Malaria, Doctors and Smart Cities

Malaria, Doctors and Smart Cities

Kunal Kumar, Joint Secretary and Mission Director (Smart Cities), Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs

I recently travelled to a district where malaria has been endemic for quite some years. The Government has, as you would expect, responded by posting more doctors. However, it was astounding to see an unexpected phenomenon in the data. Over the years, number of doctors and malaria cases had been increasing in direct proportion. Of course, doctors don’t cause malaria! So, what is happening here? Dissecting the paradox makes us visualize its complexity. The district gets excessive rain (nature), has remote areas which get cutoff (infra deficit) and people there have a predominantly outdoor lifestyle (culture). It is obviously impossible to bring malaria incidence down unless a bouquet of integrated actions is implemented. Posting more doctors is one action, an important one, but certainly won’t alone solve the problem, calling for a systemic solution.

And what have malaria or doctors got to do with smart cities? I dare say, technology is deployed in smart cities in a similar manner as those doctors are posted. A city is nothing but its people. Each day it wakes up to its familiar zeitgeist – underlying beliefs, unspoken assumptions, and ingrained traditions. Ramesh, the shopkeeper, Sita, the schoolteacher, Kanta, the college kid, Vignesh, the professional, or Kailash, the old man who loves an evening stroll characterize the city’s verve. Being cognizant of and tuned into the community’s ethos is at the core of modern-day governance. You cannot build a road through an old school building just because your transportation software calculates that to be the best possible alignment. Society is not an object of quantification. It deeply values its customs whereas governance tends to prefer its order. This constant tension must be accounted for, in the background of the city’s socio-political milieu, for workable solutions to be found.

While crime, pollution, filth, and congestion in cities are equivalents of malaria, technologies like IoT, cameras, sensors, decision support systems are akin to doctors masquerading as panacea for those problems. Just like doctors, they are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for success. Technology is a very broad term. It is used to refer to a general set of tools and devices, either hardware or software, used to perform various functions. Some of the planet’s smartest people are working tirelessly to create technologies to solve societal problems, be it in the sphere of energy, climate, mobility, or water.

Any new technology goes through multiple phases of evolution which hence allows time to social, legal, and administrative institutions to adjust their responses to them. That said, the pace and sophistication of emerging technologies have grown in recent times. Their power can be harnessed only if policymakers successfully bridge the chasm between rapid technological development and the relatively slow pace of institutional development. A classic case is of ride sharing, facial recognition, or even big data which has faced unsurmountable headwinds in many societies. Technology, per se, is agnostic. However, once deployed, you tend to feel as if you are riding a tiger. Till the time you are on top of it, you can harness its power. The moment you slip, you are at its mercy.

Cities investing in command-and-control technologies, can deliver immense benefits to their citizens through the aggregation of data and technologies. However, if they slip, they also run the risk of subversion and misuse through cyber-attacks, terrorism, and phishing. Citizens may feel that new technologies, for example, in areas like crime prediction, ranking systems, surveys, beneficiary selection etc., are like black boxes with their risks not being adequately communicated to them. Cities must communicate the socio-economic implications of deployed technologies to their citizens. Public debates, exposure visits, and independent studies may help allay those fears. Public trust is an important ingredient in civic success.

The most important part of solving complex problems is diagnosing them accurately in the first place. A reputed young company once excitedly pitched to me a product, which according to them, was the ultimate solution for traffic congestion in India’s cities - air taxis! Clearly, their understanding was – ‘the problem in society is not having the solution that they have.’ This hammer chasing a nail approach is unimaginably common. The need of the hour, for both public and private sectors, is to invest in a deeper understanding of the real causes of problems. Good results do not start with great ideas, they start by asking the right questions.

And what about technological numbness? Yes, technology can help in the entire cycle of solving problems - right from diagnosis to analysis of alternatives, deployment of solutions, evaluation, and iterative long-term development. However, let the anecdote of malaria and the doctors sober us as we undertake this journey. But is that all to a city! As AI, machine learning, other emerging technologies continue to creep into everything around us, cities need to guard against being numbed by their promise and should actively invest in developing systems to study how these technologies affect their societies in the process.

Investing in complex technologies without building robust institutional mechanisms is like plying heavy duty trains on weak rails. It’s bound to cause terrible consequences. Moreover, even successfully running train systems need continuous systemic investments in signalling systems, stations (infrastructure), fare and freight rules (policies), managerial and technical personnel (administration), reward systems to nudge performance (incentives). Adopting cutting-edge technology is no doubt important, if we want to transform living conditions in our cities and foster rapid, yet sustainable growth. Cities will need to foster a coevolution between complex technology on the one hand, and effective systems on the other by investing, among other things, in quality human resources, procurement systems and building learning organizations.

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