Fast Urbanism: Between Speed, Time and Urban Futures
digital urban age
NOTE: This blog post consists of the script of the inaugural lecture of Prof. Dr. Ayona Datta at the University College London (UCL).
In the monsoons of 2010, my research partner and I were driving along the Mumbai-Pune expressway documenting its transformation. What really struck us was that while the journey used to take a good 4-5 hours in the rain, it was now reduced to a mere 2 hours. It was now possible to make a day trip to Pune from the Mumbai suburbs where we were located without waking up at an unearthly hour. It was already ten years since the expressway had been built, and more than two decades since it was conceived. The expressway had cut the journey time by half, but more crucially made possible a number of only too familiar developments along its course – new townships, new offices, retail spaces, tourist destinations and industrial zones.
We did not know then but what we were looking at was the rise of a new form of urbanisation that was brashly about the acceleration of time. To clarify, it was not that time was moving faster, but it seems that we were in a moment where our consciousness of the speed with which space was accumulated and dispersed across time became far more enhanced and visible than had been earlier. Time was no longer subject to waiting in the traffic, to slowing down due to poor road conditions or passing through rural settlements that required careful navigation between crowds and animals alike. Time could be accelerated because the material conditions of space removed these impediments – the expressway bypassed the urban to connect two major urban centres – Mumbai and Pune. The physical link produced a whole new language of temporality related to mega-urbanization along the expressway which used the rhetoric of speed and urgency to shape what and how an urban future was to be imagined.
In our work thereafter, we outlined a politics of fast urbanism where speed becomes the persistent feature of urbanisation as a way out of crisis in the global south. We argued that this speed is rhetorical and fictional, but also imagined and governed through the technologies of infrastructure both physical and digital. Fast urbanism entails a management of speed and efficiency that is the cornerstone of new urban developments in a digital age. Fast urbanism mobilises a specific kind of temporality of spatial accumulation – a time territoriality with its inbuilt faultlines. Fast urbanism is brought to bear in the nexus of state-corporate-expert coalitions that uses speed as a logics and an ideology of urban entrepreneurialism, innovation and regional development.
Ths Mumbai-Pune Expressway (Photo: Rohit Madan)
The digital urban age
In the 1990s as a young undergraduate student I was training as an architect in the same tradition. Just like my father – a civil engineer working as a consultant travelling across the global south designing bridges, expressways and other physical transport infrastructures, I was convinced of the ideology ‘design as development’. Like my peers, I believed that it was better design that could address the struggles of the marginal and vulnerable populations. My undergraduate dissertation on women construction labourers in Delhi sought therefore to understand how architecture and construction management could better respond to their practical gendered needs such as the need to provide creches, to provide spaces for breastfeeding and schooling on construction sites. I was not trained in qualitative methods but it was the generosity of these women that took me in the buses in the evening to their labour camps where I sat around the cooking stoves, chatted with them and their families, was introduced to their intimate stories of love, desire, sexualities and domestic violence and their most horrendous struggles with middle-men, with water, sanitation, energy, transport, education, housing. I did not know then but I was doing ethnography, and as an architecture student I was torn between documenting their lives and trying to articulate an appropriate answer to the faculty during studio presentations – ‘but what does this have to do with architecture?’ My supervisor finally said ‘Ayona this has everything to do with architecture – architects have a moral responsibility towards construction labourers’. I don’t think he realised but that comment put me on a lifetime pathway to look for gendered power in the making and transformation of cities.
These were the days before what we understand now as the ‘digital age’, and these women were not just marginalised in all sorts of ways, they were in the peripheries of information and knowledge about their rights which are now taken for granted by the digital revolution. Colonised by the conditions of their daily lives and labour, they were also colonised by the lagged or absent time of knowledge which would trickle down through the middle-men under highly exploitative conditions, combined with their position with patriarchal power structures in the home and kinship networks. Crucially their spaces were colonised by the temporal pace of the city’s rapid transformation post liberalisation in the early 1990s. They were part of the city’s speed yet were in its peripheries as far as their lived experiences of time were concerned.
Yet while women construction labourers long dispersed from their labour camps into the city slums in the late 1990s, Delhi’s strive for fast urbanism produced new subjects compliant with the spatio-temporalities of urban transformations in the early 2000s. A new judicial ruling was passed to make Delhi instantly slum free. Labelling slum dwellers as illegal citizens and pickpockets of urban land, Delhi saw massive slum demolition programmes to relocate them overnight to the urban peripheries in resettlement colonies devoid of any basic physical or social infrastructures.
