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 A Smart City: Utopian or Dystopian?

Facts are clear on the report that cities would be the greatest centre of concern across the world by 2020 as more than 70% of its population would be inhabiting urban areas. This number had already crossed 50% or 3.3 billion by 2008 and is projected to explode to 5 billion by 2030. Since this is happening much faster than the policies which eradicate poverty, hunger and destitution, much of the new urban habitats would be composed of the deprived and city’s unwanted population.The urban population of developing countries of Asia-Africa-Latin America would  constitute more than 81% of the total population of towns and cities across the world. The UN estimates that by 2030 more than 43 mega cities with a population exceeding 10 million would be a reality. The report ‘State of World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth’ warns that this decisive shift from rural to urban growth would change the balance which has lasted for millennia and bring an enormous challenge of service delivery and governance to national governments.Therefore the report alerts that nations should be aware of the fact that ‘this unprecedented wave of urbanization offers potential opportunities or dismal failures’ or a thin choice between a utopia or dystopia.Quoting Prof. Carlos Moreno in his book for Netexplo, the sociologist Bernard Cathelat writes, “If the 19th century was the century of empires and 20th century the century of nations, the 21st  century is without doubt, the century of cities.”

India has to attend to the greatest existentialist challenge as three of its cities would fall in the top eleven most populated cities of the world. Mumbai (2nd with 25.97 population), Delhi (3rd with 25.83 population) and Kolkata (11th with 18.54 population) sharing  a population of 70.34m. out of a total of 254.69m.However, the threat of dystopia comes from the fact that the percentage rate of population growth in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata is threatfully 2.32,3.48 and 1.74 as compared to Tokyo (1st with 37.28 population),Mexico(5th with 21.81 pop.) and USA (9th with 20.43 pop.) where the percentage growth rate is much lower at 0.34, 0.90 and 0.66 only.This suggests that extremely dangerous future scenario exists for the government of India in terms of governance and city management.The government has to prepare itself with planning, funding and appropriate technology to find solutions to a major disaster waiting to happen in cities in the form of traffic jams, urban sprawls, fire, water and food scarcity and toxification, urban health epidemics, electronic waste and CFCs increase due to airconditioning and scraping off the green spaces in cities.

Most governments believe that they have a solution in their smart cities projects.It is simply infatuation of models which the investors are smartly presenting to national  governments and forcing their city administrators to believe in them. The truth is somewhere clouded by business investors. According to the European Commission, smart city mission would generate a market of 1 trillion euros in 2020.The new Netexplo work of Prof. Bernard Cathelat released by UNESCO indicated “For cities this is the key is good for the economy because it attracts companies and creates high value added jobs..” Further information on ‘Smart City, Smart Business’I’UsineDigitale by Nicholas Clinckx (2014) guides further that this market which is currently thought to represent between 6-8 billion dollars could reach to 20 to 40 billion dollars by 2020 and some estimates also mention it to be around 100 billion dollars for the next decade.

Where will this money come from?

Experts at UNESCO suggested PPP as the only way to generate funds for the smart city.World Bank estimates show that the capacity of public sector to fund this form of development is highly limited and may not exceed 20-25% of the required 3.3 trillion dollars for smart cities. This brings it to the private sector which could fund to the extent of 60% and international development finance institutions like the World Bank, European Investment Bank or the Asian Development Bank could possibly fund 20% of the smart city expenditure notwithstanding the 70% financing would be coming through debts.China has already invested 1.3 trillion Yuan in its 3600 smart city projects.

