Open Essay

How Smart is Your City?

A Damodaran is a faculty member at Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore
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Redefining the urban living space

The German Autobahns of the Third Reich and the Metro Rail Project of Stalin’s Moscow have been the two most intriguing ‘totalitarian’ urban projects of the 20th century. Both were conceived pompously, executed brilliantly and portrayed as superhuman feats. The former was Hitler’s pet showpiece, a symbol of the unfolding possibilities of the Third Reich, while he latter was an ornate, subterranean transport system that was efficient- ly executed by Stalin’s henchman, Lazar Kaganovich, to burnish his master’s iconic image.

Germany’s super-highways—or autobahns—that crisscross the country from the north to south and east to west owe their present shape to the 1930s, when Adolf Hitler was preparing to ‘avenge for the wrongs’ of the Treaty of Versailles. A German engineer gave me an interesting explanation of why these autobahns were designed the way they were. According to him, Hitler had designed them to carry German tanks and Panzar convoys. Landmark avenues of Berlin and Munich had a similar orientation. They were primarily reserved for Nazi Party processions. Civic use was secondary. Josef Stalin followed similar logic. For him, the Moscow Metro was another Bolshoi stage, an embellished platform to address party workers and officials. It was a piece of art to be showcased to the world. The idea of using the Metro as a mass transport system was secondary.

In reality, both projects were conceived by the two dictators as precursors to still grander plans to transform their respective cities into political nerve centres of the world. Albert Speer, the master of the bizarre and the mammoth, even designed a prototype ‘World Capital Germania’ for the expected Thousand Year Reich that would centre on a mind-blowing Great Hall with an ostentatiously decorated Cabinet Room, among other structures. Likewise, Stalin’s architects planned a new Moscow featuring eerie-looking towers that were oddly Gothic. His idea was to displace the imposing monasteries that had dotted the Russian capital’s sky line until then. Mercifully, neither plan could get beyond a few assorted structures. Hitler’s defeat and suicide in 1945 and Stalin’s sudden death in 1953 buried their transformation plans. Despite this, and the efforts on the part of their successors to efface their legacy, the spectre of their ‘power’ still haunts these cities.

Things were only marginally different for cities of the British Empire. Tristram Hunt’s book titled, Ten Cities that Made an Empire, which came out last year, has chapters on Calcutta, Cape Town, Bombay and New Delhi that are racy reads. It is anecdotal, laced with humour and worth reflecting upon. Hunt’s story goes somewhat like this. ‘New’ Delhi, in its present shape, was conceived the day Viceroy Hardinge’s majestic horse trotted up Raisina Hill with his master, sometime in 1912. From the top of this hill, Hardringe had his first vision of grandeur as he watched the grime and filth of the ‘smelly and crowded’ streets of Shahjahanabad at a distance. The elevation of Raisina, he thought, would help exalt the Empire’s second capital, a project that was billed by the Raj then as its most dazzling experiment in modernity. Edward Lutyens with Charles Baker executed Viceroy Hardinge’s idea by laying out grand avenues, a Secretariat and well-spaced gardens with the imposing Viceroy’s residence at the nerve centre.

Hunt’s book has an amusing quote on ‘New Delhi’ by the famous travel writer Robert Byron, who lived in the first half of the 20th century and had visited Bombay and New Delhi in their infancy. For Byron, New Delhi was a ‘slap on the face of the modern, average man’ (this was decades before Arvind Kejriwal was born)! Byron had reason to describe New Delhi this way. In Viceroy Hardinge’s scheme of things, Indian babus had to be flung to the periphery, while the British Nawabs would be bang at the centre of the city, with easy access to the cute merchandise of Connaught Place. This division endures. In the 1980s and 90s, the ‘chaarpai’ culture of bucolic babudom stood in contrast with the elite culture of New Delhi’s ‘downtown’ residential areas and clubs, where Brown Sahebs held whispery conversations over cups of Darjeeling tea. These days, in the fringe colonies of New Delhi, people stay indoors during the summer and chaarpais are a rare sight, thanks to affordable air-conditioners. Social distances appear to have reduced, too, as compared to the 1980s. However, the quest for upward social mobility has intensified. Unlike in the closing decades of the last century, many of those on the periphery are actively trying to break into the core of Lutyens’ chakravyuh. It remains a daunting task, unless one storms in as a Prime Minister like Narendra Modi.