During my PhD research in the 2000s, this ‘temporal fix’ of Delhi’s slum free aspirations manifested in diverse strategies of ‘waiting’ for the urban poor living in slums. Waiting became a form of gendered subjective time that unfolded across several spaces – home, neighbourhood and the city at large. Waiting was a strategy of time among subaltern citizens to equip themselves for the future – by learning about their rights, by blockading municipal demolition drives, by creating networks of solidarity and acting upon it. Whether those in slums waited for water to trickle through the public tap, for public toilets to be cleaned, for police to address their complaints about domestic and/or violence against women, waiting formed a condition that made visible the disjuncture of gendered time with fast urbanism. Waiting, I argued offered the time-spaces for critical learning and consciousness, that produced new rights claims to the future city.
At the same time, from the early 2000s, the rapid entry of internet and mobile phones in the market have transformed conditions of peripherality in a way that complicates these lived experiences of waiting. Fuelled by the rising middle classes and their demands for increased speed of communications, instant access to knowledge, information, goods, products and commodities, mobile phones have also become a particularly aspirational commodity across working classes, especially those most marginalised and vulnerable.
If we just take Delhi as an example, in the Census 2011, 68.2% households in Delhi had access to mobile phone. Delhi, with a growth rate of 50% internet users has added new users to its existing base at the fastest rate among these top eight Indian cities.
According to the DSIM Report (‘DSIM- Digital Marketing Blog’)
- With 220mn users, India is now world’s second-biggest smartphone market
- Over 20 mobile phone brands are now assembling their parts in India, mostly in the urban peripheries
- 60% of the of total internet users in India have access to the internet on their mobile phones.
- Mobile video traffic in India will grow at 83% CAGR between 2015 and 2020
Under India’s recent Digital India programme, which aims to connect all of these things and systems into a common infrastructure of information and communication, a digital urban age is being produced at a time when there still exists a crisis of urban infrastructure –disconnected, poor or absent infrastructures of water, sanitation, energy and housing mark the urban condition of the peripheries.
In this context, digital infrastructure offers the promise of speed where physical connections to all other forms of infrastructure is dubious at the least. It offers a speeding up of time, whether through the downloading of apps which enable one to pay bills or keep up-to-date with current events, or connect with family and friends on social media, digital infrastructure offers access to a public sphere of the internet even as one’s access and inclusion within public spaces of the city may be a challenge. Its thus easy to see why mobile phone is one of the most valuable assets for the urban poor. This is because of how it offers to open a world of information for those left out of basic rights to infrastructure and knowledge, and more importantly because of the shift in essential services which have now moved to digital space – buying train tickets, managing bank accounts, accessing welfare services and so on.
Yet there exists a huge digital divide that is both gendered and classed – ie working class women are less likely to own mobile phones, more likely to have low digital capacity and more likely to own basic mobile phones. More crucially the digital divide is also a temporal and geographic divide. Despite the promises of speed, digital infrastructures are prone to slowing or breaking down. Network speeds can be non-existent, wifi can disconnect, websites can be heavy to download on mobile phones, older mobile phones might not be able to access the internet, fake news and as recent events have shown us, internet shutdowns can be imposed by the state intent on controlling dissent and democratic right to peaceful protest.
Thus although exclusion from physical infrastructures does not necessarily mean exclusion from knowledge and information opened up through ICT, exclusion from digital space inevitably violates the most basic rights to information and knowledge in a digital age. For those already marginalised, this effectively means being timed out of the city.
100 smart cities
These observations have bearing on the current national policy on creating 100 smart cities in India. For the last few years since it was announced I have been doing research in several Indian cities, following their transformation as they roll out their policies and plans for smart urban futures. At a basic level these projects are no different from earlier infrastructure projects – either as riverfront development, or road and transport infrastructure, or water or energy infrastructures. But their embodiment as a smart city project comes wrapped up in the logics of digital technology reconfigured through big data, internet of things and more crucially – as a crisis of the future to be resolved in the present through technological interventions.
Put simply, the smart city promises speed. Whether through digitised land revenue systems, or traffic flow monitoring, smart water metering or smart waste systems, the logics of the smart city is not just to transform urban spaces, but also to transform the tempo of the city, its pace of organisation, management and governance through ICT. The smart city performs fast urbanism.
Ayona is a Professor in Urban Geography in University College London. She has cross cutting expertise in postcolonial urbanism, smart cities, urban futures, and gender citizenship. Ayona was awarded the Busk Medal from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in 2019 for her contributions to the understanding of smart cities through fieldwork.
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