Digitalisation cannot be an unqualified “smart” solution to urban issues

As many cities become smarter by harnessing digitalisation and technology, sustainable development and ecology have been pushed behind. Smart Cities Mission, offered as the one-stop solution to many urban problems, has a chequered report card. Studies have shown that “smart city” plans are non-inclusive, have limited benefits, and cities still face traffic congestion, pollution and urban floods. The realisation is dawning that smart cities are less about technology itself and more about people, that it is not enough for governments and businesses to merely digitise the traditional systems or selectively upgrade infrastructure in certain parts of a city.

Digitalisation was supposed to have an answer to every vexing problem in our cities, from transport and water to education and ecology. The “smart city” concept, formally introduced in India in 2015, expanded on the earlier versions of bringing technology to urban life and issues such as e-governance modules. Discussions and debates around the concept are less heard now. Yet, there could not be a better time to take stock of what digitalisation, or the Smart Cities Mission which powered digitalisation in select cities, has managed to achieve and where its drawbacks are. 

The “smart city” concept was conceived with technologies embedded into urban structures of power and governance to make cities more liveable and improve the quality of life for vast millions, but its purpose was also to deliver an urban setting that would accelerate economic growth and expansion of investment in such cities. It might lack a single accepted definition but, as understood in India, it has been the highly advanced level of infrastructure, communications, and markets in which information technology (IT) is the primary driver; some have even termed IT as the primary infrastructure of a “smart city.” Its passionate advocates have evangelised it as the one-stop solution to all urban problems benefiting people, governments, businesses, and natural environment. 

By 2015, the concept of digitalising urban systems and structures had been around for seven years and scores of cities around the world had adapted the core concept to local urban settings. After it was introduced in India, serious evaluation of the concept happened around the world; the realisation was that smart cities are less about technology itself and more about people, that it is not enough for governments and businesses to merely digitise the traditional systems or upgrade infrastructure selectively in certain parts of a city. This sparked off the chatter about smart cities improving the quality of life for people in cities –giving them information to make better decisions about health, mobility, work, and even carbon emissions. Scores of digital applications emerged towards this end, including during the COVID-19 pandemic which forced people – even those without access to technology – to use it for their movement, vaccination, and treatment. 

The “smart city” debate, polemical and political, has focused on the range of projects that are initiated or revived under this tag. The projects, material and tangible, are one aspect seen mostly in area-based development that city governments have taken up; the other aspect of pan-city development is less favoured perhaps because not all areas of a city are equally business-friendly. 

There is a less visible – and more insidious – aspect of digitalisation which goes beyond projects and areas, and has the potential to change society-politics at least at four levels: 

  • Change in the urban governance structures and rewrites processes that make certain interfaces easier for people such as procuring birth certificates but complicates other interfaces 
  • Creation of new interests or stakeholders such as the Special Purpose Vehicles or consultants who are not accountable to citizens unlike the political class elected to govern, subtly changing the democratic structure, and what is the long-term impact of this 
  • Access to the data generated in the process of digitalisation and making cities smarter, by whom, whether it is in the public domain, and how it is used to make critical decisions for the city 
  • City governance is turned into silo-situations (addressing only crime prevention or faster commutes or vacant beds in COVID hospitals) at a time that urban futures heavily depend on our ability to find common ground and interlock seemingly conflicting issues such as economy and ecology

Ecology in a digitised city
The emphasis of digitalisation in Indian cities has been ecologically agnostic – there are references to clean air, carbon emissions, pollution indicators and even water mapping for purposes of distribution and use (Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh) and so on, but there are hardly any connections made with the larger issue of sustainable development itself, or with ecologically sound decision-making, or with the ethical idea that urban planning and expansion should be aligned with nature and urban ecology. 

In fact, the push towards digitalisation does not adequately address ecological concerns such as reduced buffer zones and natural areas as construction and concretisation spread, or shrinking water bodies and wetlands which massively contribute to the crucial issue of urban floods, or transport-education-health options that are ecologically sustainable. 

There has been talk about Sustainable Smart Cities and developing indicators for Environmental Decision Support System for such cities, but little else. The indicators developed by the then Ministry of Urban Development refer to essential services such as solid waste management, water supply management, sewerage and sanitation, storm water drainage, and pollution. 

Digitalisation can and should extend to city governments drawing up a comprehensive ecological map of their cities so that people know what natural area – green cover, rivers, lakes, marshes, and other natural features sustaining the city – is being sacrificed for which project. “Preserving and developing open spaces” was among the eight features first put out for smart cities by the ministry. 

The attempts at drawing up such maps in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad among other cities have mostly been the effort of passionate individuals or dedicated groups pooling in their own resources but limited by their access to technology on a macro-scale needed for such maps. Enthusiasts have shared GIS maps of localised areas but these are not always accepted by authorities or courts. 

The GIS or geographic information system which collects, manages and analyses data about dozens of aspects of urban life is rarely extended to encompass the natural areas and ecology of a city. In local governance, GIS has been used for customer services (think COVID vaccination) or property identification, or as a monitoring tool, but the approach has rarely been to generate and make available detailed maps of natural areas with the purpose of empowering people in a neighbourhood with official information so that they can intervene, if not take decisions, in urban development. 

Digitalisation plans do not adequately address ecological concerns such as reduced buffer zones and natural areas as construction and concretisation spread, or shrinking water bodies and wetlands which massively contribute to the crucial issue of urban floods.
Photo: Dinesh Valke/ Creative Commons

Report card of digitalisation
The evaluation of the Smart Cities Mission and various aspects of digitalisation has happened on an on-going basis. Foremost among the criticisms is that it barely addresses the core problems of cities in India which are congestion, pollution, and poor physical infrastructure; and that in the absence of a strong and functional physical infrastructure, digitalisation remains the loose top soil with limited benefits to the city. 

