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How ‘Smart’ are Smart City Developments

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

Building a Case for more Humanist Approaches to Indian Urbanisation


The world has seen an explosion of urban spaces in recent years. With sustainability trends like green economies, innovations to reduce waste, inculcation of sustainable behaviour, and a growing need to digitize and modernise populated spaces, ‘Smart Cities’ have become a buzzword since 2010. Within this space, India has come up with a diversified and comprehensive plan of action to create 100-smart cities for the urban population in order to facilitate economic, socio-cultural, and technological growth (Adapa). This article aims to understand what is meant by a Smart city. In a technology driven world, what is the role of human agency and capital in the reimagination of a prosperous and diverse society that hopes to be a haven for every single member? Thus, by examining the facets of smart cities, this paper hopes to bridge the gap between technological and humanist approaches to city planning and development, especially keeping in mind the context of Indian cities and impact on Indian citizens.

Aims and Research Methods

Seeking a humanist approach – that is a more people centric approach to city development – to smart city development is the key research theme of the article, explores the definitions of smart cities, their different methods of application, and what it means to have a citizen-centred or humanist approach. While smart cities are employing technological tools and envisioning a sustainable and modernised, higher standards and quality of living for their residents, they also face the dangers of succumbing to stakeholder agendas like profiteering, exclusivity in choice of residents, and an oversight of the day-to-day needs of the people they are being built for (Lee et al.). By using examples from the Indian smart city development projects and a critical analysis of the technological innovations, integration of different members, and the political, economic, and socio-cultural impacts of smart cities, I argue for a more humane and citizen-centric model of designing ‘smart’ cities. The research is based on secondary research materials, namely peer-reviewed articles, reports on smart cities from government websites, and stakeholder reports.

What are Smart Cities?

The single consensus about smart cities is that there is no exclusive definition or interpretation of the term. Generally, the meaning of a smart city is structured around a technological viewpoint where the main focus is on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and various digitally enabled devices and models such as electronic waste disposal systems, elaborate web based information resources for residents (Praharaj and Han). A second interpretation of smart cities is a space of social and technological innovations, and a system of accountable governance. The major aim of any smart city project includes enhancing efficiency in economic, social, and political interactions, ecological sustainability, and the security for citizens. Focus is placed on driving modernization and infrastructural development throughout the region (Bibri and Krogstie). Through a public-private partnership in most countries, governments employ policies and initiatives that are geared towards achieving these goals.

Schools of Thought

Over the years, smart cities have started to evolve from a top-down, urbanist and technology focused model to incorporate a more human narrative, social innovation, and inter-organisational collaborations, along with an engaging knowledge capital production. To this end, there are four major schools of thought or frameworks – Restrictive, Reflective, Rationalistic, and Critical (also known as the 3RC Framework) – that convey the difference in interest in what the smart city projects are trying to achieve (Kummitha and Crutzen).

  • Restrictive Framework: It emphasises the adoption of technology and integration of the Information and Communication Technologies into the city’s infrastructure to advance its effectiveness. This framework does not cover social inclusion or social justice that should also ideally be a part of the benefits achieved from the adoption of smart city models. The benefits of this system are manifold for the government and agencies providing the services. They are adept at showcasing a city fully equipped with technological advancements, but behind billboards and internet links, lies a different reality. The stress on technology often overlooks the needs for the residents and restricts the use of technology by those lesser able to access it either due to educational barriers, or barriers of social exclusion such as inequalities that have not been addressed due to the lack of focus on addressing these issues.

  • Reflexive Framework: This theory proposes that technology develops human capital and leads to the encouragement of innovation, participation in problem solving, and contributing towards the collective good. Although the framework moves away from considering technology as the utopia of human development and potential, the role of technology in advancing human skills is still at the forefront of the theory.

