Smart slums: utopian or dystopian vision of the future?
Life in a smart city is a frictionless; free of traffic congestion,
optimally lit, with everything from bins to buildings constantly
reporting their status and managing their interactions with residents.
The smart slum is still a peripheral idea, but we can speculate on the
likely impact of extending this ‘smartness’
to slums and make two competing claims. Firstly, that development
professionals should be wary of smart slums repeating some of the
negative impacts of ICT4D; and secondly, that a push for smart slums could be appropriated for social justice.
The idea of the smart city is a vision of a networked urbanism. The promise is that environmental monitoring and feedback from embedded sensors
everywhere will simultaneously deliver greener and more productive
cities. The idea has been most fully materialised in brand new cities
like Songdo in South Korea but is spreading to established urban centres like San Francisco, Amsterdam and Madrid.
The smart city itself is by no means a new idea. In previous decades
it had labels like cybernetic or connected city, but it has been given a
new lease of life by the flowering of small, cheap and adaptable
sensors that draw on smartphone technologies and DIY electronics (think Arduino and the Internet of Things).
For people working in development this comes with an attractive new
feature; the smart city of today is seen as participatory. Feedback and
monitoring includes the active participation of citizens who install
smart metrics and sensors (such as the Arduino-based Smart Citizen Kit,
which measures temperature, humidity, noise, CO2 and NO2 levels),
contribute data, and become part of a kind of sensor citizenship. The
smart slum also makes sense as a way to bridge the infrastructure gap;
by adding programmable intelligence to services that are extended in to
slums (such as sensors that report the water flow in pipes
and send alerts if water use is outside of the expected normal range),
they can be managed in a way that is responsive and well-adapted to the
ever-shifting environments of informal settlements.
The idea of smart slums shares a great deal with the way slum mapping
has adopted new technologies and participatory processes. A decade or
so ago, a coalition of NGOs and women’s networks mapped hundreds of Pune’s slum settlements,
with the aim of bringing poor communities into the official mechanisms
of city planning, so that they would get a better share of resources.
More recently, the Map Kibera project has used the participatory technologies of GPS and OpenStreetMap
to enable residents of Kenya’s biggest slum to make a digital map of
their streets and alleyways. Map Kibera is meant as a platform for
empowerment; giving residents a way to monitor and report on their own
experiences of government initiatives.
But smart slums could still repeat the problematic cycle of first generation ICT4D
if the technologies are dropped into communities without an effort to
build the capacity of poorer citizens to use them. Many funding
evaluation reports and academic studies show how ineffective the
tech-led approach can be, and how it can reinforce existing divides. Moreover, the whole idea of monitoring, like mapping, should be approached with caution. Mapping and measurement were the original mechanisms of colonial control
and projects that simply add visibility without agency risk reinforcing
the status quo. It may also be that sensors and smartness paradoxically
limit citizenship rather than extending it, if citizens just
participate by generating data and real resource decisions are made
elsewhere. This is a dystopian version of smart slums as a way to subdue
So how could smart slums be done differently? One approach is being
tested through bottom-up citizen science. The approach of these projects
(like our own Kosovo Science for Change) draws on critical pedagogies like that of 1960s educator Paulo Freire,
for whom learning was the co-operative activity of understanding how
our lived experience is constructed, and how to make a difference in the
world. These projects involve citizens in using embedded sensor
technology to answer their own questions about their environments. The
approach would be familiar to development professionals as participatory
community development but with added elements of maker culture – fablabs and hackerspaces – and empirical methods.
If applied in the context of smart slums, these methods could be partof a new politics of infrastructure. As every part of traffic, water,energy
and waste systems become direct generators of data they raise new
questions of governance. Now that we can see what’s going on and have
the computational ability to influence it, who gets to decide how it’smanaged?
The answer doesn’t just depend on companies and government but on the
potential for citizens to prototype their own solutions.
Posted over 4 years ago