Smart Cities vs Dumb Cities


I was about to leave my office for the day and my good friend Professor knocked on the door. Are you free to join me tonight for dinner at the Taj with mayors of the Smart Cities? Prime Minister may be attending – but we are not sure about that. But certainly the Minister for Urban affairs will be there. Why don’t you join?

I did not have dinner engagement that day and my wife was away for a party with her friends so I had no reason to refuse. But still I protested asking how will I fit in the mela of smart mayors. Professor said that the organizers wanted some independent experts to be around as “knowledge nodes” mingling in the crowd for the purpose of “illumination” and “inspiration”. I could perhaps fit in that schema he said. In order to be able to play such a role, I needed to understand what’s a smart city. When asked, my Professor friend as usual gave a mysterious smile and said – oh, you will learn as you will talk to the mayors. Just relax!

We reached the Taj by 8 pm. After the preliminaries of the security checks, lady at the registration desk handed over tiny smart cards that looked real impressive. Put the card in the pocket of your shirt and then everything will be taken care off She said this in a voice that resembled a machine.

The lounge was packed. There were mayors moving around the lounge with Modi style bundees (a bundee is like a jacket and is now India’s current national attire) sporting various shades of green. All looked smart, confident and intelligent. There were however some who were wearing grey colored bundees with faces meek. Professor whispered “those with dark green bundees are the mayors of smartest cities and those with pale green bundees are mayors of smart but not so smart cities”. And what about those with grey colored bundees” I asked and Professor replied – oh these are the mayors of dumb cities. Only when their cities become smart, will they be allowed to wear green bundees.


Typical Smart City Mayor


Typical Dumb City Mayor


I joined the first round table that was occupied by four smart city mayors. One of the smart city mayors was telling others how smart his city was. We are focusing on solar street lamps. All street lamps in my city are solar powered cutting down thereby major emissions of greenhouse gases. Other mayor said that well this was no big deal. We already have solar street lamps in place, we now have intelligent traffic signal system that optimizes the signal timing based on real time traffic data, this reduces the queue length and the idling emissions from vehicles –this leads to reduced exposure of air pollutants to the pedestrians. The third mayor said that his smart city is doing even better. Most of the vehicles are either electric powered or based on bio-gas. Hydrogen cars are expected in a year. This is expected to lead to a major reduction in fossil fuel consumption and of course in the air emissions. The fourth mayor said that his city has done all this already and is now moving to promote tele-commuting to avoid or minimize travelling itself to the offices. Most offices are now providing this option to the employees – he said – thanks to the IT infrastructure provided by the city administration in the buildings. About half a million people will work from home. I liked this idea as I always wanted to watch some of the afternoon TV shows that I often missed.

I thought that all this conversation was getting so positive and interesting. I took down names of the four cities so that I could plan to visit them to experience such a smartness of transport planning and infrastructure.

The next table I saw that more serious discussions were happening. The smart city mayors on this table were accompanied by some of country’ top robotics experts. One of such experts wearing thick glass spectacles was talking about cars that will be driven by robots. This will be the latest in the future smart cities. Here you will be able to order a robot driven taxi with instructions where to come and where to go. You will be able to indicate whether you want to take fastest route or the cheapest route or the most scenic route and the robot will reach you to the destination accordingly. I said that using robot driven car will help reduce cases of assaults on women and perhaps reduce accidents as robots wont drink.  This comment was not well appreciated by the Expert – that’s beside the point he said.

I realized that the smartness of the city was getting even more and more escalated. Sure, it was going to be another world!

The Professor appeared suddenly, Oh I have been looking for you. Where were you my friend? I want you to meet the Chairman in charge of the National Program on Smart Cities. He introduced me to the Chairman with lot of good words about me and how involved I was in sustainability. A city when gets smart becomes sustainable automatically, the Chairman said this in a dense voice while sipping white wine.

