THR Web Features   /   May 27, 2015

Who Is the Smart City for?

Stephen Assink

By 2025, more than a million families might call India's Palava City home; via Wikimedia Commons.

Who doesn’t love a good dystopian thriller? With unforgettable characters and edge-of-your-seat chase scenes, these movies are entertaining, exciting, and extremely lucrative. From Blade Runner and The Matrix trilogy to Elysium and the Hunger Games series, these movies have defined our conception of a post-apocalyptic world. But the real power of this genre lies not in its special effects but in its creative baring of social tensions in futuristic megacities that today no longer look so far-fetched.


From lack of infrastructure to concentrated poverty, megacities—urban areas of 10 million or more people—present significant challenges for any local government. Concerns over social inequality have also long been a fixture of the discourse around megacities, especially so in India where there are six such metropolitan areas amid a culture defined by the hierarchies of the caste system. At the moment, however, the issue of urban exclusion in India is now coalescing around that nation’s burgeoning smart city movement.

Smart cities, according to the Indian government’s website, “are those cities which have smart (intelligent) physical, social, institutional, and economic infrastructure while ensuring centrality of citizens in a sustainable environment. It is expected that such a Smart City will generate options for all residents to pursue their livelihoods and interests meaningfully and with joy.” The impetus for India's smart city building is largely urbanization demographics. Currently, 31 precent of India's population is urban. That is projected to increase to 65 percent over the next decades. India has set a goal of 100 smart cities to meet the challenge of settling its growing urban migration in decent and humane ways.

Smart cities employ new technologies that integrate urban infrastructure with powerful data analytics, a trend has already hit Chicago, New York, and Rio de Janeiro, cities with significant investment in advanced urban technology. A goal of this movement as Noah Toly argues here on Common Place, “is to make the whole city more responsive, giving us instant access to information we can hold in one hand, turning the city into a device. By harnessing big data, we suppose we may harness the power of urbanization and the city itself—a force with few rivals in history.” Supported by powerful advocates such as Michael Bloomberg and companies such as IBM, smart cities are poised to become a dominant form of urban settlement in the twenty-first century.

Although most cities around the world are incorporating smart technology into the existing urban fabric, India aims to build its smart cities from scratch—thanks to more than $1.18 billion committed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The city of Palava is a prime example. Considered Mumbai’s sister city, Palava is the largest privately planned city in India. Through partnering with IBM, Palava will have cutting-edge technology that will help the city government guide and manage its population. Branded as a “city of opportunity,” Palava offers residents a community that boasts lush green spaces and immaculate apartments—according to its website, “Palava isn’t just a new place to live, it’s a new way to live.”

In a country where more than 300 million people live without electricity or access to basic services, smart cities, at least on paper, seem to offer a solution combining sound infrastructure and an improved quality of life. However, critics allege that smart cities will in fact exclude those most in need of what they offer. In a recent Guardian article, journalist Shruti Ravindran highlights the growing concerns about exclusion in India's new smart cities. In particular, Ravindran points to recent comments made by Indian economist Laveesh Bhandari:


 In a monograph for a conference on smart cities in Mumbai in January, the economist and consultant Laveesh Bhandari described smart cities as “special enclaves” that would use prohibitive prices and harsh policing to prevent “millions of poor Indians” from “enjoying the privileges of such great infrastructure”. “This is the natural way of things,” he noted, “for if we do not keep them out, they will override our ability to maintain such infrastructure.” Bhandari’s bald statements sparked social-media pandemonium, and the economist is now at pains to assert he is far from uncritical of such plans.


In the United States, discourse on urban exclusion usually centers on affordable housing and how factors such as public policy or market forces have often resulted in limited availability. In India, the land sought for smart city construction could lead to the razing of poor districts, the forced removal of the poor, and their subsequent exclusion from new communities. As Ravindran reports, “Smart cities remain a key justification for a controversial land-acquisition ordinance the government is aiming to enact, which does away with mandatory consent and social safeguards for those whose lands are forcibly acquired.” Once built, smart cities could be “governed by powerful corporate entities that could override local laws and governments to ‘keep out’ the poor.” Ravindran notes that “To make sure that no one trespasses on its immaculate privatopia, Palava plans to issue its residents with ‘smart identity cards’, and will watch over them through a system of ‘smart surveillance’.”

Other critics have also warned of this potential for exclusion in smart cities. Well-known smart city critic Adam Greenfield poignantly asks, “What role will the citizen play [in the smart city]? Is the city-dweller best visualised as a smoothly moving pixel, travelling to work, shops and home again, on a colourful 3D graphic display? Or is the citizen rightfully an unpredictable source of obstreperous demands and assertions of rights?”

Like every other form of urban settlement, the smart city is a value-laden human creation enmeshed in cultural norms and political forces. Without hard work and attention to justice, this model could end up excluding those who would most benefit from it, or worse, divert funds from other distressed places. In India's rush to transform, build, and even engineer entire new cities, critics are right to raise concerns about citizenship and access.

Even in US cities, especially places like Baltimore and Ferguson, we are confronting some of these same issues. In the same way India is wrestling with the social and ethical dynamics of the smart city, we need to equally be self-reflective about the ways we seek to improve our own cities. Every policy and plan for urban improvement need to be accompanied by difficult questions. And none are as pressing as the one confronting India at this moment: “Who is the smart city for?”