Smartness of Cities

Rupali Gupte & Prasad Shetty

September 2015


The discussions around ‘smart cities’ have gained currency in India ever since the new government promised to make 100 new smart cities. The promise however got toned down later towards making existing cities smarter rather than creating new ones by implementing smart projects. The imagination of ‘smart cities’ has been in many ways a continuation of the ‘e-governance’ mission and reforms initiated by the previous government. This imagination is about improving efficiency in service delivery through software driven technological solutions. The e-governance programme prompted numerous projects aimed at developing and installing new software in municipalities. There were projects to monitor engineering works, to monitor staff performance, to accumulate data on slum dwellers, collect user charges, etc. Most of the newly created software today remains unused white elephants in the abandoned computers of city municipalities. This was largely because there was no one to use or update the software in the Municipalities after the software consultants left the project. It was surprising to see the new Smart City Mission being initiated without much evaluation of the older e-governance programme. The critiques of smart cities broadly articulate three problems: first that it is a ploy of software companies to get projects; second that there is low internal capacities within municipalities to handle advanced technological developments; and third that spending money on such software driven projects is a misplaced priority when condition of basic services in cities is extremely poor.


The idea of ‘smartness’ in cities seem to be hijacked by the discussions around ‘Smart Cities’ and limited to either celebration or criticism of the software driven technological projects. But cities are not projects, nor are they a math problem that can be solved with a formula. They are formally complex, experientially intense and have logics that are incoherent. They fold spaces, practices and relationships together to create an enormous, perpetually transforming morph. This morph is characterized by unclear geographies, absurd lives, unstable forms and coexistence of sharp contradictions within it. Smartness of cities is a function of its complexity.  Through three concepts: Settling, Transactional Capacities and Trips, we will attempt to talk about a very different smartness that makes cities.





A street in Irla, a suburban neighbourhood of Mumbai, had over the years become one of the most popular destinations for retail shoppers. The street began as a quiet residential neighbourhood comprising of low-income state housing board apartments and slums. Just adjacent to this area were elite upper class neighbourhoods. Slowly, the ground stories of the housing board typologies were transformed into shops. The intensity of shopping grew as more and more ground floor apartments on the street transformed into shops and as new extensions to these shops emerged. Many of these extensions were further rented out to other smaller traders. Banking on the footfall on this street other street vendors selling small wares set shop. The street became one of the liveliest shopping streets in the suburbs. Many specialized shops came up in the area. One of them was called ‘Alfa’ which became a phenomenon on this street. The owner was able to source large amounts of imported goods including electronics, food items, accessories, toys etc. Everything in Alfa cost less than market rates. Alfa became a Mecca for the middle class shoppers with a taste of ‘foreign goods’. Soon the shop diversified – luggage, mobile phones, household wares, electronics, garments, and even a foreign exchange center – Alfa gave the best rates in the market and accepted almost all currencies. The shop felt the need to expand. The owner kept buying shops on the street, naming them Alfa1, Alfa2, 3, 4, and 5. The street was often nicknamed the ‘Alfa street’. As the street got saturated, its tentacles moved into the large slum behind. There was a high demand from shopkeepers for warehouses and living spaces for their labour. While the houses in the slum closer to the street sold their spaces for showrooms and display type shops, the ones behind continued selling or renting for warehouses. As the display type shops moved further into the slum, they found ways of attracting customers inside by painting and signposting the narrow access ways into the slum.


The change of Irla Street had been slow and textured. This slowness affected many people as they found ways to deal / engage with it. People were not thrown out, but new people came in. They were accommodated generously as well as awkwardly. In 2004, a mall came up on the street trying to piggyback on the footfall already garnered by the other enterprises. It was called Prime Mall. The smaller traders were afraid that their businesses would be taken over by a big mall. However the story of the mall unfolded in a very different way. No big retail business came into this mall. Even the bigger spaces were subdivided into small shops. The mall was taken over completely by small traders. The prices of goods in these shops were obviously more than those of the other enterprises of the street. So people would go to this mall not to buy goods, but to take an air-conditioned break. Others came to use the toilets, as there were no toilet facilities in the street. So the mall became a large air-conditioned public toilet and a recreation space. With very little business in the shops, many shop keepers decided to dispose off their properties. Rents remained low and the owners of the mall found it difficult to maintain the space. The first thing they did was to shut the air-conditioning. With air-conditioning shut, the number of people visiting the mall further reduced. The shopkeepers installed their own small air-conditioning units. Their compressors were kept outside the shops, spewing heat into the common spaces of the mall. So the lobbies and corridors became extremely uncomfortable places.  Some shoppers looking for discounted deals still came to the mall, bearing the brunt of the heat-spewing atriums, dodging quickly into the air-conditioned shops. However many of the shops in the mall remained closed. The food court completely shut shop. Soon there were online advertisements proclaiming the investment in this space to be cheaper than buying a place in a slum. The owners of the mall were desperately trying to keep the mall alive by coming up with innovative ideas for the space. They put up a huge hoarding outside the mall inviting people looking for brides or grooms from the Gujarati community. From time to time they organized events for potential brides and grooms from this community to meet. Slowly the mall disintegrated into the street, blurring the boundaries between the inside and the outside, the formal and the informal.


