Tag Archives: Smart Cities

Who Is the Smart City for?


Aerial view of completed developments at Palava today

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?”

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Why Cities Need More than Big Data

Part 2 of the series Thriving Cities in a World of Big Data 

According to some proponents of Big Data Urbanism, data and powerful computational techniques will domesticate urbanization and transform our cities into responsive devices. For them, we stand at the edge of a new era. Demographic trends—for the first time in history, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas—coincide with the development of hitherto unknown technical capabilities to usher in a new techno-urban age. As Anthony Townsend writes, given the coincidence of urbanization and technological advances, Big Data “will be an immanent force that pervades and sustains our urban world.” But what, exactly, can we expect from Big Data? Can it be harnessed for the pursuit of thriving urban communities and, if so, how?

Some proponents of Big Data Urbanism sound utopian notes. As Adam Greenfield notes in his study of “Smart Cities,” plans to develop New Songdo (Korea), Masdar (United Arab Emirates), and PlanIT Valley (Portugal) tout the power of Big Data to coordinate “the moment-to-moment flow of [experiences]…by nothing less than a unified Urban Operating System that, at least in theory, manages the interactions of every connected space, vehicle, device and garment in the city,” with the goal of creating “the ultimate lifestyle and work experience.” While this utopian strain is especially evident in proposals to build Smart Cities from whole cloth, much of the rhetoric surrounding Big Data suggests it will also work similar miracles for existing cities.

While Big Data Urbanism finds support in various corners—planners, policy makers, IT professionals, and corporate leaders—there are also its detractors. For privacy advocates, uneasy about our willingness to generate and to surrender personal information, Big Data is the enemy. Others worry that the technological infrastructure supporting Big Data may be used systematically to curb liberties, either through the subtle nudges of revised choice architecture or, as Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin suggests, by an emerging surveillance state. Still others fear that the integration of Big Data into every aspect of urban life exposes us to catastrophic risks through cyber-warfare and cyber-crime. The same technologies used to collect information and manage urban life may be hacked by foreign governments. In November 2014, the U.S. National Security Agency revealed that hackers from China, Russia, and Iran have gained access to the critical infrastructure for distribution of energy and water. Likewise, these technologies may be used by criminal elements to nefarious ends.


Recent console-gaming hit Watch Dogs dramatized this last concern. Set in a dystopian future Chicago, Watch Dogs gives us the story of Aiden Pearce, a hacker who gains control over the city’s “centralized operating system,” turning the entire city into a weapon in his vigilante efforts to avenge his niece’s death. He goes on a revenge spree, using the city’s Big Data capabilities against his enemies and exposing a dark side of the city-as-device conceit at the heart of so much Big Data hype.

The promise and the peril of Big Data Urbanism may be much more mundane than suggested by either utopian proposals or Watch Dogs, but mundane doesn’t mean meaningless. Townsend recounts a tantalizing number-crunching example where a Chicago-based team of analysts “cross-referenced Meals on Wheels delivery logs with the city’s own tax records to generate a map of elderly living alone” so that the city could “start to build up a list of people that need to be checked on during heat and cold emergencies.” Finding and helping those who are exceptionally vulnerable to extreme weather events should be a priority, and Big Data can help us with that.

However, while Big Data can help us to locate people at risk during meteorological emergencies, it is less likely to help us know why broad swaths of our cities—for instance, entire neighborhoods—are more likely to suffer in the midst of those events. And while cunning criminal networks may colonize this new urban infrastructure, it is more likely that Big Data will colonize our sense of how we know a city and how we pursue thriving cities. Its approach both reflects and reinforces a vision of urban life in which more and better information is the key to thriving urban communities. In fact, both proponents and detractors of Big Data Urbanism put information at the center of their vision for our urban future. Either we need more and better information to flourish or that same information will put us at greater risk.

But the pursuit of thriving cities is not primarily concerned with information-gathering. Rather, it is focused primarily upon practical judgment. As Bent Flyvbjerg suggests such reasoning in urban affairs should ask four questions:

  • Where are we going?
  • Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power?
  • Is this desirable?
  • What should be done?

This approach has room for gathering and analyzing data. But it privileges other modes of inquiry that illuminate hidden assumptions and embedded judgments. Unfortunately, when we expect too much of Big Data, we truncate the range of our inquiry. An over-reliance on data collapses Flyvbjerg’s four questions into one: Where are we going?

If our thinking about cities is reduced to this one question—if we ask over and over only “Where are we going?”—it should come as no surprise that Big Data advocates would need a new, more expansive, and increasingly expensive digital infrastructure for answering questions about urban life. Their focus is not Thriving Cities in a World of Big Data, but Thriving Data in a World of Big Cities.

This question also enervates our agency vis-à-vis urban life. The push for Big Data may give us a better sense of where we are going but a poorer sense of how to get there. Thus we get more of the same—not the city of tomorrow but the city of yesterday with the sensors of tomorrow. In the end, Big Data is less likely to deliver on utopian promises and more likely just to help deliver our pizza faster.


It’s a cyberpunk mashup of old and new: old class tensions and new sensors, old race relations and new displays, old environmental challenges and new analyses. What’s worse, this approach can actually mask and even reinforce values, tensions, and power relationships that are always operative in our urban communities. By truncating the range of inquiry into cities, we conceal the pluralistic dimensions of urban life, we diminish our expectation of conflict, and we cheapen the meaning of cooperation and collaboration.

Certainly, Big Data can be a useful tool for thriving cities. By helping us answer the essential question, “Where are we going?” it can help us formulate efficient responses when we ask what should be done. But in order to properly contextualize these questions and harness their answers for good, we will need at least three things.

First, here are the questions we need to ask about Big Data before we can bring Big Data to bear upon the city: In the world of Big Data, who wins and who loses, and by what mechanisms of power? Is this desirable? Finally, what should be done? How should Big Data intersect with urban life?

Second, we will need a vision of thriving urban communities that can inform our use of Big Data from the very beginning. Big Data can’t tell us how to collect data, nor to whom we should make data available and how. It can’t tell us how we should govern data, nor how we should respond to the data we collect. If we’re to answer the question, “Is this desirable?,” we must prize the practical judgment and value-rationality that so many Big Data enthusiasts and detractors seem to ignore.

Third, we will need to bring to the surface diverse visions of what a thriving urban community looks like. Big Data can help us with measuring, rating, ranking relationships between variables, like food insecurity and educational outcomes. But there will be a plurality of potentially legitimate, but not self-justifying, responses to any such information. Urban life is indelibly marked by such pluralism. Big Data can help us to understand these tensions only by not masking their reality and importance.

Noah Toly currently serves as Director of Urban Studies and Associate Professor of Politics & International Relations at Wheaton College. He has taught various courses in environmental politics and policy, urban politics, and ethics. He is also a member of the Thriving Cities Project steering committee.

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