Smarter Cities: Take aways to take forward.

The subject of Smart Cities is anything but a simple one, more so because most people have their own particular perspective on it. But when put together, at least from the list drawn up at the Smarter Cities Challenge Track at Design Public 4, many of them converge at a handful of challenge sets. Stimulated by case studies of product, service and system designs for cities, presented at the beginning of the session, participants were asked to call out the challenges that they saw were yet to be addressed by them. When we sifted through the list, voted on the most immediate and prioritized the ones that were essential to tackle before all else, we arrived at three

1) social inclusion
2) sustainable land development in growing cities
3) policy landscape for sustainable and equitable development



Participants were then divided into three groups and each group took on a challenge that they addressed by imagining possible partnerships and engagement models. A common thread running through the partnerships developed was the need for stronger more inclusive local governance, either through the role of the mayor, the inclusion of more voices or mechanisms that allow citizens to monitor local governance.

But are the above challenges those that can be solved by the design and innovation of new technologies, or new uses of existing technologies, as one might presume is the pretext of ‘Smart Cities’?

One perspective, offered by discussion leader, Madhav Pai, of Embarq, suggests that there are existing product, technology and service solutions, what remains to be done is ‘mainstreaming’ them.

Another is presented in the next steps that were identified by each of the groups, including an understanding of user needs/priorities in the urban context, sensitizing policy makers as well as civil society, expanding the knowledge of exclusion, building imaginative models and test models, adopting one city as a pilot city, reflecting and refining solutions.

In past editions of Design Public, we have encountered examples of the use of technology to understand user needs and priorities in the context of land development. Sreenath from IBM mentioned several new Indian cities that IBM was working with that are adopting and testing smart solutions. Which of the other next steps can technology lend itself to and are there any measures that need to be taken while doing so?

One necessary approach, developed by Anthony Townsend of Institute for the Future, called the ‘new civic for smart cities’, cautions against installing smart cities from the top down, and encourages and engagement with citizens to so that cities can grow from the bottom up.

At CKS, we have been thinking about the possibility of a user centered systems design approach to Smart Cities. We think for this to happen, we will have to situate ourselves at the intersection of three conceptions of the city and the people and organisations (both government and private) who work within them – the commuter city, the informational city and the habitat city (more on them soon).

Calling your interest, attention, feedback and comments.

About Namrata Mehta

Namrata Mehta or @littlenemrut, is Director of Innovation at the Center for Knowledge Societies, New Delhi. She has an undergraduate degree in Sociology from Delhi University, and a postgraduate diploma in Experimental Media Arts, from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore.
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2 Responses to Smarter Cities: Take aways to take forward.

  1. Aditya says:

    i agree that there is a problem of starting point or topos or ethical framework for smarter cities, particularly given the extreme asymmetries of urban india at present. there is the potential for disenfranchisement and debasement of human life in urban india which is very different and potentially more extreme than anything we see in rural india. i think you’ve mentioned some approaches that could work, but i think more work needs to be done in establishing what are those baselines against which policy or developmental work can or should be done.

    as i recall there was something of a cleavage and separation of the smarter cities group into three camps: the habitation guys, the commuter transport guys and the mobile services guys. it seems to me that rethinking the smarter cities paradigm as a problem of realigning these three camps is something worth thinking and talking more about.

    finally, i must admit to being somewhat unclear as to what the appropriate or effective engagement models might be. could you say more about that?

  2. Ayesha Vemuri says:

    you make some interesting points, namrata, and i largely agree with the idea that we need stronger local governance and more participatory decision making. but, with a city as large as delhi, which has a population larger than that of many countries, and is home to so many different factions and classes, where do we begin? technology driven platforms, which are the most commonly posited solutions, would exclude many voices because of a lack of access and illiteracy. this then tends to mean that decisions are always top-down and therefore also tend to serve the interests of the urban elite (who can make their voices heard). any thoughts on this?

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