Commentary: Smart cities might not be such a bright idea

Commentary: Smart cities might not be such a bright idea

Instead of championing connectivity and efficiency, urban planners should figure out what people really want out of their neighbourhoods, say a commentator with the Financial Times.

Indian visitors look at a model of a 'smart city' at the Smartcity Expo in New Delhi on May 20, 2015. The expo is showcasing sustainable living and environmental projects. (Photo: AFP/Sajjad Hussain)

LONDON: The future is not just bright but blindingly illuminated, if one buys into the buzz around smart cities.

Bill Gates is rumoured to be building one from the ground up in Arizona, complete with autonomous vehicles. Google is giving urban planning a shot in a Toronto suburb.

Smart cities are being rolled out across the globe, particularly where populations are rising quickly, in countries such as India, China and parts of Africa.

On paper at least, these urban fantasies share the same Fritz Lang aesthetic: metallic skyscrapers, pleasingly empty highways, attractive landscaping, lighting schemes to make eco-warriors weep — and very few people.

WHO ARE SMART CITIES FOR?

The mysterious lack of residents amid the glitzy imagery was noted by a sharp-eyed civil rights group in New Delhi. Earlier this year, the Housing and Land Rights Network published a report assessing how India was faring with its 2015 pledge to build 100 such cities by 2020.

Among its stinging observations are that “none of the images seem to portray mixed-income neighbourhoods, social housing, street vendors, women’s and children’s security…” Not even a stray cow, that most blessed of Indian roadblocks.

If there is no room for the poor, the campaign group notes, then who are smart cities for?

The term refers to a networked city in which technology is ubiquitous and interconnected; real-time data are continuously collected and fed back in order to help authorities run things more smoothly and sustainably.

For example, it might mean highway lanes switching direction to accommodate rush hour. Public lighting schemes could be dimmed when sensors detect empty streets.

Monitoring the demographics of different neighbourhoods could help determine where new schools and surgeries should be built. Smart cities are imagined gems of modernity, where technological prowess meets aspirational living, smoothly spurring economic growth.

DHOLERA, ONE OF INDIA’S SMART CITIES

The nascent city of Dholera, while not technically one of India’s envisaged 100 smart cities, offers a flavour of this future. Dholera, in Gujurat, should theoretically benefit from the country’s vision of an industrial corridor running between the capital and Mumbai.

Unfortunately, the flavour is mostly bitter: Its development threatens to displace around 40,000 residents, many of them farmers and fishermen with low levels of education. It is unclear where or how they would fit into a brand new Dholera.

As a review of these techno-developments in Scientific American concludes, truly smart cities need to “find a satisfactory balance between the present and the future”.

Without factoring civic intangibles as social justice and privacy, smart cities may end up being dumb places to live in. A shiny metropolis that has mastered the art of adaptive traffic flow might, in other ways, be inadvertently wired for unhappiness.

If only data from connected residents are factored into city life, will this magnify the inequality between the digital haves and have-nots? If every lamppost and street sign is laden with sensors, what does this mean for privacy and anonymity?

More data, of itself, cannot automatically make life better. Some urban challenges are social or political in nature, and not necessarily in the gift of technology to solve. Narendra Modi may dream of new economic hubs but an estimated 84 per cent of India’s existing city dwellers do not have access to a toilet.

HOLLOW WITHOUT HUMAN NEED

The idea that communities can be founded on technology alone finds eerie expression in China, where some sparkling new settlements remain virtual ghost towns. The lure of the new does not seem to be pulling people away from the rural areas of old.

The political scientist William Hurst has referred to them as “hollow cities”, designed without reference to genuine human need. Instead of championing connectivity and efficiency, planners may need to research more deeply what people actually desire from their neighbourhood.

Even today, citizens are still drawn magnetically to old communities, or to new civic centres within reach of old ones. Why is it that some of the most desirable places to live are layered with centuries, even millennia, of human history?

Historic cities like London and Delhi have expanded organically, somehow finding space for both grime and glitz, the rich and poor. Outsiders still flock to the cities to make their reputations and fortunes.

It may be overpriced, dirty and occasionally interrupted by stray cows -  but, unlike the high-tech cities springing up today, the metropolis of old also seems to offer a connectivity that people actually want.

© 2017 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Not to be redistributed, copied or modified in any way.

Source: Financial Times/sl

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