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“All of the stuff we are doing is obsolete. It doesn’t make sense to build a world like this. We are creating more inequality, we are going to have more tension, we are going to use technology for the wrong stuff and people will remain poor and few will become so rich,” states Sam Pitroda, the technology evangelist who revolutionized India’s telecom sector more than 30 years ago.

In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton (K@W), part of the University of Pennsylvania, the 75 year old Pitroda shared his vision of the future; specifically how smart technology should be used and how it shouldn’t be. Despite his long history of using technology to bring about change, Pitroda believes we should not just use technology for technology’s sake, that we should be identifying problems and finding solutions, some of which may involve technology.

“We can do so much without any technology input today. Of course, technology will help a great deal. But let’s go see what we can do with what we’ve got and not jump into technology. By bringing technology to the existing systems, you’re going to create chaos, because the systems are not designed to adapt to new technology. We waste resources on technology if we are not equipped to handle the external input that technology brings,” he said.

Pitroda believes “that technology could be a great social leveler, second only to death. I realized that technology could put two unequal human beings on equal footing. I also realized that the best brains in the world are busy solving problems of the rich who really don’t have problems to solve. And as a result, problems of the poor really don’t get the right kind of brain power.”

Spreading a layer of technology on what was never designed to have a layer of technology spread on it is counterproductive. Solving the “problems” of the rich and neglecting the poor is counterproductive. Developing urban spaces without empowering communities is also counterproductive. In fact, the smart city movement epitomizes this counterproductive mentality according to Pitroda:

“Smart city is one concept that has been, to some extent, oversold and under-understood. It is not about sensors and gadgets and software and more routers and more IBM equipment. A smart city [endeavor] is more about building a happy city,” he told K@W. Pitroda is not against smart city technology per say but has issues with the way it is designed and implemented, it is helping cities get smart instead of helping the city’s occupants improve their lives.

“We are not saying that existing cities are dumb, but we need to use technology to create an environment where people are better off in terms of pollution, traffic, education, health, jobs, living conditions and cultural spaces. All of these are very important aspects of building a happy city, including security. But the idea is not to bring more cameras and more police and more guns. The idea is to build better communities.”

Pitroda’s native india has taken to smart cities in a big way. The 100 smart cities mission pitted the sub-continent’s cities against one another to vie for their place in the exclusive list of Indian cities that will receive funding for a technological smart city revolution. However, Pitroda has some doubts about this approach. In fact, he does not see how prime minister Modi’s plan helps the 100 “lucky” cities solve their problems nor does it give them the independence to improve life for their communities.

“When people talk about a hundred smart cities in India, they have no clue as to what they are saying. They’re naive. If you cannot empower the mayor of the city, how do you build it? [What about] organizational autonomy, freedom and flexibility? If you don’t allow your cities to raise money of their own for projects, how do you get cities to fund them? You have not really created autonomy for your cities. If you don’t do that, there’s no way you can bring technology to solve your problems,” he suggests.

A fundamental change to the design process is needed before we start flooding cities with technology. Technology can be used to reduce congestion, for example, by collecting data that can be utilized to improve the flow of traffic on roads. However we would be much better off if we could reduce the number of cars on the road, improve public transport, or reduce the distance of the journeys people take. Instead of trying to work with the issues we created, we can try to remove the fundamental problems.

“We have built cities where people drive a half an hour to work. That’s not smart. Why can’t we design cities where people walk to work? But because of the car industry, and because of the Western model, everybody said, “Oh, that’s okay, we can drive 30 minutes to work.” And there are traffic jams everywhere. People who live in the north work in the south. People who live in the south work in the north. It doesn’t make sense,” Pitroda exclaims.

“Before we bring in technology, we need to look at how we organize our communities. Why can’t people live on the second floor and work on the first floor? Why can’t we create communities where they are responsible for their schools, parks, teachers and doctors, and not somebody from [New] Delhi?” he continued in relation to his native India.

Issues such as inequality may be more pronounced in India but they are certainly not exclusive to the soon-to-be most populous nation in the world. They are not even exclusive to developing countries; inequality exists all over the world. Reducing that inequality increases happiness in a city which, according to Pitroda, is the essential step in creating a truly smart city.

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