Making Smart Cities meaningful and relevant

“The 19th century was a century of empires, the 20th century was a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities.” ~ Wellington E. Webb, Former Mayor of Denver

It is true that rise of the digital megacities in inevitable and many cities have already begun that journey.  Most of these cities are taking the digital route because they are becoming too big to manage. In that sense, smart city initiative can be seen as a massive attempt by the city governments to seize control of their territory. The various avenues of smart cities cover smart governance, smart buildings, smart mobility, smart healthcare, smart infrastructure, smart economy, smart citizens etc. In each of these avenues, the citizens are often seen as passive recipients of technology rather than active participants. Even the word ‘smart citizen’ refers simply to ‘a better informed citizen’ not ‘a better empowered citizen’.  What we forget is that city is not just a random group of people; rather a city is a host to connected communities that share similar culture and lifestyles.

While all of us are talking big on smart cities, have we really understood what would they mean for the people? What city truly needs today is harmony and oneness; harmony in its governance, systems and processes and oneness in its people.  In the shroud of technology, the real essence of the smart city project is often pushed to the backburner – community development, participatory governance and sustainability.

Community Development

“With our days and nights increasingly stretched across the vastness of megacities, we’ve turned to these smart little gadgets to keep it all synchronized. It’s no accident that the most common text message, sent billions of times a year all over the world, is “where r u?”

~ Anthony M. Townsend, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia

The first and foremost goal of a smart city is to listen to its people more effectively and the most important stakeholder in a smart city concept is the communities inhabiting the cities. The core objective of a smart city project must be to ensure a strategic alignment between the governance and the socio-economic needs and aspiration of the inhabitants. Without this alignment, smart city project gets reduced to an IT project for operational efficiency. Isn’t this how most of us perceive smart cities?

The purpose of community collaboration is to engage in a dialogue about the community’s needs and collectively agree upon goals, which can then be used to explore how technology may be applied to achieve those goals. It opens the platform for different communities to represent their needs and collectively shape a common policy aimed at achieving the larger city goals. The result of this exercise is to bring a strong sense of identity and belonging among the city inhabitants and foster stronger bonding, sharing, oneness and harmony.

 Participatory Governance

“Its first postulate is that the contemporary urban environment is so complex and so vexatious in its demands that no group of ordinary, unaided human beings can hope to understand it, let alone manage it wisely.” ~ Adam Greenfield, Against the smart city

Another important pillar of the smart city concept is the participatory governance. A paradigm shift is needed for decentralization of governance enabling higher public participation and higher accountability and responsibility in government divisions. Today’s urban challenges are far more complex to be addressed by one entity centrally. The only way to solve such complex issues is to transform, segregate and map it into multiple layers of simple problems and then develop a multi-tier solution approach.

An example that comes to mind is from the domain of digital signal processing. A complex signal is never addressed in AS-IS form. These signals are subjected to ‘Fourier transform’ that translates it into a series of simple sine waves with different frequencies that can be individually analyzed and easily addressed using linear multitier filters. The smart city systems should play the role of Fourier transform in decomposing complex problems into simple problems and map them to multitier systems and processes. This will allow the citizen committees to handle the simple problems and enable different governments to handle higher level problems. This type of structured collaboration between citizens and governments allow mature processes and systems, faster escalations, defined accountability, faster resolution of problems and greater bonding between stakeholders.

Sustainability

“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”  ~ Noam Chomsky

The rate at which we are consuming resource is alarming and definitely not sustainable. Our present consumption culture is contributing to socio-economic disparity and complicating urban challenges. We have learnt to stock up things that we either do not need or need occasionally. On one hand consumerism is creating an illusion of abundance; on the other hand it is inciting insecurity and fear. Consumerism aggravates resource and infrastructure shortage and leads to wastage. A lot of our unutilized resources can be shared and a lot of what we waste can be redistributed. This way a city can flourish and support its inhabitants with much lesser resources. Unfortunately, today, we lack the necessary systems and infrastructure to share assets and redistribute wastage to the needy.

“We buy our chains from our jailers and only when we put need before desire will we escape the prison of neo-liberalism” ~ Dean Cavanagh

Our concept of smart city must recognize these wastage and provide solutions to utilize these underutilized resources. As citizens, we need to understand the consequences of this voracious hunger and need to consume. A city needs to preserve its resources and smart city technology is our great opportunity to mend our lifestyles and our relationship with each other, our society, humanity and Mother Earth.

“When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.” ~ Native American Saying

To summarize, smart city needs to connect us all at the human level and address real challenges that the people are facing. The challenges of community development, participatory governance and sustainability are some of the great urban challenges of our time and smart city technology has the answers for most of them provided we work on it together. Without this intent, the smart cities project loses its meaning and relevance and becomes just another IT project.

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