of the lake using a small boat. When asked about the lake, he insisted that the lake is not too hazardous since he had been collecting vegetation daily and it had not harmed him. He stated that the vegatation was used as feed for his cows and the cows had no strange reactions after  eating the vegetation. The boy insisted that he could not stop the collection since it was his livelihood. He further stated that the newspaper reports were hyped. Meanwhile his father also joined him and asked him to speed up since it was getting late. The boy’s father was also sceptical about the reports in the newspapers and not concerned about using vegetation from the lake while the water was foaming in the outlets of the lake. Meanwhile, an old man also came to speak with us on his own accord, claiming to live just across the river. He said he owned some goat, chicken, etc. He said that his uncle had moved to Yamlur from Chennai (then Madras) in the 1950s to benefit from the prosperous Bellandur lake. He felt that the lake was the source of livelihood for many not only in the past but continued to be so. All these local residents and dependants of the lake along with a passerby confirmed that the lake continued to have a thriving aquatic life, particularly fishes which were captured fortnightly. 

 

Image 7: Vegetation extraction

Image 8: A boy with the vegetation produce       

This reminded us of a news article that the locals were now hesitant to consume the fish; rating the fishes from the lake as poisonous.

Location 5: On walking further we found a tender coconut vendor in an isolated locality. He had moved recently from Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu and owned an oldpaper business just behind his vending spot while carrying on coconut vending as an additional business. In the same premises where he runs his business, there was a new construction for a bar which would be owned by another owner from the locality. The tender coconut vendor also owns a water tanker which depended upon the water extracted from a tube well. The vendor was also dependent on this water supply for his domestic uses (except for drinking). He claimed that he didn’t have any problem with the water and found it to be clean (in spite of the tube well being very close to the lake – minimum of just 10 feet). However he was more concerned about the foaming on rainy and windy days since the foam got carried away and though it felt as if it was snowing, it was actually unsafe. He said that the foam was carried from the northward outlet canal which was nearby (beneath the bridge before Yamlur) and spread all over the area affecting the daily routine of the residents and the commuters. The lake road was said to be one of the busiest stretch connecting the HAL road with Outer Ring road in Bellandur. He was also aware that the water went to the Krishnagiri reservoir through outlet canals and said that he had witnessed the water in that reservoir and claimed it looked dirty but not as much as Bellandur’s. He was also satisfied with the fact that his native town would not be affected by this polluted water since they used cauvery water from Hogenekkal and ground water.

   

Image 9 : Outlet (northwards) near Yamlur   Image 10: Foaming after the slope (beneath the bridge)

Location 6: On further moving north of the road, we reached another outlet (northwards) where the water sloped below the bridge and foamed after the fall of the water into the outlet canal (just beneath the bridge). The water was black, turbid and had a foul smell. The foam was thick.

Location 7: But immediately after the slope and flow normalized to a clean flow after around 500 metres where the water flowed smoothly.

     

Image 11: Foaming in the outlet canal       Image 12: Reduced foam since the flow is smooth

Location 8: We then returned back on the same path and observed that even though we could not find any inlet into the lake we could see some inflow into the outlet canals from the localities. We found some solid waste also thrown into canals. Even though this did not affect the lake, it affected the quality of water in the canal and hence the downstream.

Image 13: Suspected outlet pipe from the new development 

  

Image 14: Sewage flow into the south outlet canal and solid waste thrown near the bridge

 

Image 15: Domestic Sewage flowing directly into the south outlet canal

Everyone we met blamed the sewage water which is pumped into the lake from the growing city. Since the inlets were not visible from the road, we were not able to get an idea of the condition of the water coming into the lake.

What articles did people read on Bangalore’s lakes foaming?

As part of Fields of View’s Research in Play series, we had invited citizens to become researchers for a week and pursue the question – ‘why are Bengaluru’s lakes foaming?’

We had three researchers — Angshuman Das from IIIT-B, Soundarajan R from APU, and Karthik Natarajan, an independent designer and architect join us.

