Ignore the futuristic visions of governments and developers, it’s humble urban communities who lead the way in showing how networked technologies can strengthen a city’s social fabric

From Porto Alegre’s participatory budgeting and the literally destratifying cable cars of Caracas, to Nairobi’s “digital matatus” and the repurposed bus-ferries of Manila, the communities of the south are responsible for an ever-lengthening parade of social and technical innovations that rival anything the developed world has to offer for ingenuity and practical utility.

Nor is India an exception to this tendency. Transparent Chennai’s participatory maps and the work of the Mumbai-based practices CRIT and URBZ are better-known globally, but it is the tactics of daily survival devised by the unheralded multitude that really inspire urbanists. These techniques maximise the transactive capacity of the urban fabric, wrest the very last increment of value from the energy invested in the production of manufactured goods, and allow millions to eke a living, however precarious, from the most unpromising of circumstances. At a time of vertiginously spiralling economic and environmental stress globally, these are insights many of us in the developed north would be well advised to attend to – and by no means merely the poorest among us.

But, for whatever reason, this is not the face of urban innovation official India wants to share with the world – perhaps small-scale projects or the tactics of the poor simply aren’t dramatic enough to convey the magnitude and force of national ambition. We hear, instead, of schemes likePalava City, a nominally futuristic vision of digital technology minutely interwoven into the texture of everday urban life. Headlines were made around the planet this year when Narendra Modi’s government announced it had committed to building no fewer than 100 similarly “smart” cities.

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In order to understand how we might get there from here, we need to invoke a notion drawn from the study of dynamic systems. Metastability is the idea that there are multiple stable configurations a system can assume within a larger possibility space; the shape that system takes at the moment may simply be one among many that are potentially available to it. Seen in this light, it’s clear that all the paraphernalia we regard as the sign and substance of government may in fact merely constitute what a dynamicist would think of as a “local maximum”. There remain available to us other possible states, in which we might connect to one another in different ways, giving rise to different implications, different conceptions of urban citizenship, and profoundly different outcomes.

The sociologist Bruno Latour warns us not to speak airily of “potential”, reminding us that we have to actually do the work of bringing some state of affairs into being before we can know whether it was indeed a possible future state of the system – and also that work is never accomplished without some cost. I nevertheless believe, given the very substantial benefits we know people and communities enjoy when afforded real control over the conditions of their being, that whatever the cost incurred in this exploration, it would be one well worth bearing.

The evidence before us strongly suggests that investment in the unglamorous technologies, frameworks and infrastructures that are already known to underwrite citizen participation would result in better outcomes for tens of millions of ordinary Indians – and would shoulder the state with far-less onerous a financial burden – than investment in the high-tech chimeras of centralised control. The wisest course would be to plan technological interventions to come on the understanding that the true intelligence of the Indian city will continue to reside where it always has: in the people who live and work in it, who animate it and give it a voice.

This text was commissioned by LSE Cities for the Urban Age newspaper, to coincide with the Governing Urban Futures conference held in Delhi in November 2014.