Politics of Hope : The Myth Of Smart Cities

With technology in control everything will become ‘smart’, or so we are told. For those who have the responsibility of thinking about complex social problems, this is a very attractive concept. It could both absolve them from the responsibility of solving the problem and also take on the blame if things do not work out according to plan. For a politician this is nirvana… We may even hear of smart politicians soon but whether he will be human is something we cannot be sure of at this point…


the-myth-of-smart-citiesThe mediation of social conflict (invariably connected to distribution of resources, wealth and power) has been a human preoccupation for thousands of years. ‘Big God’ was the first political invention of mankind to mediate social conflict. Thousands of years later it replaced ‘Big God’ with ‘Big Government’ and then quickly replaced ‘Big Government’ with ‘Big Market’. Now it is the turn of ‘Big Technology’ and its twin ‘Big Data’ to mediate social conflicts. Technology, like God or the Market, is seen as smart and powerful as opposed to Man who is ignorant and powerless.
With technology in control everything will become ‘smart’, or so we are told. For those who have the responsibility of thinking about complex social problems, this is a very attractive concept. It could both absolve them from the responsibility of solving the problem and also take on the blame if things do not work out according to plan. For a politician this is nirvana. ‘Smart’ is both vague and positive sounding which make it the most politically desirable adjective. Every politician (and also businessmen and opinion makers who choose to act as weathervanes to political power) can effortlessly convert problems into solutions by attaching the adjective ‘smart’ to the problem. The result is that we have smart growth in place of growth, smart phones instead of phones and smart cities instead of cities. We may even hear of smart politicians soon but whether he will be human is something we cannot be sure of at this point.
As an eager appropriator of the concept, the Government is leading us to believe that we can move out of our stupid old cities that are filthy, unorganised, polluted, chaotic and starved of power & water and go into gleaming smart new cities that would not have any of these problems. Technology will give us smart energy solutions that would be clean, abundant, efficient and cheap. Data will ensure that not a drop of these scare resources is wasted and so on. The politics of hope that underpins this narrative is understandable. However those of us in the business of playing spoilsport must justify our existence by questioning the idea.
First let us ask if ‘smart cities’ is really a new idea? Unfortunately it is not. Engineers, economists and planners have studied the scientific management of cities for over a century. Major wars gave rise to the idea that military planning experience could be incorporated into city planning. Thus a range of data, information and analytical models have been used to rid the city of its stupidity. However, few of these supposedly scientific and smart plans succeeded in creating ‘cities without problems’. When one problem was solved another new one was created. This is a well documented fact. The lesson here is that we cannot plan our way out of urban social problems. Planning attempts to depoliticise what is essentially a political problem: who gets to live where, how and at whose expense?
The second question we may ask is if it is a good idea to create new smart cities? For an answer we may look at some of the smart new cities that have already been created. Once again the answer does not seem to be positive. Green-field smart cities such as Masdar in United Arab Emirates, Songdo in South Korea and the Living PlanIT in Portugal and Lavasa in India are yet to produce social or economic outcomes of any significance. They are either empty or expensive if not both. The ‘build it and they will come’ approach that underpins these smart cities is apparently not the right one, not just in the Indian context but also in the context of affluent countries like UAE and South Korea.
The third question we may ask is for whom and by whom is the smart city created? To answer this we can take a look at the small scale prototypes of supposedly smart cities that already exist within and outside India in the form of gated communities. The logic that underpins gated smart communities is the exclusion of the sources of problem not the solving of the problem. The poor (other than those serving as drivers, cooks and maids of smart people), the chaos and the noise are shut out by high walls, motion sensors, smart cameras with the back-up of armed guards, just in case smart technology fails. The resource problem is solved by privatising resource extraction and production (ground water extraction and captive/back-up power generation). How many such selfish cities can we build? Even if we do whose interests will it serve and at whose expense? What would we do with the rest who do not fit in even as butlers, maids and drivers?
The fourth question is over the desirability and justification of the mass invasion of privacy that most of the smart cities demand. For example at Masdar, a smart city designed by master architect Norman Foster, surveillance systems are designed to monitor user details such as electrical energy consumption, travel patterns, waste disposal habits etc and pass on the data to the a central control. The central control in-turn is expected to prepare a menu of options that are passed on to the smart city dweller through a hand-held device. Even if it is in the name of resource efficiency, how many of us would want our travel plans and garbage disposal habits to be monitored by a machine and passed on to others?
The final question is over corporate interests that often create problems to suit solutions that they have created. When corporate interests create anti-aging solutions, they tell us that aging is a major problem and not a human condition. So it is in the case of smart cities. Many of the devices that infiltrate smart cities are said to be products and services of technology companies that probably draw their motivation from their earlier role as defence sector suppliers. These are essentially products and services that are data driven surveillance and control solutions looking for opportunities of their application in the civil world. For the companies that make these products, the smart city is an ideal prop for their marketing campaign.
The thoughtless embrace of smartness is probably the product of what Evgeny Morosov has labelled ‘solutionism’ in his excellent book on the same topic. Under ‘solutionalism’ every human inadequacy (inefficiency and stupidity) can and must be corrected by the careful application of data driven technology. Since solutions are the product of smart data driven technologies, no solution can be left behind. Each solution must find a problem. But cities were once the solution to the problem of prosperity for many. By diminishing distance and increasing density it created the perfect environment for prosperity through specialisation, exchange and trade. We may not achieve much by making it the problem.
(The views are those of the author, who can be contacted at lydia@orfonline.org)
– Observer Research Foundation

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