Smart, intelligent, digital, ubiquitous. The city as a site of technological innovation, integration and design has been defined in multiple ways. It has spawned both utopian and dystopian visions of the future. In an age of Covid-19 tracking apps it has become central to questions of health and public safety. Whatever the future of the smart city however, it has to operate now in the context of the present and, simultaneously, contend with the past. While star architects develop ‘spectacle architecture’ for example, property developers produce gated communities, and urban planners grapple with urban expansion. This all happens while conservationists dedicate themselves to preserving the past and historians continue exploring former lives of our ancient towns. Today, this is all couched in the framework of our urgent attempts to deal with the immediate fall out from the global pandemic.
The city we imagine for the future then, will be a complex set of factors and components from the past, and present. Navigating this multiplicity will be key to the futures now being imagined and how we address questions like public health and safety, participatory planning and the maintenance of our cultural traditions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the host country for this conference, India.
The site of the most tragic effects of Covid-19 right now and a place of exploding urbanization, it is also a country with some of the most iconic architectural heritage in the world, burgeoning contemporary architecture and at times experimental visions of future planning. Operating within this complex tapestry is the National Government’s 100 Smart Cities Mission, an ambitious project to ‘update’ 100 of its existing cities, their infrastructure and their architecture. Launched in 2015, it envisages the full integration of the digital infrastructures supporting our cities, the contemporary buildings serving our everyday needs, and the historic structures that house our cultural traditions and the services we provide to citizens.
In many ways, 100 Smart Cities captures issues at the heart of smart city agendas across the world and raises questions, possibilities and concerns related to ‘digital futures’ globally: How is technology supporting our public health response to Covid-19? What are the practicalities of digital integration in existing urban infrastructures? How are architects responding to the ‘traditional’ needs of our cities and their people? What is the heritage we need to preserve and how do we do it? How can our present condition and our cultural past coexist in this emerging future? Will we be exposed to ‘surveillance capitalism’? What will be the long term prosperity and public benefits – health and otherwise – that emerge from the digital city?