Digital Cities Issues and Challenges

Sameer Unhale

Technology has always been a force multiplier. Moving beyond digital service delivery or grievance redressal, a fundamental rethinking of city governance and administration would help declutter many of the outdated objectives. The way we live and govern our cities and towns needs new paradigm so that it can stand up to the challenges of the third decade of the third millennium, such as, containing the periodic waves of pandemics, restarting the inclusive economic growth, ensuring credible climate and environmental actions and attaining the SDGs, writes Sameer Unhale, State Joint Commissioner, Municipal Administration, Government of Maharashtra.

The institutions, processes, finances and behaviours of all the stakeholders of the Indian Urban System will require imagination, innovation, collaboration, inclusion, technology and participation. The future of a city, to a great extent, would depend upon its capacity to adapt and transform itself to become resilient and sustainable by making maximum utilisation of the potential of emerging digital technologies. The technology transformation strategy of organisations working in urban areas needs to include fundamental rethinking of proposals and means. We will also be required to mainstream concerns on climate, economic and social inclusion, accessibility and affordability of various civic services and other processes in city functioning. However, greater the challenges, greater the opportunity and potential.

Digital Cities

Cities, as a global trend, have become the most prolific geographical form of organising people, spaces and capital. The unilinear monocausal deduction of cause and effect may not be enough to comprehend the complex dialectical interplay of multiple factors, constantly affecting and changing each other and their collective outcome. Sometimes, one feels that the speed with which things are changing and other aspects like the butterfly effect, globalised impact, climate change, the uncertainties and social entanglements of disparate and unconnected phenomena calls for new ontology, for urban phenomenon, and so a new epistemology.

Philosophical issues with Data and Cities

In view of digital transformation and emergence of data and its related dimensions in governance and citizen engagements, intellectual reformulation of these phenomena and significance of data becomes necessary. Current vocabulary of data, data capture, and data harvesting used in corporate circles reminds one of mercantile capitalism and the unfortunate human slave trade. Some analytical tools, popular with some intellectual traditions, may interpret these as Data Slavery, with data about a person as extreme form of alienation, which gets captured against the will of the person by inaccurate information and by manipulation. Ideas like data harvesting and data metamorphosis, news of data capture of infants, children, and non-adults, without their parents and guardians being aware of it, seem unethical. Talks of Digital Dictatorship or Surveillance capitalism do tend to create doubts in the minds of common people, about the motives for the use of ICT and data technologies. Various ideological commitments, political affiliations and personality cults, prejudices of researchers and academicians, or the profit motive or funding potential of big industry and philanthropies, knowledge gets coloured. The ability to allow unadulterated knowledge by, if one may use such a word, would need greater drawing of ideas from philosophy.

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Currently, no philosophical systems seem to reveal the essence and relevance of the information age and its significance into ethics, ontology, epistemology, power structure, notion of money , wealth or capital making sense through popular culture to common people. The state of very high alienation at the individual level and anomie at the societal level, due to the information age, needs to be brought into some resemblance of ethical order, meaning and comprehension. Balancing the person’s existential rights, his or her essence of being, needs some dignity and respect. We do see many efforts to reconcile privacy, individual rights and emerging technology in various parts of the world. Popular perceptions about technology need to be clarified. This calls for a variety of approaches, paradigms and processes in academic research to give deep insight into this complex phenomenon of cities. The dominant approaches in studying society, mostly were made by intellectuals rooted in the 1800s and 1900s. Trying to use the ideas, meant for different eras, to something that was difficult even to comprehend in those times, as a template to organise current ideas and study them, would be partial, inadequate, and may be one-sided. Thus, we need to think of newer paradigms to make sense of the current ICT-driven urban transformations. The works of the 1800s introduced us to the idea of annihilation of space and in the context of the built environment. But, ICT is introducing us to the annihilation of time! One would need a focused scholarship on urban phenomenon, not something that comes incidentally from other mainstream approaches.

The academic conceptualisation of these rapidly changing technological changes and its impact on cities, internal operations, service delivery, the economy, culture, citizens response to them, the impact of this on the form, inequality would be interesting and hopefully more academic interest reflects in more work.


City and Technology

The intersection of science and technology and cities has always been interesting. In fact, we cannot have cities without technology. The earlier general purpose technology, combustion engines – both external and internal, and electricity could substantially sum up the material part of cities. From the realm of ideas, may it be facades, architecture, design or planning, culture, urban living and prisms of emotional connect and responses to the city. Environmental context to cities – pollution, land, water and air quality, degradation of land and loss of biodiversity to residential, commercial, industrial or mobility infrastructure, continue to plague any deliberations on cities.

Evolution of Data and Cities

Stage 1 – Computerisation
In the Indian context, wide regional variations in adoption of computers, including that of population size and financial resources of various cities can be seen. Those states which had a lead in IT policies were natural to pick up e-Governance. The e-Governance era of the 1990s was mostly in purchasing of computers and software programs related with the property tax, water billing, salary bills, and work related with budgeting and accounting. Yet, the focus seemed more to make the clerical work easier. Bigger cities went on their own. Some state efforts were to deploy common programs to most of the smaller cities and towns. The systems had over 15 to 20 modules covering most of the departments and citizen services. It did make sense so as to avoid multiple tenders. However, vendor management and ensuring the necessary upgradation of platforms and systems over years, that too in municipal bodies at different stages of organisational and data maturity, was challenging. The fullest potential of the modules was not probably utilised.

Stage 2 – Websites
At the turn of the century, in the dotcom era, websites of municipalities along with grievance redressal measures were popular. The limited availability of technical manpower, especially beyond data entry operators, with the municipalities or structures responsible with their upkeep, could be the reason for limited use of these websites, which could have been beyond symbolic.

