What is smart about smart cities? A response from the global south

Imagine that you get off your flight and go straight into an electric car that takes you zipping over traffic into your business meeting. Imagine that your  mobile phone never discharges because it is solar powered. Imagine you never have to switch the heating or air-conditioning on since your home neither loses heat in winter, nor gains heat in summer. Imagine that the lights switch themselves on or off as you enter or leave the room. Imagine that rainwater is collected and reused in your toilets. Imagine that biogas generated from your waste is used to cook your food. Imagine that solar batteries on your roof provide you with unlimited electricity. Imagine that windmills provide you with the power to run your computer. Imagine that you find out who your neighbours are before you move into your new home. Imagine there are no offensive smells, no noise, no dust, no pollution in your city. Imagine you are in the smart city. Imagine that you may never ever see the mess of the everyday city again.

Smart cities are becoming increasingly popular as 21st century solutions  to the rapid increases in urban populations and the urgency with which cities might have to compete with each other and hence reinvent themselves. A recent Guardian article talks about the smart city as a place of technological innovations, resilience and energy efficiency, which will require radical redesign and collaboration with technology in order to become ‘smart’. This, it notes is something we owe to future generations.

Another recent article in Huffington Post notes that smart cities also need smart communities. How is that viable? The author cites a range of local networking sites, though which neighbours and local residents can find out about each other, disseminate news and create connected communities. The consensus seems to be that only technology cannot be enough, smart cities also need to pay attention to those who live in them, find ways through which communities can be created through (surprise, surprise) technological innovations.

These debates are not new. Urban regeneration with emphasis on e-technology particularly around economy, governance and communication, have been used to re-brand San Diego, San Francisco, Ottawa, Brisbane, Amsterdam, Kyoto and Bangalore into ‘smart’ cities (Hollands 2008). But will technology be our biggest legacy to future generations? Are smart cities the new urban utopia or are they just old wine in new bottles?

Smart City: The new urban utopia

The history of urban planning is a history of urban utopias. These urban utopias attempted in some way or another to deal with the contingencies of the times – nuclear fallout, resource depletion, ecological degradation – through technological modernism. Buckminster Fuller’s notion of  Spaceship Earth, Archigram’s concept of the technologically advanced Plug-in city, Paolo Soleri’s ecological architecture of Arcosanti, Richard Register’s Eco-city, Ken Yeang’s Bioclimatic skyscrapers,  and in more recent years Bill Dunster’s Zero Energy Development,  all constitute ways of radical rethinking through design, technology and urban planning towards a new city of the future.

Critics of such urban utopias highlight the anthropocentric and androcentric focus of these projects. Radicial marxist thinking particularly those of David Harvey and others present a thesis of social utopia which challenge the assumption that technology can save us from all modern crises. Smart cities can be thrown into this debate as a new form of utopia. They toggle between two divergent viewpoints – that cities are either machines or organisms – that cities have a functional or social role.

To me these questions are valid but seen from the perspective of the global south – misses the main point. My question is where will the resources for the clean energy infrastructure come from if all cities were to become ‘smart’? Where would the minerals from the mobile phone chips come from? Where will the silicone for the PV panels come from? Where will all the windmills be constructed to give us renewable energy? From the perspective of the global south the crucial question also is – Where will all the land to build these smart cities come from?

Land, law and property: The battlegrounds of 21st century ‘smart cities’ in India

Over the next couple of decades the Indian state plans to build six new smart cities. These cities have been conceived on a grand scale — all conceived larger in size than any of the current Indian cities. Broadly aligned to eco-city principles, these new cities are also located along high-speed transport networks. They will be called ‘smart communities’ because

A smart community means a city in which citizens, business and government live, work and interact in a sustainable manner through delivery of integrated, low carbon products and services. … provides India a unique opportunity to adopt futuristic smart city concept of minimal pollution, maximum recycling and reuse of finite resources and optimisation of energy supplies. (IANS 2011)

Although smart cities in India rely heavily on technological innovation, these are however new ‘self-sufficient’ cities, different from their western counterparts with respect to

  1. transformations of landuse at an unprecedented scale from agricultural/rural/forest to urban
  2. ownership by a corporate group or a consortium of developers (growth coalition), drawing significant concessions in tax, environmental and labour laws from regional and national governments
  3. governance managed by a consortium of developers with limited power sharing across other groups
  4. linkages with mega-city regions through airports or high-speed transport networks
  5. planning and design by international firms reflecting largely the needs and desires of ‘western-oriented’ middle-classes.

These cities to be delivered through private investment make particular claims to sustainable development. In a rapidly urbanizing India, these cities are not just seen as a solution but also touted as essential to addressing the ‘problems’ of resource depletion and rural-urban migration. But will they create more problems than they solve?

The crucial challenge is the availability of land. The land that will need to be made available to serve the demands of building at least six smart cities in the next two decades will have to be at a gargantuan scale – not possible anywhere in or around existing cities. Hence most of these cities will be built along high-speed transport networks linking them to mega-cities yet actually located far away from them.  Most of the land on which they will be built will therefore be forest land, rural or agricultural land or indigenous land that will be acquired through particular land development schemes. Needless to say the Indian state as well as some of the regional states are rushing to revise its land acquisition laws to make it easier for land to be acquired for building smart cities. The backlash on this from civil society has been huge – the number of legal challenges to land acquisition have gone up phenomenally over the past few years. The Indian government has responded by changing the Environmental Impact Assessment law, by making the consultation process easier for developers and by delegating challenges to township developments under the jurisdiction of Green Tribunals rather than the High Courts.

Who will enjoy these smart cities in India and elsewhere? Who will comprise these smart communities that are intended to be enjoying its privileges? What kinds of social, environmental and spatial justice will smart cities reflect if they will be built on the ruins of rural and indigenous livelihoods? Will they ultimately become yet another category of urban utopia for our future generations to catalog?

So before we all get excited about smart cities as the answer to current global challenges of climate change and resource depletion, let us ask the critical question – will smart cities improve the lives of those on the social, political, environmental and legal margins of the city? Or does its success as a concept and practice rely precisely on the elimination of those on the margins?


  1. True. Smart cities will continue to be problematic urban areas if community participation is ignored and these are seen as part of a bro liberal growth agenda. However if communities opt for smart growth, technology can be adopted within a very different growth model. Unfortunately in the hunger for land, money and power, no one wants to give the process of bottom-up development a chance, no one wants to engage, no one has the patience. Only a few organisations and individuals are demanding participative planning and decision making in India and we are often seen as irrational voices and anti-development. The tragedy in Uttarakhand is a reminder that we must explore alternate, slower and more sustainable models of growth.

  2. Thank you for this post. It has really highlighted “the backstory” that is often forgotten about and yet actually translates into how people’s lives are affected.
    Especially since the idea of “linkages” is so crucial to being connected to mega-cities and the world, it’s also incorrect to view smart cities as independent, self-sustaining and isolated in their little utopic bubble. Rather more roads and transport systems will be built to reach that “sustainable” enclave.

  3. Thanks for bringing “those on the social, political, environmental and legal margins” in academia & discourses — smart or stupid – no city can survive without their labour and ‘sacrifices’ forced unto them.
    This post helped me much. Would like to read your writings, if those are available gratis online, please let me know where/how to find.
    Thank you again

    1. Thanks for your kind feedback Sandeep. I would be very happy to share my writings. Please send me your email add and I can send you some relevant articles.

  4. Hi Ayona,
    A very good article bringing out the other aspect of the smart cities. we should not forget that for a city to be smart it require community participation and inclusion of all the people.

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