The point is that big cities are complex socio-political constructions. Where cities have been consciously and ambitiously planned by powerful leaders and their favoured architects, they symbolise refined political power. Indeed, many of the famous town planners and architects hired by country heads were averse to opening their masterplans up to the masses. Take Le Corbusier, who designed Chandigarh. He was without doubt a brilliant architect and a great painter with a mathematical mind (an unusual combination), but he was remarkably free- wheeling and value-neutral. He was keen to work for Stalin. He clowned as a Mussolini fan and had the dubious record of having worked for the puppet ‘Vichy’ government in Nazi-occupied France in the 1940s. If Speer was not there, Corbusier would possibly have done Hitler’s town planning.

Jawaharlal Nehru was perhaps the tallest people’s leader Le Corbusier worked for. In terms of elegance, Chandigarh was perhaps a masterpiece. However, like Brasilia, it was not a people’s city. Despite protestations about being a votary of ‘individualistic freedom’ in his planning design—his excuse for losing the Soviet contract in 1932—Corbusier’s capital cities were monumental acts of grandeur where the commoner had to hide in the margins, unseen.

Despite their philosophical differences, Speer, Lutyens and Corbusier were followers of the ‘predictable’ when it came to the basic structure of city planning. For the three men, a city had to be an elegant assemblage of massive artefacts and human beings, rooted to a central point. Material artefacts and communities were to be boxed into silos, which were to be segregated and spaced out. In such a scheme of things, roads and transport links were to function as mammoth evacuation devices to ‘bring in’ and ‘take out’ the toiling masses to and from ‘centres of work’. Most of the world’s prominent capital cities of the 20th century had ‘government secretariats’ as the central work place.

While the big mono-centric cities in liberal democracies were designed to hold commoners in awe, in totalitarian states, the masses were ‘cowed’ down by the central place’s grandiosity. Hitler’s plans for Berlin and Stalin’s design for Moscow would have made common inhabitants feel small, insecure and insignificant. What is more, had their schemes got implemented, it would have been an environmental disaster.

The models of Speer and Corbusier—or, for that matter, of Lutyens—would, over the years, turn central places into large consumption centres, which would have badly denuded many a city’s green fringes. Central places, by their very nature, being consumption centres would require a large ‘flow in’ of consumer goods and a reverse flow of waste to peripheral villages. Had central places been better receptacles for such waste, the toxic push of the centre towards the periphery could have been avoided.

Therefore, when someone like Ian Sinclair (a book trader turned writer turned filmmaker) laments that London is a conspiracy, he is on the mark. It is not just London. Every city is—and has been—a conspiracy. The nature of this conspiracy differs, depending on the social stature of the beholder. For Sinclair, the conspiracy involves the disappearance of ‘open spaces’ and ‘meeting places’.

It is a different tale for an ordinary Bangalorean, though. Notwithstanding the presence of the Bangalore Palace and Vidhan Soudha, Bangalore cannot claim to be a city with an imposing central place. Unlike many other cities of India (barring Chennai), Bangalore has been, until recently, a city of socially diverse neighbourhoods. Had Richard Wellesley opted to settle in Bangalore after his victory in Seringapatam in 1799, this salubrious ‘alternative to Mysore’ would perhaps have gone the Calcutta or New Delhi way. Today, for a common resident of Bangalore, the conspiracy story is ‘basic’, ‘prosaic’ and ‘long’. It is about disappearing shade trees and water bodies, unsightly garbage mountains, the painful trickle from water taps, frequent power cuts, vanishing corner shopkeepers, timepiece repairers and cobblers, dangerously surviving rag pickers, dishevelled pedestrian paths and the ever looming threat of road widening that would slice houses along the sides like a knife through a loaf of bread.