Singapore looks at it as an opportunity for a smart nation as it aims to achieve convenience, enterprise efficacy and new jobs and skills besides enabling a lean, agile and future ready government.Sao Paulo  in Brazil has a different story to share. Marianna Sampaio the deputy secretary of Innovation Technology from this city highlighted the big wedge which exists between the reality and the imaginary smart city concept.The tech parks, start ups and the digitization further increase exclusion beyond the capacity of city governance to handle. Sociologist Bernard Cathelat warning against a trend towards gentrification analyzed that these new smart cities  in contrast to their older counterparts  appear more socially selective and non-inclusive.This is due to an unavoidable fact that globalized economy  being the goal , smart cities are designed to attract new digital technology, Artificial Intelligence solutions, Internet of Things, Big Data Managers, Robotics and Smart Mobility solutions which would bring a convergence of new breed international professionals, executives, business leaders and most qualified cosmopolitan population who would speak and live an entirely new language, jargon and life styles. The historically perceived ‘unsmart, ugly and dirty’ population would be further thrown outside the developmental grid.This would be counterproductive to the objective of community resilience building in disaster management. Ironically, even though all experts indicate solutions to escape disasters in a smart city plan but none has a hold on either the findings of Hyogo Declaration or the Sendai Objectives to be achieved by 2030. Even some of the ground relaities embedded in the Sustainable Development Goals take a backseat in front of passionate technologists promoting their digital innovations craving to be implanted and marketed. This is visible in the fact that Carlo Ratti, an exceptional transport solution researcher from MIT in his presentation said, ‘smart city in India, first and foremost means smart citizens’. So, till citizens are smart, India cannot initiate a smart city. It is also a great disjunct that the countries where smart cities are an indispensable survival requirement are going missing from UNESCO’s concerns on the table. Ironically, China, Africa and Europe dominate this debate.


The Right Answers:

So what is to be set right in a smart city plan for cities in India and in other similar countries like Brazil, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Philippines. A few suggestions to bridge the gap between the reality and imaginary emerge from the debate;


  1. Smart cities are not a hub for digital innovations and technology implantations from multinational digitization business companies. Solutions have to emerge from bottom upwards and knowing the fact that smart technology solutions being unavoidable may be brought gradually in an incremental process.This may first start from the basic human needs such as water, health, electricity, transport and management of basic infrastructure of education, common service centres, Police Stations and telecommunication networks rather than gaming, malls, smart cars, smart medical care for rich hospitals, cyber hubs and solutions which facilitate rich lifestyles in many ways.
  2. As change is disliked by the rich and the poor alike so ‘negotiation’ and ‘doorstep governance’ should be a key strategy to find smart solutions or this would never happen. Smart cities may not be derailed in protests, agitations and negative politics as there is no gestation time to approach and apply smart solutions. Delays may destroy and harm new applications, collaborations and partners. Government should incentivize applications by providing free heathcare, education and jobs prior to smart applications and should never demonstrate obstinacy, infexibility and authoritarianism to demonstrate its determination.The latter is an entirely different breed of strategy in governance and aims at training and skill development schools, improved compulsory education, creche for child care, laptops in government schools and accessible primary health care.
  3. Maintenance of close proximity to nature is a fundamental principle of smart cities. These new cities cannot be a technological mutants but ought to grow as a reflection of reality which is maintenance and preservation of green areas, sacrosanct conservation of city forests and all waterbodies and water channels in the city. This includes the nonhuman creatures who could not join humans in their speed of translocation from rural to urban areas. More shelter homes, policies for animal birth control, a well trained forest department to manage man-animal conflicts and grazing grounds over wastelands may help make a city less turbulent, less barbaric and a reflection of higher human quality of compassion and co-existence.

Summing up:

If smart cities mean digitization then the solution would become more difficult than the problem itself. Considering the fact that satellites would control all smart digitized cities would also mean that a satellite failure through space disaster, war or technological flaw may fail the entire smart city and expose the dependence of so perceived smart professionals on an alien brain system. This is when a

labourer, a street dweller, a fire fighter and a soldier would come forward and guide the way for smart professionals who would then be nothing without a smart technology. Smart cities should aim to coexist with realities of simple original intelligence of human beings rather than humanoids through robotization and digital transformation.






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