From smart cities to well-governed cities

The NITI Aayog’s recently announced “Strategy for New India@75” has two chapters on the improvement of Indian cities: ‘Smart Cities for Urban Transformation’ and ‘Modernising City Governance for Urban Transformation’. What is noteworthy is the lingering conceptual confusion between making Indian cities ‘smart’ and making them ‘good and better governed’ cities.

Riding on a global wave of technology’s promise to improve the world, ‘smartness’ swept into the lexicon of India’s urban transformation in 2014 when the NDA government took office. Since then, the limitations of technology to change fundamental social structures, and indeed its potential to aggravate fundamental problems, have become evident in the widespread disillusionment with social media.

The chapter on smart cities says, “Smart cities is an approach to urban development characterised by area-based development, efficient delivery of basic services in an equitable manner, and citizen’s participation.” The chapter on governance says transformation of cities will require “opportunities for all citizens” and “platforms for democratic participation”. The emphasis in both chapters on equity, equal opportunities, and citizens’ participation is very welcome because these are essential qualities of well-governed cities that satisfy the ‘livelihoods’ and ‘livability’ requirements of all their citizens.

Riding on a global wave of technology’s promise to improve the world, ‘smartness’ swept into the lexicon of India’s urban transformation in 2014 when the NDA government took office. Since then, the limitations of technology to change fundamental social structures, and indeed its potential to aggravate fundamental problems, have become evident in the widespread disillusionment with social media.

Kentaro Toyama, professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, launched Microsoft’s research center in Bangalore in 2004. He was involved with several technology projects to improve healthcare and education and reduce poverty. In his book, Greek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology (2015), he explains that he learned in India that merely slathering technology onto complex social systems cannot improve outcomes. Generally social structures of systems must be changed to improve outcomes. When the first wave of technology-driven change swept through business enterprises in the 1990s, before the internet, businesses soon realised that business processes must be re-engineered before applying technology. That lesson is being learned again with the internet.

A city is a complex system. As is a modern airplane. Many systems working together, give an airplane its remarkable ability to carry tons of load in the air, safely, over long distances. Engines, navigational systems, steering systems, a strong and super-light body, and aerodynamic wings. All parts must work in harmony for the plane to fly. A city has many complex systems too: for providing livelihoods, housing, transportation, urban utilities, recreation, safety, etc. All systems must cohere with each other to make a city ‘world-class’ from the perspective of its citizens.

It is the strength of its internal system of self-governance that gives a city its resilience and abilities to adapt along with environmental changes and new technologies. A shift from technological smartness towards building platforms for democratic participation of citizens in the governance of their own cities is a move in the right direction.

A critical difference between airplanes and cities, both complex systems, is that one is an ‘engineered’ system, and the other is an ‘organic’ one. Engineered systems require an engineer to design them. Organic systems, such as all systems in nature, are ‘self-adaptive’. They give shape to themselves through a dynamic process of interactions amongst their parts. Organic systems have the ability to redesign themselves while they are flying. (I explain further in my book, Redesigning the Airplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions, 2014).

The distinction between complex engineered systems and complex self-adaptive systems points to where the capability (and motivation) of change in them resides. In an engineered system, it is outside the system. In a self-adaptive system, it is within it. Therefore, it is the strength of its internal system of self-governance that gives a city its resilience and abilities to adapt along with environmental changes and new technologies. A shift from technological smartness towards building platforms for democratic participation of citizens in the governance of their own cities is a move in the right direction.

Direct democracy whereby citizens can vote to indicate their preferences when complex matters must be resolved is an attractive idea. Digital mobile technologies can enable this. However, unless citizens are well-informed about what is at stake and the implications of their choice, and can understand different points-of-view, direct democracy results in confusion. Brexit is an illustration of the painful complications that arise when people are asked to vote directly. The decision of the people that the British government is rushing headlong to implement represented the views of a narrow majority. And those who had voted in favor did not understand all the implications of what they were preferring.

A city is a ‘commons’ that must provide equitably for all its citizens. All citizens must have equal voice in the governance of the city. The Strategy for New India@75 emphasises that ‘smart mechanisms’ are required ‘to enhance the voice of the poor, slum dwellers, migrants, and other underprivileged citizens’ in determining the use of the city’s land, about forms of transportation, and equitable provision of public services.

Technology cannot substitute for good governance. Roads in Indian cities are frequently in need of repair. Processes for participative governance of Indian cities are also need of repair urgently. Until they are fixed, technology cannot make Indian cities environmentally sustainable and inclusive. Government officials and citizens must become digitally literate to become digitally smart.

Digital technologies are good for carrying out ‘smart’ transactions between people and service providers, including government—for making payments, enrolling for services, etc. They can enable automation of many services. However, digital transactions are not good for making collective decisions when many points of view must be considered to arrive at the best decision democratically.

Participative processes for democratic governance must adhere to some basic principles of inclusive, deliberative democracy, explains James Fishkin, professor of communication and political science at Stanford. He has revisited the debates about democracy amongst the Greek philosophers as well as amongst the framers of the US Constitution. Moreover, he has researched recent experiences with digital decision-making in many countries—in the USA, in Scandinavian countries, and even in Chinese cities. He explains the architectural principles for a sound process for democratic decision-making, in his book, When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation (2011).

It has become fashionable to use the term ‘smart’ for everything. NITI Aayog recommends ‘smart’ command and control centers (ouch!), ‘smart’ area-based development (how?), ‘smart’ roads (where?), and ‘smart’ parks (what?) to improve India’s cities.

Technology cannot substitute for good governance. Roads in Indian cities are frequently in need of repair. Processes for participative governance of Indian cities are also need of repair urgently. Until they are fixed, technology cannot make Indian cities environmentally sustainable and inclusive. Government officials and citizens must become digitally literate to become digitally smart. Much more, for better governance of our cities, government officials must learn to listen to citizens, especially the poorest, and all citizens must learn to listen to other citizens not like themselves.

(The writer is a former member of the Planning Commission and author of the recently released book “Listening For Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us”)