Irla street settled slowly over time. When an alien type, ‘the mall’ came up, it had to work its way out on the street. Settling is a process through which people come to terms with each other’s lives and their landscapes. It is not a process in which contradictions get resolved; instead, through settling, contradictions are able to co-exist. It is a set of elaborate mechanics, which keeps the city in a perpetual state of becoming. However, the city never settles completely. These spaces, practices and objects get layered further, or change, or disappear. The logic of this transformation is often incremental, sporadic and based on parameters that are beyond the detection of empirical methods. This is an emotional intelligence that is built into the making of cities. Historically cities have been made through this form of settling. In the making of smart cities, the attempt is made to make projects and not cities, short-circuiting the process of settling. Having said this, settling is a process that can take smart city projects too into its fold. Smart Cities will get worked out in very different ways. The logic of cities will take over. That is the hope.



Transactional Capacities


On Lamington Road, an electronic cluster in Mumbai, a bright sign on the pavement says “laptop repairs’ with an arrow pointing towards a chawl building. As one enters, one finds the staircase block with a courtyard at the corner. Below the staircase block is located a Laptop repair shop belonging to Purshotam. He uses fake Chinese models of branded parts. He claims that the China made battery is a much better deal and runs for the same time as the original. He opened the shop four years ago and pays a rent of about 700 Rupees to the landlord. After his twelfth grade, he would help around in a few shops along Lamington Road. He did not have enough money to open a big shop. His mother was suffering from arthritis and he had to spend a lot of his earnings on her. He decided to open a shop in the same building where he lived, to take care of his mother. The only way he could do this was because the landlord rented him the space below the staircase. He is indebted to the Internet and thinks it is the greatest invention of mankind. He is constantly updating his knowledge through the internet. He learnt the basic working of a laptop from dismantling his old second-hand laptop, which he had bought after saving for months on end. He earns around 30000 rupees per month, by servicing laptops. He is proud that everyone in Lamington Road knows him as ‘the guy under the staircase’.


In most parts of the inner city of Mumbai, spaces get doubled or tripled like Purshotam’s staircase shop. The street edges particularly corrode to accommodate shop entrances, extensions to shops, shops on walls that are one foot inside and a foot outside the building, the vendors on the sidewalks, the vendors on the carriage way, etc. There is usually a complex relationship between all of these. It appears that along the edge of the street things diffuse into each other. It is difficult to identify where a shop ends and where another one begins. The street edge has a very high ‘transactional capacity’. Transactional Capacity is that capacity of a space/practice/object that allows flows of bodies, commodities, ideas, money through it: higher the flow, higher the transactional capacity. In Behrampada, a slum in Bandra East, a community has put together a large settlement on a marshy land. The settlement rises up to four floors at places. One such cross section houses a shop that rents out large vessels for making biryani during festivals, on the ground floor, an embroidery unit on the first, a hostel for migrant workers on the second, a library on the third and a mosque on the fourth. Cities provide large numbers of such transactional capacities per unit space. However one also sees that as the degree of formality of cities increases transactional spaces become inversely proportional and the number of resources consumed becomes directly proportional.


In the inner city of Mumbai, in a wholesale market, porters can be hired to transport goods from shops. They are all members of a porters’ association. They carry around large baskets to transport goods. In the afternoons one often finds many porters taking a nap inside these large baskets. The baskets are transactional objects that transcend its utility as porting devices and become spaces of rest on the street. Similarly hand-carts used to transport goods come together forming communities of leisure spaces in the market.



In the above examples, the staircase shop, the street, the complex section of a slum, the basket, are all spaces, objects and practices with high transactional capacities. The city produces these during its process of settling. These spaces/objects/practices help cities settle and contribute significantly towards their smartness.