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Clerical primacy in computerisation
It was also seen that the purpose of ICT efforts often led to the primacy of a clerical approach to bureaucracy and administration. The initial conceptualisation of such software was, however, clerk/accountant centric. The primacy of clerical approach in government organisations and the peculiarities of paper as medium of storing information led to underutilisation of the fullest potential.

Queer case of files
The concept of file, when working in government, is still fundamental and the most basic unit of government decision- making process. A ‘file’ was historically a long needle used to pierce papers into it, so as to keep related papers together.
Later, it became a system for compiling and storing information on paper. File structure is such that it has a noting side which keeps the record of decision- making, for accountability and transparency, and a correspondence side where all letters and supporting papers related to the issue are kept together.
The file centric system of the government office functioning is something which
e-governance has not fully resolved. But the clerks and clerical thinking, out of fear of the loss of their power, importance or benefits, went on to hold onto the file system dearly. Thus, we saw computerisation efforts of making a ‘file tracking system’, or an ‘electronic file’ format, mimicking the paper file in its digital avatar, the best example of clinging to clerical thinking.

Stage 3 – Current uses in Data and City
A significant milestone after the softwares, was accelerated use of mobile apps in city governments, especially in the Smart Cities. The difficulty of navigating a website through smartphones, at the municipal level, did prompt the making of multiple mobile apps. These multiple apps, in a single city, created a discoherence. The need is for an integrated and holistic approach, considering all of the potentials of ICT for cities, to use the digital ecosystem.

Integrated City Command Control Centre is a new quantum leap into using ICT for cities. Exponential growth of smartphones, increased use of social media, advances with 4G/5G network, cloud computing, phase of proliferation of mobile apps, and now the potential of IoT sensors in city operations, use of remote operated water valves, SCADA (Supervisory control and data acquisition) systems, utility of blockchain, remote operation gadgets, and robotics used for underground sewer cleaning system, seems promising. Reference to the use of data and its potential for city operation and living, mostly from the framework of big data and machine learning-led artificial intelligence, predictive governance is a future trajectory. The digital twins of cities, though creating infinite space in the virtual world, may also impact on the real . Though the discussion of surveillance capitalism or digital dictatorships or ICT-enabled police states , in academic circles would be inevitable. The potential of predictive governance in welfare administration , if not in law and order or criminal administration, would have various academic interpretations.

Opportunities with Data
The latest digital technologies can work on greater functionality, without the need for such paper files. Cloud computing, shareware and blockchains can ensure the storage, authenticity and transparency of a decision-making process without the need for a paper file. Similarly, emerging digital services like GIS, hyperlocalisation, personalisation of governance services in “Governance as a Service” approach have tremendous potential. Similarly, convergence of multiple services for single profile/individual in family-based and individual beneficiary schemes, spread across all levels of governments, departments or ministries and their offices, missions and schemes available at a city region or city town is immense. To give real seamless experience to the citizens, the regulatory services in the way of licences and permits for individuals and businesses, and even corporate and private engagements of citizens can also be facilitated through the City e-Governance framework. So, the digital transformation in government functioning will require major rethinking at the most fundamental level.

Citizen Engagement
The ability of the urban systems to connect with citizens, businesses and street vendors, facilitating their engagement with cities; in service delivery and access to real time information, is important. “Total city as a ecosystem“ approach, or the entire city region, including all levels of government and their various agencies, corporate, private sectors, small business and NGO, seamlessly at the back end, could remove information asymmetry and also facilitate digital engagement to complete the transaction.

Organisational Culture and Data
The need for municipal employees and their training to use and conceptualise ICT in city life and in their day-to-day functioning is critical. Also, at the cultural level, the acceptance and adoption of ICT-enabled office functions by the entire staff. It may not be inaccurate to say that the middle and older generations could not imbibe it at the desired level. A simple thing like using a keyboard in the local language by officers and senior officers had limited utility. In fact, all the computers and laptops, at least in their initial stages, proved ornamental. Dependence on PA’s or clerks to operate the systems had hilarious instances. But this proves the fact that ICT-enabled governance needs to be much more than purchasing computers, servers or software and developing applications. Any thinking on ICT needs to include local political leadership and citizens and their readiness and ability to utilise ICT-enabled services.

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Digital Divide
With greater access to smartphones and networks, the digital divide arising out of poverty, literacy, temperament, gender, and age will have to be overcome. Or else, all the digital talk would only be technofad. Efforts will have to be made by cities, urban institutions and community-based organisations towards digital equality. Access, connectivity, if required as a basic infrastructure to citizens, would be necessary. The visually impaired, the illiterate, and the poor would have to be considered and suitably helped. But indications for wider utilisation of ICT should not be surprising.

Possible Trajectories
Driven by the ICT industry and techno- enthusiasts, with the legitimate promise of digital transformation, advertorial-driven media engagement need not take one to the techno- utopian idea of flying cars and robots. The concern of loss of human compassion or species due to excessive technology may be reflected. Yet the excessive dramatisation of Neo-luddite response to using technology in cities needs to be tempered. How and why remains to be seen.

The purpose of extensive use of digital technologies in government as well as city life needs to make citizens the epicentre of digital transformation. The size of the bureaucracy, entrenched hierarchy, significance of local political leadership and organisational culture, the paradigm of accelerated deployment of emerging digital technology, and more importantly, its acceptance and full utilisation, have its own challenges. This will have to be overcome collectively. Technology and its intersection with the city becomes essentially a cultural and behavioural phenomenon.