  • Rationalist/Pragmatist Framework: Following from arguments that sought more focus on citizens and their needs rather than a concentration on technological innovation, this community-driven school of thought proposes that enhancement of skills and capabilities of the communities are what lead to the creation and effective usage of the technologies. It is more focused on narrowing the gap between the technologies developed and the way they are put in use. For example, this kind of approach would invite policy makers, technology providers, implementors, and the residents on ground to come together and build the resources required to transform their city into a Smart city. The efforts would then ensure that all residents have access and utility for the resources being dispensed and are able to participate in the development of the city.

  • Critical Framework: This theory encapsulates the critics’ dissatisfaction with the concept of smart cities, considering them to be ‘self-proclaiming,’ and self-congratulatory,’ in nature. The proponents regard smart cities around the world as mere demonstrations of the privatisation of urban spaces and question whether these cities reach out to include marginalised or excluded members of the populace into the mainstream.

The Smart City Vision and India

Aims and Scope

With the increasing urban population in India growing from around 27.8% in 2001, to around 31.2% in 2011, and predicted to grow to 50% by 2050, the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) issued directives for the transformation and creation of ‘smart’ urban spaces throughout the country (Adapa). The MoUD defines the smart cities mission as ‘building and promoting cities that provide core infrastructure and give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clear and sustainable environment, and application of ‘smart’ solutions.’ The mission further describes smartness in terms of both physical and non-physical assets such as water supply management, citizen participation, economic growth, employment, and education (Hoelscher).

India plans on making its smart cities as engines of growth and to act as a template for other cities in the country and abroad to emulate. Thus, the proposed 100 smart cities, invite stakeholders including the federal government, private actors and corporations, and state governments to the task of policymaking, designing, and installing smart and modernised infrastructure, job-opportunities, and educational institutions. There is also an understanding that with these demands being met, cities would be better equipped to deal with environmental and social challenges like water and air pollution, sanitation issues, affordable housing, public transport and healthcare.

In a bid to increase the digital presence of this initiative, the Indian government also launched the MyGov website as a citizen engagement platform. By transcending state boundaries, it hopes to attract participants from across the country to engage and debate on issues related to national and local interest with smart cities being a key topic of discussion (Adapa).

The finances for this project come from various sources. These include the taxes collected by the local government; the funds provided by the federal government to the tune of nearly 100 million USD over a 5-year period towards the development of these smart cities. The other avenue of public sector partnership with private sector institutions such as CISCO also allows for the exchange of ideas, technologies and resources. Other sources of funding for the project include borrowing from bilateral and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (Das).

For the implementation of these reforms, the government has also instituted the appointment of Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs). These have special regulatory powers to monitor, control and implement smart city work for each designated city. The SPV’s act as the guidance tool for overseeing that the city’s transformation is carried out in a smooth and timely manner and that stakeholders and citizen support for the same is sought out as required. They also have appointed nominees from the federal and state governments, and the urban local bodies on their board to oversee the smooth transition and creation of the smart cities. The SPVs are incorporated into the city as a ‘limited company’ under the Company’s Act 2013, with options for the private sector players to take equity in the company, relying on the motive that doing so will eventually lead to self-sustainable SPVs (Das).

Dholera, a vast low-lying ecological region off the Gulf of Khambhat in Gujarat, was the first proposed and executed smart city project in India, envisioned to being the very first prototype of what the government wished to achieve from their smart city vision. Dholera is the hotspot for decision-making, amongst a consortium of the surrounding lands and villages that have been chosen for the transformation. These are farmlands and village lands that have been chosen to become prototypes for future smart cities. Following from the development of futuristic and planned cities like Chandigarh and Jamshedhpur, Dholera highlights a shift towards an ‘entrepreneurial urbanisation,’ that is interested in the scaling up of a development model maximised to the scale of the whole nation. It strives to be a new-age city without the ‘annoyances’ of the everyday urban living (Datta and Odendaal).

Roadblocks and Critique

Smart city initiatives, owing to the myriad perspectives and focus on technology, get lost in trying to answer what they were originally meant to achieve. In a bid to become a means to the end of social change, they fail to critically assess the role of technology and regard it as a panacea to all problems in the city, making technological infrastructure and digitization an end in itself. As a result, smart cities are far from achieving what they had sought to do (Watson).