Trips and Kicks


Swami Electronics on Lamington Road are makers of customised LED signboards. They also make lights and props for TV shows. The shop is located at the entrance of a building in front of the staircase block and occupies an area of 1.5M X 1.5M. About 60 years ago the shop was purchased by Manoj’s father who was a tailor. Manoj then took over the shop 24 years ago and started selling lights. In the year 1981, the movie Yaarana had just released. Manoj loved the movie. Its dance sequences, the lights costumes and Amitabh Bacchan, all fascinated him. He would watch the movie multiple times in the course of the year and was awestruck by the light suit worn by Amitabh Bacchan. Manoj made a light suit of his own with his father’s help and would wear it around in the evenings. Thus started his fascination with lights. This suit made him famous in the neighbourhood and he decided to start a light shop. Over the course of years, his shop evolved into an LED sign board shop. Many of his components are obtained from Delhi or imported from China.  Manoj often visits China to see what new products are being manufactured with LED lights and tries to make the same here. He has made the indicators at Ratnagiri railway station. These lights are priced between Rs.500-50,000. He has also got a few offers from MTV to do the lighting for some of their shows.


Just ahead of Manoj’s shop is Parasmani Electronics: sellers of remote control devices for air conditioners, televisions, DVD players and of Universal remotes. Located along the boundary wall of Agbotwala compound, it is lined with shelves on all three sides displaying remote control devices of all kinds. A large billboard outside the shop advertises his wares. Here Jignesh, a self-learner, makes, repairs and programmes the devices. Most of his material is obtained from Delhi or imported from China. There is a small acrylic donation box on the table right by the entrance. Jignesh collects money every year for a Gowshala (cow shelter) in Gujarat. This gowshala has eight hundred to nine hundred sick cows. Eight years ago when he visited his village, he decided to go to the gowshala nearby. The plight of the sick cows really saddened him and he realised that they needed more money to provide better facilities for the cows. Being a member of the Jain community, it is part of his religion to take care of animals. Since then, he has been putting rupees ten every day in the box. His customers willingly donate to the cause. At the end of the year, he makes his yearly visit to his village and personally goes to the gowshaala to hands over the money. Sometimes he also spends a day or two there, helping around with the activities.


In the lane behind Jignesh’s shop is Nicki Auto Garage, a Vintage car workshop. One wall of Imperial Cinema is a part of this garage. The garage was opened in 1975. Mr.Behram Engineer owns this workshop. His son now runs it and manages its day-to-day affairs. The workshop has ten permanent repairmen, while he hires 4-5 more people on a monthly basis. The office at the corner has one cabin, which is occupied by Behram, where he entertains customers and the one outside is for his son and two other people who maintain the accounts. Since the garage has been around for years, he has a regular set of clientele who are vintage car enthusiasts. Because of his steady clientele, he picks his clients and not the other way around. He has had a few bad experiences with people with ‘new money’ as he calls it. All his advertising happens through word of mouth and through Justdial. He gets clients from South Bombay, Bandra, Andheri, Thane, etc. Since the diamond trade business shifted to BKC, most of his customers have moved there. Moreover, there are not many shops specialize in vintage car repair and re-sale in the city. Most of their material is procured online. Mr. Behram loves vintage cars and his love for cars has been passed on to his son. Since childhood, his son would saunter around the garage playing with the cars. He loved to dismantle his toy cars and many a time, he would end up rendering them useless. Upon entering the cabin, one finds a sofa that resembles the front part of a car coupled with a set of working headlights designed by his son. He is enthralled by vehicles of all sorts and in the cabin hangs a picture of a fighter jet.


People in the city have trips of different kinds – getting an electronic shirt made, collecting money for dying cows, designing strange furniture, collecting strange objects, behaving like spies, writing stories, achieving mundane targets, dismantling machines, opposing new ideas, trying to walk across five countries, counting every tree, tracking obscure data, etc. Trips here are practices that go beyond the acts of routine. These practices are not useful to produce grand conceptualizations of cities and are often discarded as stray individual preoccupations. While some of these obsessions are related to earning and occupations, others are simply ‘useless’. Everyone seems to have a trip. Trips seem to provide individuals with their energy. Such energies cumulatively produce a city.


Settling, Transactional Capacities and Trips are the emotional quotients through which cities are made. They bring about smartness in cities. This is the smartness of everyday – a smartness that has grown from within the city and a smartness that makes the city. The projects of the ‘Smart City Mission’ have to work their way through this inherent smartness of cities.







Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty are urbanists based in Mumbai. They are trained as architects and specialize in urban design and urban management respectively. They are co-founders of the urban research collective, CRIT ( and of the School of Environment and Architecture (