Negotiating smart urbanism in India: ‘smart cities’ and the production of legibility from without

Authors: Christian Eichenmüller*,
Topics: Urban Geography, Urban and Regional Planning
Keywords: Smart city, legibility, India, developmentalism, local knowledge, subaltern studies
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 1:20 PM / 3:00 PM
Room: Studio 5, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


With its proclaimed aim of one hundred ‘smart cities’, India’s Smart City Challenge constitutes an ambitious nation-wide urban renewal undertaking. Embedded in developmentalist narratives of technological, economic and cultural progress, and procedurally following a top-down trajectory, the policy framework guiding this government-led program favors utopian and solutionist notions of smart urban technologies. As a result, selected cities are becoming spaces of negotiation and collision, where decontextualized, technophile ideas of ‘smartness’ come up against – and clash with – local realities. In this paper, I argue that the attempt at retrofitting cities in India and negotiations over local adaptations also serve to make urban space more legible and accessible to outside actors. Based on qualitative interviews with a diverse set of actors tasked with, or exposed to, local implementation of ‘smart city’ projects in India, this paper chronicles mapping practices and ‘smart’ interventions into the built environment which contribute to legibility from without. Analyzing the activities of various public, private and non-governmental actors with a view to the production of legibility, I show how these practices and interventions are often legitimized by references to converging rationales of increased efficiency and service provision. Addressing the relationship between local and outside knowledges, I examine the question in how far ‘smart cities’ in India privilege representational expertise over contextual knowledge. Yet, despite facilitating novel forms of outside intervention, retrofitting cities in India is far from a seamless, frictionless transition towards conventional ideas of ‘smartness’ and local adaptations continuously assert alternative logics and rationalities.

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