First, the team undertook desk research and went through different news and journal articles on Bangalore’s lakes. Following is a guest post analysing how many people read what articles based on Facebook and Twitter data.

Authors of the post below: Angshuman Das, IIIT-B, Soundarajan, APU

Graph 1: Including the citylabs article.

Graph 2: Excluding the Citylabs article.

Top 3 articles read as per above data:

*http://www.citylab.com/weather/2015/10/an-indian-city-is-getting-inundated-by-creeping-toxic-foam/409468/

In this article, problems faced by the pedestrians and cars due to heavy foaming like traffic jams, foul smell, skin problems were presented. It mentioned that cleaning of the lakes would be a very difficult task as there was a lot of pollution in that area. The article also blamed the corrupted Government officials for not taking sufficient measures to prevent frothing. Documentary photographer Mr. Ghosh presented some clear photographs of froth formed in the Bellandur Lake.

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/Dirty-foam-bubbles-out-of-Varthur-Lake/articleshow/47091168.cms

In this article, views of the local residents regarding the frothing of Varthur and Bellandur Lake were present. A member of citizen action group, Whitefield spoke about the unbearable stench in that region due to foaming. Some residents consider encroachments in and around lakes as the main cause for pollution of the Lake. Most of the residents also blamed the BWSSB for releasing untreated sewage in the Lakes .It also briefly mentioned about poor quality of Lake water (presence of high quantity of ammonia and phosphate, low dissolved oxygen).

       3. http://www.ndtv.com/bangalore-news/toxic-foam-overflows-from-bengalurus-varthur-lake-759273

In this article, views of angry local residents living near Varthur Lake were present. Residents spoke about the filthy quality of Lake water, presence of urine and faecal matter ,high levels of toxicity in the Lake water. Professor TV Ramachandra from IISc Bangalore is worried about the increasing pollution in the Lake, presence of untreated sewage, carcinogenic nitrates which are causing the froth. While most of the residents blamed the Govt. officials for being negligent, the state’s Pollution Control chairperson Dr.Acharya replied that more sewage plants would be constructed across the city to prevent disposal of untreated sewage into the Lakes. 

For more information regarding the reasons for frothing of lakes, constituents of Bellandur Lake water and case study of Bellandur Lake over a period of 10 years, you can refer to these research papers:

http://www.ijirset.com/upload/2014/march/67_Assessment.pdf

http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/energy/water/paper/bellandur_wastewater.pdf

http://www.moef.nic.in/sites/default/files/nlcp/P%20-%20World%20Case%20Studies/P-50.pdf

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:

 

Weekly Recap: Short + Sweet

Last week was quiet sort of week at Fields of View: Bharath + Harsha are still in Europe, Sruthi was in Delhi pitching Convers[t]ation and Ankita + Tarun were tied up with exams. On most days there was only four of us in the studio; seriously, you could hear a pin drop (and that’s saying something in India). Oh, and Iain made the decision last week to go back home to the UK. He’ll be working on the project both from the UK and Amsterdam, which means that he’ll be spending lots of time with the Dutch team. In the meantime, Lisanne has been pushing the project forward: she’s been working on the UI + video chatting with Amsterdam in order to sync up our work as much as possible.

For the UI front, you can head on over to our Tumblr to see more.

As for working with Amsterdam, they’ve got meetings this week with different companies (Ekko, Sims Recycling) that they’re hoping to pull in as stakeholders for their project. They’ve told the companies about our work as well (specifically the Smartbin) + they’re definitely interested. So who knows: maybe we’ll have more crossover between our projects than we could have ever imagined. We’ve also been bringing the designs of the two platforms closer together by sharing the typefaces, colours + iconography that we’re using.

Well…. that’s about it. Super short + sweet, but what can you do when everyone is busy pitching and testing and whatever else? We’re gearing up for a busier week with a Cisco meeting on Thursday, so, catch ya later.

