What’s so smart about smart cities?

The term ‘smart’ is used interchangeably for anything from our daily-use smart televisions and smartphones to curious concepts of smart health and smart living. Another notion which perplexes most of us is about designing smart neighbourhoods, smart cities, and even smart communities. In fact, the phrase ‘smart city’ has increased its usage exponentially over the last decade, so much so that it has over-shadowed the much longer known term ‘sustainable city’ to a great extent. But what’s really so smart about them?

Despite its ever-increasing popularity, the term is contested, lacks universal definition and criticised as vague, market-oriented and neo-liberal. Originally the concept progressed with an explicit focus on environmental sustainability in the 1990s through the Kyoto Protocol but later inclined more towards information and communication technologies for transformative global urban agendas. The overall narrative highlights a constant confusion and pendulum swings with its digital and intelligent variants.

Generally speaking, smart has different meanings to different people in different contexts. A visual summary derived by understanding the distribution of dominant words in various definitions of smart cities highlights sustainability, liveability and inclusivity as the three core objectives of building smart urban future with interventions at the intersection of 3Ps – People, Place, and Parity. While sustainability is mostly associated with the tangible and intangible aspects of a place, liveability subsumes perceptions of people about their living environment and inclusivity is about sense of equality and freedom experienced by all citizens.

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But can we really vouch on these new and emerging technologies alone for achieving these larger objectives of urban smartness? If the history of city building in the last century tells us anything, it is the undesirable consequences resulting from either singularly relying on top-down efforts or overemphasis on technocratic solutions to solve complex urban issues such as housing crisis, environmental degradation and climate change.

One of the examples is of utopian vision as proposed by Ebenezer Howard in his book To-Morrow: a powerful path to real reform, to solve the urban crisis where the poor were overcrowding in cities faster than physical and social infrastructure in the 1800s. Under his rationalist approach, the garden cities promised to provide the best of life of both cities and the countryside. However, a garden city looked like setting the stage for 20th-century suburbanisation. Another such example takes us back to the 1930s when Robert Moses began rebuilding cities around the automobiles and promised a new utopia delivered by roads, highways. and expressways. On the contrary, motorisation accompanied more serious issues of global warming, less active travel, sedentary lifestyle, and sprawling development.

Such ideological and rhetorical commitments of modern cities usually tend to forget the role of citizens, and their right to the city. Patrick Geddes, a pioneering British sociologist, geographer and planner once said that ‘A city is more than a place in space. It is a drama in time.’ However, the ongoing conversation is often weighed towards the definition and operationalisation of smart, but it is fundamentally about cities and people who inhabit them.

An interesting way to look at our existing cities is to understand if they have any inherent layers of smartness. A case of a walled city in the North-western part of India, Alwar, with a population of almost half as much as of Dublin, is assessed. The region’s advent goes back to about 200 years ago, implying a rich architectural, archaeological, and cultural heritage.


The traditional neighbourhoods in the city, are indigenously known as mohallas and even today, they portray a unique residential culture characterised by organic street network, mixed land-use, courtyard planning, rich architecture and intangible heritage. Structurally, a traditional mohalla develop with cellular aggregation and maintains squares which also act as important community gathering places. The built form is quite compact and well suited to the semi-arid climatic conditions of the region. Step wells and water tanks plays an important role in maintaining a cooler microclimate. In terms of the social fabric of this historic core, the local community demonstrates collective efficacy, cultural vitality, social cohesion, and a strong sense of belongingness. My research concluded that this long standing historic core in India exhibits smart socio-cultural and spatial urban attributes, which if leveraged using inclusive planning strategies and policy making can advance their inherent smartness to another level.

So, coming back to the original question – what really makes a smart city, ‘SMART’? In my understanding, they are a solution to an old question: how to remake cities for continued economic development with the consent of its people. They need to be efficient but should also preserve opportunities for spontaneity, sociability, vibrancy, and inclusivity. Needless to say, that the quality of city intelligence subsists in the unique lifestyle, cultures and pragmatic local adaptations by its community and the success of any technocratic intervention truly depends on the participatory planning processes in action.

Source: RTÉ, written by Mani Dhingra

What’s so smart about smart cities?
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