What will be the new Utopia?

Despite the summer sun, you are protected much of the way by the shade of living root bridges that cover the bicycle tracks. Squirrels play overhead, birdsong animates the world. 
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

In Jerome K Jerome’s The New Utopia, a man wakes up from a 1,000-year-long sleep, and finds himself in a future London where he needs a bath.

“No; we are not allowed to wash ourselves.” his guide tells him, “You must wait until half-past four, and then you will be washed for tea.” “Be washed!” “Who by?” the man asks.“The State,” replies the guide.

Replace the state with a corporate or a public-private partnership, carpet the sidewalks with cameras, let AI and neural networks take over every aspect of urban life and you get very close to the vision of a smart city where sensors rule the senses and the Internet of Things is god incarnate.  

Now consider an alternative. You step out of your air-cooled, passive solar home and cycle slowly to the terraced wetland park which protects your city from floods while serving as habitat for birds.

Its waters are teeming with fish, community gardens abloom with flowers attract pollinators, the green terraces of every house brim with fresh produce.

Despite the summer sun, you are protected much of the way by the shade of living root bridges that cover the bicycle tracks. Squirrels play overhead, birdsong animates the world. 

Living root bridges are not fairy tale nor are wetlands that perform multiple ecological functions, most famously the ones flanking Kolkata.

Julia Watson’s book Lo-TEK-Design by Radical Indigenism, presents many such examples of traditional ecological knowledge from 18 countries some of which can be adapted into alternative visions for future cities. 

In another 30 years, 68 percent of the world population will be city-based. NASA’s Earth Observatory estimates that 18 percent of the global carbon footprint comes from the top 100 high-emission urban areas of the world.

Obviously if we have to fight climate change we will need to address this by building eco-friendly metropolises which are not necessarily smart cities.

A study done by Yigitcanlar and Kamruzzaman has shown that there is no simple linear relation between smartness and carbon-dioxide emissions.

Others have demonstrated that measures for sustainability are not necessarily driven by advanced technologies. Still smartness is often conflated with sustainability and the race for hi-tech nirvana continues.

Acknowledging no singular definition of the concept, India has taken ambitious targets of building 100 smart cities within and around existing urban centres with a total project cost of Rs 2,05,018 crore.

The aim is to create ‘institutional, physical, social and economic infrastructure’ layered with smartness which in some cases involve eco-friendly measures.    

Another contentious issue about the use of advanced technologies to power cities of the future is centred on privacy.

In this quest for convenience and efficiency a variety of data-driven, deep learning applications including mobile games to modify transport choices, face-identification based security measures, telemedicine and so on will be employed which will require citizens and governments to hand over personal information to giant tech companies. 

The US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence points out how Chinese AI start-up Cloudwalk has been helping Zimbabwe build a national facial recognition database while Kuala Lumpur is adopting a smart city platform called City Brain, developed by Chinese tech giant Alibaba. US corporates are also eager to get into this game.  

 Naomi Klein writing about the corporate push for tech-enabled solutions in the backdrop of the pandemic rightly points out that ‘not every solution is technological’.

Leaving aside the question of privacy it is also worrying that smart solutions are prone to malfunction and tend to eat away jobs. Again, commentators like Ayona Datta draw our attention to questions of equity, justice and ownership surrounding the technopolises of the global South. ‘Where will all the land to build these smart cities come from?’ she asks. 

A deeper critic of smartness that overlaps sustainability concerns points out the anthropocentrism of cities and suggests urban alternatives which are shared domains for multiple species. Christoph Ruprecht from the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto says, ‘Multispecies cities are thriving ecosystems, constantly re-shaped by their many-species inhabitants to facilitate mutual flourishing.’ He points me to an ongoing unique experiment ‘For the Love of Bees’ a living social sculpture project to imagine Auckland as the safest city in the world for bees.

An ardent champion of the multispecies cities imagination, Ruprecht dismisses the smartness paradigm. ‘A smart city is ultimately a dead city,’ he avers, ‘not unlike artificial plastic plants, unable of receiving or giving care.’ We need to keep these warnings in mind before rushing headlong for high-tech dreams. 

Rajat Chaudhuri Climate activist Email: rajat@rajatchaudhuri.net

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