Debunking smartness of city

With groundless set of guidelines and widespread political pomposity, we are obliged to say that majority of our population live in urban areas. Majority of municipalities lack the basic physical infrastructures, let alone the urban amenities like parks or museums. Likewise, governability of those municipal institutions is already in question. In this complete “Mad Max” chaos of infrastructure and inept institutional and financial capacity of municipalities, “Smart City” is coined as urban panacea by political and bureaucratic players in urban milieu.

Let’s explore the word “Smart City”, as most of us are aware about the technological superiority associated with the term itself. Before heading further, it needs some retrospections in our cities. So, until now, are our cities “Dumb”? Is smartness good for our cities? Or let’s explain the basics, what is “Smart” in city? Well, if we go through different international literatures and practices, it is associated with Information and Communications Technology (ICT) with the goal of making effective, efficient and productive cities. Till date, there is no proper definition of “Smart City”, rather a contextual perspective where National Planning Commission (NPC) identifies the “Smart city… introduction of Information Technology in the public service by public participation, accessibility, sustainability along with improvement in lives of people”, which is nothing but the ultimate theme of every global cities in the 21st century.

Going further, let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. About a year back, the Government of Nepal proposed to have smart cities in Pokhara, Lumbini and Palungtar, Gorkha, which was later revised and more cities (numerous) were added to the wish list. That wasn’t enough of magniloquence, so political leaders from almost all the parties in local election expressed their idea of making cities smart, be it municipality or rural municipality. So, at the moment, most of the municipalities have allocated budget for hiring consultants to prepare report on smart city. It is imperative here to mention that many planners including myself is tangled in this chaos of unproductive planning activities.

It is pertinent to understand that it is not just politicians who are talking about the smartness of the city rather bureaucratic leaders who are working toward this institutionalized corruption in the name of big consulting expertise. Blatantly saying: the bigger the project, the bigger the cut is for the departments or institution associated with this. Because everyone knows, it is impossible to invest in smartness of the city when there is no city at all. For most of the political leaders, it is permissible as a political stunt, but it must be of utmost accountability of bureaucracy to come with smart solution for cities rather than smart cities.

Smart city is nothing but addition of information and technology in daily life of citizens, with effective and efficient governance. In some academia, it is observed skeptically as the burden put by tech companies of the global market, but even ignoring those things, smartness associated with the governance and infrastructure are certain to make living effective and efficient. Another important aspect that we all agree is good governance for better future, which is coined as smart governance in technological world. Smart governance is more about using ICT tools for effective and efficient governance. As urgent as it sounds, are we sure that our community is ready to adapt with these new computing tools?  In some shared terminology, smart cities are labeled as “marriage between physical world (city) and digital world (ICT)”, so, are our cities ready to get married? Is Palungtar ready to be a smart city?

There is substantiated argument that smart cities are the future of urban phenomena and on some logical ground I personally might agree on that as well. But in the name of global rhetoric and political propaganda, aren’t we investing too much on this? Integrated data, standard infrastructure and well-equipped government are the fundamental needs of every urban sector; hence it doesn’t need another blanket of smartness.

At the moment when we are evaluating the smartness of cities, we need to retrospect about sustainability and inclusiveness of the city that we are living in. People in our cities require more public toilets and water supply to drink rather than the free WiFi hotspots at every corner. People need big sideways to walk and fresh air to breathe, rather than lanes and lanes of roads for automated vehicles and warzone like roads while laying optical fibers alongside. It is about time that we are not swayed away with the ideological terminology like smartness of the cities, rather focus on the friendliness of the cities. It is time for us to invest in making our cities more lively and inclusive where some advanced global cities missed, in the name of industrial revolution and are turning behind to compensate on those. Unless we are making any utopian city like Masdar to captivate the global attention, we don’t need to prioritize smart cities as new urban need. Smartness can be added to the green European cities like Oslo, where urban infrastructures and amenities are not the matter for discussion rather linking them with every individual through smart connectivity is the challenge. In cities like ours, we need public spaces like parks and squares rather than connecting people in virtual spaces of Facebook and Twitter. We need inclusive public transportation first then only we can think of adding smartness to our mobility. And we need more honest and accountable government leaders and bureaucrats then only we can imagine of smart governance. We need cities with history, culture, society and people filled with wisdom and kindness, not cities overloaded with technological jargon of intelligence and analysis. Cities are to be beautiful, happy and giving, not smart and calculative.

Author is an executive member of Society of Nepalese Architects (SONA)



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