What makes ‘Smart Cities’ so smart

Why the mindless waste of crores of taxpayer rupees on the Smart Cities Mission will do nothing much for the chosen few

The phenomenal growth of Delhi is a result of its ability to be historical, contemporary and futuristic at the same time.
The phenomenal growth of Delhi is a result of its ability to be historical, contemporary and futuristic at the same time.

GN Devy

The Smart Cities Mission aims “to drive economic growth and improve the quality of life of people by enabling local area development and harnessing technology, especially technology that leads to smart outcomes”. It aims to make the chosen cities “liveable, inclusive, sustainable, and… offer multiple opportunities to people to pursue their diverse interests”. Sounds good. And why not, given that 35 per cent of our population lives in cities.

The funding outlay for the mission is huge. Given the lofty intention, one should probably overlook the fact that the cities awaiting a smart makeover do not include any that desperately need a makeover. For instance, in Karnataka, cities like Belgaum, Dharwad-Hubli, Davangere, Tumkuru and Bengaluru on the older Pune-Bangalore expressway are included (notable exceptions being the politically important Shivamogga and the coastal business centre of Mangaluru) but nearly 35 other smaller cities have been excluded.

The main issue, though, is not which cities are included and which ones left out, but whether these so-called smart cities can foster an atmosphere conducive to economic growth. Just the other day, the Supreme Court had to throw out a petition asking for a national commission for re-naming places. Does the BJP really think the history of places can be obliterated simply by giving them Hindu-sounding names?

Another matter that you can’t even wipe out all names. Many Persian and English words have entered our languages. Will it ever be possible to purge our languages of those words? For instance, the word ‘Shah’ is of Persian origin. Would these folks want to rename everyone who carries that name?

Roads, parks, towns, cities, rivers, mountains fit into a nation’s vision not merely by their names. Cities the world over become ‘smart’ not because of their names, nor because of their wealth and pomp; they become great cities because they contain layer upon layer of time, because they are hospitable to different historical eras. So varied are the philosophical, ideological, artistic and cultural roots of cities spread over the world that it is impossible to offer a single, all-encompassing definition of a city, except perhaps that it holds within its restricted confines a great multiplicity.

But, again, the hinterlands in many African countries, in Latin America, in Goa or Kerala in India defy that definition. These places have hundreds of miles of unending rows of houses along the highways and yet the local people do their cartography in terms of ‘adjacent villages’, not as a city. Even density of population is not a real measure of a city. The variable density or even the constant density of population of many pilgrimage centres is much higher than that in the heart of the most populated cities like Tokyo, Mumbai or New York. Nor are other quantitative measures, such as per capita consumption of energy, food or consumables, or bank savings and borrowings, or schools and medical facilities, or (un) employment levels, particularly reliable measures of the life of a city.

London…they all seem to belong. Does the real genius of a city, then, lie in its capacity to graft modernity onto tradition? The problem with this definition is that the conflict or collaboration between tradition and modernity can take place with equal intensity in the smallest of human habitations. Anthropologists tell us that even in the most traditional societies and among the smallest indigenous groups, the tension between modernity and tradition plays out in equally numerous ways as in larger places and populations. Maybe the city has a greater capacity to hold the two together? When a city tries to block out one or many layers of time that exist within it, it starts dying. The ones that insist on keeping their traditions unsullied start ossifying. Not all cities in the past fell to ‘barbaric vernaculars’. Most brought on their demise by closing their minds. The two best-known examples of this in literature are theancient city of Troy and the twentieth century Oran, as seen in Albert Camus’ The Plague. Troy tried to close its gates on potential combat; Oran sealed its borders to fight an infection. London, prior to the Great Fire, was heading the same way, but decided to open up after the calamity and laid the foundation of its status as the Perpetual City. Its proximity to Long Island, a place where refugees could find safe haven, is integral to the New York tradition. But these instances still only provide social or spatial perspectives.

It is cities that allow many layers of time to live together within its spaces that sustain. A city, in other words, has to be chronologically eclectic. This eclecticism enables it to provide spiritual succour to a larger sociological, ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity, especially because the city is a non-theological formulation. This should also provide us clues to measuring city-fatigue or city-stress. The stress arising from transportation mismanagement can perhaps be remedied with the right transport technology, but city-stress caused by the elimination of lifestyles, habitation patterns, speech rhythms and visual forms associated with multiple layers of time can hardly be cured with any innovation in technology.

Why hasn’t television succeeded in reducing that stress in a city is a question urban architects must ponder. Or, what was it in the city of Dublin that compelled its outward migrants to maintain links with the city, while a similar behaviour is not seen in, say, Manhattan or Madurai?

A city becomes sustainable only if it learns to simultaneously live in many time periods with equal ease. In India, the phenomenal and completely unpredicted growth of Delhi is a result of its ability to be historical, contemporary and futuristic at the same time. On the other hand, a mighty medieval capital like Champaner went down like ninepins because it remained obsessed with the present. It blocked itself from the past that sat aloof on top of Pavagadh hill and the future that was spreading out in the plains of Ahmedabad. In contrast, when Ahmedabad replaced Champaner, it thrived for four centuries even when dynasties came and went, and different industries and livelihoods flourished or perished.

Put very simply, cities with no sympathy for the past and insensitive to the future have a precarious existence. The crores of taxpayer rupees being poured mindlessly into the Smart Cities Mission will not alter the fates of these chosen cities, only an accommodating outlook can. But does this government even care?

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