Among the studies that delved deep into this aspect across seven cities in Maharashtra was the one conducted by Dr Amita Bhide, Professor and Dean of School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, recently which categorically pointed out that “the proponents of ‘smart city’ are information  technology majors such as CISCO, IBM (International Business Machines) and others who take it for  granted that cities aspiring to ‘smartness’ already stand on a bedrock of basic administrative, infrastructural, and informational efficiency in terms of human resource and technical hardware as well as quality of services and built environment…(in) India the base conditions are very different.” 

The study titled ‘Smart Cities Mission in Maharashtra: What is so smart about it?’ points out that among the trends already discernible are that “smart cities are not inclusive and their projects unfairly benefit the elite and higher middle classes” while excluding vulnerable sections, and that “area-based development is a particularly sinful exercise, as it aggravates the already iniquitous spatiality in the cities.” The study calls for a rethink on “these designs for the city to introduce course correction to promote inclusion and citizen-centrism.” 

On area-based development, which other scholars too have pointed out as the bane of the Smart Cities Mission, Dr Bhide’s study shows how the selection of areas and the projects introduced there ran into problems – in Pune, the selection of Aundh-Baner-Balewadi areas was not based on urban needs but these were already well-endowed elite areas with little informal population; in Thane, the selected area represented barely 3.38 per cent of the city and the selection was premised on it being “a dormitory city to Mumbai while neglecting several traditional segments of Thane and its local economy” or in Pimpri-Chinchwad, the selected area represents barely 3.1per cent of the city’s area but has obtained more than 50 per cent of the funds allocated. 

The area-based development “is largely a blueprint of past patterns…in the attempt to make these areas into revenue streams, the assumption is that residents are largely going to be upper middle class, expecting a higher standard of services and who can afford to pay substantive rates. These expectations are driven more by speculation than by data of the cities…The existing users and uses of land are bypassed and the projects offer almost nothing for them. The farmers in Makhmalabad, the villages in Kalyan West, informal settlers and market vendors in Solapur, informal labourers on the periphery of Nagpur have no place in the imagination of the area-based development.” 

Thousands of LED lights were installed in Pune roads under the “smart city” plan.
Photo: Abhijeet Gaikwad/ Unsplash

Beyond area-based development
Another less-discussed aspect of digitalisation in the Smart Cities Mission is that of pan-city projects which are fewer in number. “…Because the area-based development projects have mostly taken up a bulk of funds, pan city interventions have tended to take relatively smaller space and have used convergence with other programmes as a strategy…The implementation of these projects has been more complex, often delayed, and exposed the limitations in the imagination” of how the smartness would unfold, studies show. 

The implementation of projects in Thane, according to a study by researchers Mayuresh Bhadsavale and Smita Waingankar, was so chequered that only about 10 per cent work had been done in nearly 60 per cent of the projects years after it began. In cities across Maharashtra, the implementation involved work like fitting thousands of LED lights (Pune), construction of jogging tracks and gardens (Thane), and switch to minor projects (Solapur) after the major infrastructure drew no bids. The Thane study, in fact, points out that the work carried out so far was not aligned with the needs of the city as expressed by citizens to the researchers. “This Mission is targeted towards smart solutions to city’s issues, it is aimed at changing face of city; but it turned into creating new sets of issues and distorting current face of city,” it observed.

The questions to ask are: Would these projects not have happened in due course without bringing them under the “smart city” tag and, importantly, if the projects undertaken are minor in nature, do they justify the major shift in governance model in which private entities become part of the structure and elected representatives have less say in urban governance? 

Most significantly, the “smart city” plans have been shown to be non-inclusive. They “create islands of exclusion…none of them address core concerns of poverty, liveability, equity, and sustainability,” remarks Dr Bhide and suggests that these cities “are a placebo…for a sinister purpose” which is to establish “command and control centres” with the aim of increasing surveillance of citizens beyond facilitating services and data-based governance. Aurangabad, for example, has the command centre of 700 cameras in the police commissionerate itself while cameras in Thane have been placed in markets to keep an eye on those who roam aimlessly. 

Techno-fix not the only answer
The Smart Cities Mission might gather momentum and bring about the changes in the urban economy and society that it promised to, but the experience, both in India so far and around the world, is that it cannot be the one-stop solution to urban problems that it is made out to be. Indeed, technology can help transform cities, improve planning through use of data and analytical tools, create jobs and foster growth, and provide solutions to some of the challenges in cities. However, the current approach to digitalisation raises questions about its ability to make cities more liveable for all and sustainable in the long term. 

The use of technology to fix long-standing urban issues has its own problems: too many stakeholders with their priorities and interests delay projects, project designers are out of touch with ground realities (as the Thane study pointed out), the silo approach where cities invest in specific area development which often have better infrastructure than the rest of the city, scaling up pilot projects, and so on. 

Going forward, it is clear that cities cannot – or should not – attempt techno-fixes to long-standing urban problems. Cities need to have a vision or a macro plan for sustainable development which considers its unique characteristics and identifies its major challenges, governments must work out a roadmap in which these challenges are addressed (international studies suggest charting out functional clusters such as energy, mobility, civic services, environmental sustainability), and only then turn to digitalisation and technology to enable solutions to some of them making sure that the digital infrastructure promotes inclusion.

If making a city smart does not make it ecologically sustainable and serve the large majority, techno-fixes and digital infrastructure are of little use.

Cover photo: Adam Cohn/ Creative Commons

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