Weekly Recap: Prototyping and More

It’s been a pretty great week! We’re getting closer to the end of our project and things are going by pretty fast! This week Tarun and I sort of finalized a prototype description of the bin. It seems doable on paper so time to put our electronics skills to the test. Lisanne and Iain worked on the platform and came up with a beautiful clickable prototype (it looked beautiful to my not so trained eyes) that covers most of the features of the platform.

The two of us IIITians have been time pressed and unable to go the FoV house much (actually at all). Sigh. The bane of course work. Thumbs up for education though! Lisanne and Iain made coming to IIIT part of their schedules to fill us in on everything. Also, IIIT does have the best tea ever. I dare you to try it and not fall in love.

We had our Cisco meeting this week (after a fantastic lunch at their cafeteria). Everyone appreciated our Internet of Bins (I can’t get over how awesome that name is) platform and bin prototype and we got good feedback to think about. Amsterdam has a very similar concept – platform based – to ours. So for the first time in the Design Across Cultures programme we’re having prototype collaboration and sharing backend and frontend elements with different end use. Barcelona is doing some pretty cool research that focuses on smart city trends.

Kickass visual from our presentation by the very talented Lisanne.

We’re also partner hunting. We’re hoping to marry off our Internet of Bins concept to ELCITA, grand Indian style. We should be meeting with them soon! It would be incredible to see everything we’ve been working on actually get implemented in Bangalore – the ultimate satisfaction.

In other news, Tarun and I have a semester end exams the coming week – *says a mental prayer* – and after that we’ll be all set to build our bin and hopefully make it in time for the next presentation.

Double Weekly Recap

We’ve been having a pretty crazy time as we’re getting closer to the final stage our project. The past two weeks have been crazy, it’s been work work work. In the previous sprint, we presented our idea to Cisco and they were pretty appreciative of our concept and with all the progress we made. Just a recap: We presented our idea about the platform and the bin, which would serve as the digital and physical components respectively.
Ankita and I have also been busy with college (we have exams coming up) so we divided work amongst the four of us. Lisanne and Iain are focused on outlining and building the platform, while Ankita and I worked on the physical concept – the smart bins (more on these later!). Our goal for this sprint (which is coming to an end soon) was to create a clickable prototype for the platform and have rough design of functionality and aesthetics of the bin.

Lisanne developed the wireframes for a visual representation of the skeletal framework of the platform, while also working on the general front-end with Iain’s help (who is handling the backend of the platform and is very chilled about that). There was some research done into how we can visualize the informal sector as ‘legitimate’. We weren’t able to go to FoV this week what with classes and quizzes being forced down upon us (We’re freaking out about exams).

We sort of figured out what we would require to build the bin, enabling it to communicate with the platform. The platform aims to bring transparency into the post consumption cycle, so we decided on having a timeline, that would track the e-waste as it goes through the cycle. Also, it would connect citizens the informal sector as the citizens would be able to request pick-ups through the platform.

This week, Lisanne had a meeting with Hasirudala, and gave them a walk-through of the platform and the bin concept. That meeting left us with a lot to think about (and a lot of unanswered questions). We also have a meeting scheduled with ELCITA, who have shown interest in our project. Yay! The Amsterdam team have found a company named Eeko that they are hoping to work with. They’ve created a survey to sort of do some more user research and maybe test some of the features of their concept.

The platform has taken a more solid shape since last week with the further development of the wireframes as well as a more cohesive visual language. The Internet of Bins is taking shape! We used the PSI model (Problem space, Social space, Institutional space) to figure out requirements, purpose, and limitations in creating the prototype and a possible usable model.
We have come up with a design (I am finally putting my electronics skills to use, yes!) to equip the bin with sensors, to detect when the bin is full/when something new has been dropped off and accordingly let the bin communicate with the platform for a pick-up request.

There are still some issues that are hard to handle – like designing the bin to prevent theft of potentially valuable e-waste. Hopefully we’ll be able to get good feedback on what we’ve come up with so far and to see if it makes sense to implement in the Bangalore context and make necessary changes. We should have our bins in prototype action soon!

Tarun

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.