Curry Chandler

Curry Chandler is a writer, researcher, and independent scholar working in the field of communication and media studies. His writing on media theory and policy has been published in the popular press as well as academic journals. Curry approaches the study of communication from a distinctly critical perspective, and with a commitment to addressing inequality in power relations. The scope of his research activity includes media ecology, political economy, and the critique of ideology.

Curry is a graduate student in the Communication Department at the University of Pittsburgh, having previously earned degrees from Pepperdine University and the University of Central Florida.

Smart Cities: India's initiative; technologized transport; democratic dilemmas and dystopian dangers

 

  • Smart cities continue to be a hot topic for urban designers and commentators, even as the very definition of the term is debated. Kieron Monks at CNN recently addressed this in an article on the next generation of smart cities:

The urban planning equivalent of a Rorschach test, a "Smart City" can be taken to mean almost anything.

But by the most popular criteria; sustainable energy and development, open data and government, and integrated information, communications and technology (ICT) serving wide areas of a city, these ultra-modern hubs are on the rise.

  • One site for this next generation of smart cities is India, where the Prime Minister has advanced a vision of building "100 smart cities":

Secretary of India's Urban Development ministry, Shankar Aggarwal interacted with the people and officials involved with the ambitious project.

Aggarwal said a smart city may have diverse significance for different groups belonging to various fields.

"The definition of smart city differs from person to person. One can say that smart design is smart city or smartly deployment of a city can be considered as smart city. If utilities are put forward in a smarter way can be defined as a smart city. Assimilation of all the things makes a smart city. If there is growth of economic activates, improvement of quality of life, that is a smart city," he said.

Smart cities have the potential to transform India's cities, but unless the people who design them are sensitive to the reality that half a billion Indians are not even on the current grid, and almost a quarter of the country is illiterate, real change will not happen. Unless the engineering is combined with ingenuity to address fundamental political, social and economic weaknesses, smart cities will inevitably become another high profile megaproject; a false promise that does not realize its potential and becomes a burden, much like an empty Olympic stadium after games that promised much needed infrastructure and sustainable economic development.

The current model of city planning is based on an outdated Le Corbusier concept that the city needs to be flat. Indian planners still believe that Chandigarh is the best city as it was planned by Corbusier, but it is not a smart city because you need a car to live in such a city. And dependence on a car means depending upon fast-depleting fossil fuels; it means commute as a part of daily life.

While small initiatives like Raahgiri are catching people’s attention as they reclaim the streets from cars for a few hours every week, what if it was part of a city’s design? That the streets belonged to people, and not to cars? A fundamental shift in even the way permissions are given for development and integration of public transportation has to be part of city planning. Then only can a city be livable; it has to be embedded in its planning and not in its sensors.

Another suggestion would be to make the city self-sufficient in terms of agricultural produce, so that in times of crisis it is capable of taking care of the basic requirements of the residents of the city. Of course, it seems to much to ask for in the current scenario but with advanced technological know-how it's not impossible.

But just as having a smartphone doesn't make you a smart person, a digitally smart city isn't necessarily one that's doing all the right things by its citizens and making their lives more pleasant.

In fact, a smart city with all the computers at its disposal can be doing many dumb things, and doing them even more quickly.

A really smart city (as opposed to being just digitally smart), on the other hand, knows what the right things to do are, with or without technology.

The true enablers of participation turn out to be nothing more exciting than cheap commodity devices, reliable access to sufficiently high- bandwidth connectivity, and generic cloud services. These implications should be carefully mulled over by developers, those responsible for crafting municipal and national policy, and funding bodies in the philanthropic sector.

In both these cases, ordinary people used technologies of connection to help them steer their own affairs, not merely managing complex domains to a minimal threshold of competence, but outperforming the official bodies formally entrusted with their stewardship. This presents us with the intriguing prospect that more of the circumstances of everyday urban life might be managed this way, on a participatory basis, by autonomous neighbourhood groups networked with one another in something amounting to a city-wide federation.

The system, still in its early stages, has put Copenhagen on the leading edge of a global race to use public outdoor lighting as the backbone of a vast sensory network capable of coordinating a raft of functions and services: whether easing traffic congestion, better predicting where to salt before a snowstorm or, to the alarm of privacy advocates, picking up on suspicious behavior on a busy street corner.

Cities worldwide are expected to replace 50 million aging fixtures with LEDs over the next three years, with roughly half of those in Europe. Some are mainly interested in switching from outmoded technologies to one that uses less energy and can last for decades. But many others want to take full advantage of the LED’s electronics, which are more conducive to wireless communication than other types of lighting.

Many cities are also using smart technology to integrate services between different areas of government. For example, Barcelona has undertaken an ambitious multi-year program, Smart City Barcelona, in order to efficiently ensure that city services reach all citizens. The city’s long-term plan involves government, residents, and the business community in developing and shaping the city’s technological initiatives. One of these unique solutions will be called CityOS (operating system), for which the city is currently seeking a developer. City officials envision this OS as an open platform that unites the various smart technology projects operating across the city. In particular, the OS is expected to improve the daily commuting experience as well as reduce the operating costs of transport systems.

One only has to look at the hi-tech nerve centre that IBM built for Rio de Janeiro to see this Nineteen Eighty-Four-style vision already alarmingly realised. It is festooned with screens like a Nasa Mission Control for the city. As Townsend writes: “What began as a tool to predict rain and manage flood response morphed into a high-precision control panel for the entire city.” He quotes Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, as boasting: “The operations centre allows us to have people looking into every corner of the city, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

What’s more, if an entire city has an “operating system”, what happens when it goes wrong? The one thing that is certain about software is that it crashes. The smart city, according to Hollis, is really just a “perpetual beta city”. We can be sure that accidents will happen – driverless cars will crash; bugs will take down whole transport subsystems or the electricity grid; drones could hit passenger aircraft. How smart will the architects of the smart city look then?

[...]

One sceptical observer of many presentations at the Future Cities Summit, Jonathan Rez of the University of New South Wales, suggests that “a smarter way” to build cities “might be for architects and urban planners to have psychologists and ethnographers on the team.” That would certainly be one way to acquire a better understanding of what technologists call the “end user” – in this case, the citizen. After all, as one of the tribunes asks the crowd in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: “What is the city but the people?”