Civic Labs: Bangalore

Civic Labs: Bangalore
In mid-June, I organized a mini expert workshop on the future of cities, information, and inclusion at Jaaga, a temporary structure and cultural hub designed to support meet-ups and other lightweight events. It’s a continually expanding community of artists, designers, and cultural entrepreneurs around Bangalore, and it’s in at least its second major iteration, having moved from another temporary site a year ago. Jaaga is good example of lightweight innovation. The barriers to entry are few. It doesn’t cost very much for its organizers or the people who visit. It’s easy to organize and conduct a meet-up. The structure is reinforced pallet racks with electricity, sound and weather barriers, and wifi. There’s a cafe and a courtyard nearby, and it sits near the center of the city.

The setting made it appropriate for revisiting IFTF’s Future of Cities, Information, and Inclusion map and asking how we could better use maps as tools for engagement and participation in Bangalore and beyond.

The range of attendees was considerable. Urban planning, business, and social entrepreneurship endeavors were all represented. The group brought perspectives from integrated transit, design, solar electricity, development, education, landscape architecture, simulation and modeling, journalism, and infrastructure. Many stakeholders were notably absent, but that was okay since the goal was iteration, not completion.

The workshop included a brief introduction to IFTF’s mission, research areas, and methods followed by a mutual introduction among the participants. We briefly explored the map and embarked on a discussion of its main features, with participants quickly grasping the meaning of the forecasts and highlighting the contradictions the forecasts posed to everyday life in Bangalore and India. Good things were said about the map and the research. Some had even used it to support their own work. The map design was interpreted quickly.  We had a broad ranging discussion of keen insights in the morning, and in the afternoon we worked towards some new forecasts in small groups, reporting back to each other to finalize the workshop and identify potential actions.

IFTF uses Signals as early indicators that point toward the emergence of larger trends, breakthroughs, and practices that will define the future. Signals could be new technological inventions, a research discovery, social practice, or even an individual behavior. A handful of interesting signals came up over the course of the workshop ranging from trading networks that minimize the cost of watching streaming movies, water body APIs, open data from the tourism department, performance-oriented loans linked to health indicators, and toilets where people can see each other and gossip. It’s difficult to find research and documentation for signals like these on the web, but it is possible. What’s more important is moving beyond the big stories that get all the PR towards more effective instances that don’t always tell a story as cleanly or crisply.

In order to engage with the map, I asked participants which areas they were most concerned with. After the break we clustered around three areas:

  1. Pro-Poor Interfaces and Actionable Data Streams
  2. Transparent Resource Webs
  3. Crowdsourced Public Services

 Pro-Poor Interfaces and Actionable Data Streams were combined because separating makes both irrelevant in the context of Bangalore. In order to access data, interfaces have to extend to the needs of the poor, while the interfaces themselves are irrelevant, unless the data are actionable.

Some important top-down or institutional considerations included:

  • institutional acknowledgement of biases in data
  • creating resources for semantic annotation to provide cross-compatibility
  • glossaries for data representation
  • institutionalization of data as a legal requirement
  • the use of different media, languages, and locations
  • non-intrusive data collection and reporting
  • enforced accountability (so data don’t come after deadlines)

And we had a discussion of critical competencies for public engagement with data including:

  • A better understanding of what data are
  • Understanding the difference between quantitative and qualitative measurements
  • Moving from one-off data literacy approaches to ongoing efforts
  • And moving from non-inclusve and anti-poor to access

The group looking at Transparent Resource Webs delved into issues of measurement and classification, especially at the interfaces of natural resources and social inclusion. People questioned the definition of inclusive development as it’s applied to tanks (water reservoirs), largely as a way of saying that the current state of affairs is not serving the public good.

Managing for a resource’s site location was critical, as was interpreting land development from the perspective of social layering and an outcome of social class structure–indicated by the extent to which graded rates of water stratify the service quality that residents receive.  There also seemed to be a strong desire to reassert traditional approaches to water and land management, favoring the reestablishment of historical approaches and a local vernacular for land classification, land records, and waterbody parceling.