I was not sure whether smartness meant sustainability. A sustainabIe city was an effort on a participatory basis I thought, involving stakeholders and not an ad-hoc fitment of “smart projects” decided by someone in the administration as a show off or by someone at the political helm of affairs deciding what’s good for the city on an autocratic basis. But I decided to keep shut as I sensed that the Chairman was not in a mood to listen to terms such as participatory or stakeholder driven process.

The Chairman had convincing arguments however.  A smart city will have the least water, energy and waste related footprints, and it will provide infrastructure and deliver services to its citizens at highest point of the efficiency curve. Everything will be wired, data managed and decisions taken optimally on this basis.

When I narrated the Chairman the great initiatives I learnt from the mayors of the smart cities in the first two roundtables, he smiled and said that that was just tip of the iceberg and there were several more startling innovations happening. Cars in the smart cities will have a fitment of on-line medical and psycho diagnostic tools placed on the steering wheel. By the time you reach your office, your blood pressure, sugar levels, eye ball movements (apparently an indicator of anxiety) and the ECG will be monitored without you knowing anything. You will get a full medical report that will tell you how fit you are for the day. All this data will be pooled to city’s central server as “big data” to come up with city health analytics so that we could understand the root cause of the problem and come up with solutions.

I thought this was getting too much personal – violating privacy.  I was uncomfortable. I envied the lives of people living in the dumb cities in this perspective and thought of going to the tables where mayors with grey bundees were sitting. These tables had relatively poor illumination and had normal bottle of waters (not the ultra-pure Himalayan waters that others got). The waiters were serving them cheaper wines on someone’s instructions.

One of mayors of dumb cities was saying “We are trying to become a smart city – but people simply don’t want to. They still want to live unregulated, not get monitored and enjoy the chaos. Life in our type of cities gives everyday something unexpected. People feel that this surprise is the essence of vibrance and something that makes their life interesting – essentially a pinch of pain and pleasure. I thought he had a good point to make and so I decided to write down names of the dumb cities for my retirement life but as I was about to do so, the Chairman did a toast and announced that the dinner was ready.

So I went to the buffet counter to sample some food. The buffet counter had some of my favourite dishes like chicken dum aloo, punjabee shira and prawn curry. As I was working on taking a large helping of the dum aloo, the smart card from my pocket spoke “Dear Dr Modak, we just completed full analyses of your body health using our smart body scanner. The results show that your levels of cholesterol and sugar are not in the limits as they should. We strongly discourage you therefore to take dum aloo, punjabee shira and prawn curry. Please therefore move to the table with salads and low salt soup.

I was really shocked with this machine voice emanating from the smart card. The voice  resembled the voice of the lady at the reception. This is too much I say – I told my Professor friend. For God’ sake, let us not get that smart!! And the Professor smiled.

(cover picture sourced from

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  1. Actually, they should have served Smart Dum Aloo and Super Smart Panjabi Sheera. The minute you touched the serving spoon, they could have had a siren go off. Robots telling you doesnt work. You can always ignore them.

  2. I don’t like ATM, prefer to receive cash from the lady at the bank counter who gives a sweet smile with a knowing look – she has seen my bank balance!

    Sharad Chaphekar.

  3. Very interesting article! I had always like the way you put the knowledge into a story.
    The article makes me think….maybe moving towards smart cities, will make people become dumb! All the smart thinking will be done by the machines. The irony is where people will not use machines (for a logical thinking) …. will be called dumb..and living in dumb cities!

  4. It is our innate desire to connect to a living being in all our transactions that makes us dislike machines.The human spirit in us will always crave for “that personal touch”.

  5. Dear Doctor Modak
    I read you blog on DIK IN EIA & SMART CITIES VS DUMB CITIES. Liked both very much agree with dilemma in both the field. We know very well the procedures & boundaries in 1st case but do not want to put forward and we are less aware about final destination, concept & final boundries in 2nd case yet.

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