The ideals of inclusivity, diversity and sustainability are sorely missed in present-day Bangalore. The three virtues cannot be realised by the development of satellite towns. The challenge that confronts the city is not just one of congestion. It is about the absence of ‘place’ or location based action and leadership. What is more, satellite towns re-invent the vices of the main city, become ‘republics’ in their own right, sponging on natural resources rather than acting as de-congestion entities. The same holds for polycentric cities. Note that a commoner does not hate the splendour of an aesthetically designed monocentric city. He only abhors the insensitivity of the central place of such a city to the needs of the periphery.

The norms of inclusivity, diversity and sustainability cannot be achieved through ‘smart cities’ either, given the manner in which these have been defined. True, smart cities are designed to minimise the separation of work places from dwellings. This saves on commuting cost. However, members of these newly crafted narrow communities will be starved of a wider diverse social network that transcends their work place environment. It is conceivable that they would suffer from a ‘silo syndrome’ of a different type. They can escape these new silos only by being mobile. But then this defeats the purpose for which these communities are created in the first place.

Smart cities that claim to be neat, clean and sustainable may end up being the opposite of their professed virtues. A case in point is Masdar city of Abu Dhabi. By its masterplan, Masdar is cybernetically centralised and is focused on environmental sustainability. However, it also operates on silos. The city’s waste treatment and water supply systems are pushed to the fringes of its central district and habitation place. This smart solution allows sophisticated waste treatment facilities. Indeed, the city has systems to minimise untreated waste and emissions. But the cost of carrying waste across long distances to the city periphery remains a problem. Such smart sustainable cities would still leave a vast carbon footprint despite protestations to the contrary.

The other point is that smart cities cannot be reduced to technical concepts. Global evangelists of smart cities (including IBM) recommend the three ‘I’s of Interconnectivity, Instrumentation and Intelligence as a mantra. There are problems with this approach. For one, ‘interconnection’ is a social concept. It cannot be merely reduced to synergising communication and computer devices. Second, while ‘instrumentation’ has the potential to help a city de-bottleneck traffic snarls, streamline mass rapid transport systems and help transfer and distribute water and energy from surplus zones to non-surplus zones, none of these virtues would serve to address the issues of social distance and segregation, which has been the conspiracy of all big cities in the 20th century. Likewise, it is reasonable for a commoner to be apprehensive of centralised ‘intelligence’ that involves surveillance systems, no matter how benign they appear to be.

For an involved commoner residing in a big city in India, the three ‘I’s are nothing but the re-invention of the old Corbusier plan of yesteryear. Many commoners would be tempted to consider smart cities a conspiracy of another kind.

Thus the quest for inclusivity, diversity and sustainability requires a bold approach to correct the historical wrongs of the 20th century. As thinkers like Romi Khosla and Vikram Soni argue, it calls for a quest for a ‘natural’ city. In my view— neither Khosla’s nor Soni’s—a natural city can embrace instrumentation as a tool to enhance natural processes and promote decentralised decision making. A natural neighbourhood can also facilitate spontaneous social ‘interconnections’ based on an interface with surrounding neighbourhoods. This may be for fixing common problems involving life support systems that have trans-locality origins. A natural neighbourhood of this kind would have a symbiotic relation with a grand central place—one based on mutual respect and regard and synergies that promote sustainability.

We are badly in need of an Indian definition of a smart city. We need conspiracy-free cities. Fantasise a natural city where neighbourhoods dress up as non-parasitic ‘multicellular’ amoeba, perform amoeba like movements, respond to external stimuli (read regulations) by retracting from untenable acts, while creating conditions for self- sufficiency in life support systems for themselves. This fantasy may offer a way out for the unsustainable and conspiracy ridden cities of today.