While the plans prepared for the cities are rife with words like ‘sustainability,’ ‘social progress,’ and ‘development,’ the goals have not yet been achieved on ground. This is because the nature of the smart cities calls for value to be placed on the ability to boost market growth and actual implementation takes secondary and long-lasting improvement is limited in the face of fast urban growth and the quest for immediate results (Kummitha).

Dholera too represents an ‘instant urbanism’ model that relies on technocratic governance and influence from corporations who have vested interests and thrive in the control and monitoring of the population to push their infrastructures and machinery. The role of the SPVs also requires critical analysis because shareholding in this framework would eventually lead to a weakening of existing government structures and goes against the idea of public participation through a democratically elected body (Das). Since SPV’s have the authority to make changes relating to smart city development, they are often at loggerheads with the Municipal Corporations and local bodies that are trying to implement immediate changes for the well-being of the city such as restoring old pipelines or conducting electrical maintenance that might come in the way of the longer-term plans for the smart city development.

Most accounts from the smart city origin stories agree to the fact that it did not originate from urban design and planning circles, but as an initiative from technology firms. The vague and general overview of smart cities and their descriptions are not adequate in discussing how they contribute to the inclusion of the citizenry. Non-IT literate populations for example, are not included in the frameworks (Yadav et al.). Formalisation of markets also leads to a breakdown of the informal market chains and connections that have boosted trade and commerce, and provide a platform for multiple groups to participate in. Critics like David Harvey and Antarin Chakrabarty strongly object to using technological fixes to solve social problems that do not have technological origins or fixes. They create gated and exclusive cities that demand a highly formalised form of public participation and contribute to power structures that promote the interests of the gated elite (Chakrabarty). The IT boom and formalisation of markets poses a threat to the reduction of social and economic inequalities that already permeate the society. By being more accessible to the wealthy and literate sections of the society, they would make it harder for the economically poorer sections of the society to access and avail of the opportunities. It is thus important to make advancements that are inclusive of all sections of the community and provide a platform where informal and formal work, along with and understanding of the Information technology can coexist and be accessible to all.

Anoya (Datta) argues that Dholera has been a site of intense struggles that slowed down the development processes. In the formulation of the smart city, the farmlands have been vastly depleted and has led to protests from local farm-owners. In overlooking trans-local knowledge and geographical diaspora, smart cities build a one-sided narrative of development that fails to encompass the diverse factors and local knowledge that go into the well-being and prosperity of the city and its citizens.

Discussions: Towards a Humanist City

Lying at the crossroads of the reflexive, rationalist, and critical frameworks; humanist considerations of smart cities are people centred and conceived within a model of stewardship and civic participation, designed by ‘experts’ and implemented by, on behalf of, and for the fulfilment of the interests of the citizens. Inclusive smart cities only exist as ideologies and are yet to be materialised. The citizenship engagement is only a policy vision and is limited by the top-down implementation models (Kitchin). Right now, the Indian Smart cities are a long way from embracing this model of function that allows for citizen participation to be integrated into the policy implementation and design process of these newly developing cities. It will take many more discussions, debates, and research in order to reveal the inadequacies of adopting a solely technologically driven approach that leaves aside the consideration of citizen requirements and addressal of social issues that plague the country.

While the trajectories of logics of smart cities encapsulate issues that merit action for effective progress towards sustainability and economic growth, they also require a holistic and structured solution accompanied by creating more equitable, fairer, and ethical societies that are designed to serve the needs of the citizens rather than become laboratories that experiment on various technologies that are developed by private sector firms (Praharaj et al.).

Existing urban inequalities like mobility, uneven housing and living conditions, unequal access to infrastructures and services, and divides based on class, gender, power, ethnicity, race, etc, need to be addressed before a smart city can be declared fully successful. The universal template for smart cities fails to fully understand the region-specific differences and cultural underpinnings that make every community unique (McFarlane and Söderström). While cities do have broad similarities in their infrastructural and legislative needs, they also need to have growth models and technologies that are suited to their cultural and diverse sensitivities in order to make cities that are fully integrated to match the potential of their citizens.



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