Participants highlighted several trends and practices that would activate more foresight:

  • from flat to dimensional representations an maps
  • crowd sourced classifications of data (including technical, ecological, and traditonal)
  • a unified definition and significance for water and land
  • mapping high and low level flows through the city with historical and modern methods
  • creating interfaces for land ownership and architecture-based decision making
  • the development of simple parameters and simple interfaces for public resource indicators
  • defining different languages for different spaces
  • reinterpreting values for different spaces
  • greater role for the historical names of places (e.g. temples, tanks, groves, neighborhoods) in urban development to situate them within a resource context

Public transport was addressed in Crowdsourced Public Services, and people instantly jumped to solutions. I personally loved the example of Mexico City’s Metro icons as an example and signal of universal design for wayfinding around public transport.  Participants discussed a variety of potential solutions broaden the quality and uptake of public transport–particularly among the middle class in Bangalore.

Some of the conversation threads ranged from using comment cards and boxes to collect feedback, mixing private and market models, implementing cross-platform smart cards, levying congestion taxes, encouraging more dialog between government and transit authorities, requiring that government officials ride public transit, changing the conversation to focus on more personal responsibility among the public for transport, standardizing policies for stakeholder engagement, and moving from fragmented transport infrastructures to more inclusive accessibility. In a rare acknowledgment of a success, it was noted that Bangalore has one of the lower rates of public harassment of women on public transport, perhaps due to special ride zones, but also to the attention the issue has received.

What were some of the big insights that emerged, and how can we get better at forecasting the future of cities, information, and inclusion in regions like Bangalore, South India, and the Global South?

 

1. Forecast maps around cities and infrastructure can revisit assumptions around what kinds of basic social and physical infrastructures are in place for a given locale. 

Infrastructure is a great starting point for surfacing local controversies and concerns around information, infrastructure, and services. In the context of Bangalore and India, public services, data streams, mapping, leadership, public safety, health, and participation are not an integral part of everyday life–at least not in the same way we experience them in the United States. That makes it difficult to translate those experiences and have a realistic discussion of around the future.

The definition of public good provides an example. Access to different infrastructural resources like public transport, clean water, and pedestrian walkways tends to be limited for one reason or another. One reason for this is the tendency (at least in India) towards infrastructure investment and asset creation (input-focused) at the expense of service design and experience (output-focused). The downstream benefits to those most dependent on public transit, quality water and sanitation, electricity, and safe roads are often unrealized compared to those who participate more directly in infrastructure provisioning.

2. Maps highlight how the lived grammar of cities and their infrastructure is in direct conflict with the means of representing it. 

In a city like Bangalore, the use of maps as a wayfinding resource is a relatively new introduction, especially for public services like bus routes. Even if the maps of the city were correctly labeled in one or more of India’s 22 official languages (or even just the 4 local vernaculars: Kannada, Tamil, English, Hindi), the city still changes its shape on a more or less everyday basis. Bus routes are fairly stable, but they change as new roads are being added. Places have three or more names–in different languages and for different contexts. The major landmarks are changing, and memory plays no small role. When I lived there, I remember a hotel/restaurant called Shavarati that was replaced by another, Sagar Deluxe. Four years after the transition, the landmark for autorickshaw drivers and cabs is still referred to as Shavarati. Maps are expensive to produce, and getting around by landmarks or feeling your way with the crowd is much more intuitive. And another thing. Maps give access to unexplored territory. They show locations and places that were formerly hidden from view. For many residents, particularly in unsanctioned slums, that’s dangerous knowledge to have because it can lead to eviction.

3. Externalities, like human resources and infrastructure services, are accounted for differently. 

The poor make Indian cities sustainable. Critical skills and roles may only be partially accounted for in the broad content of urban life. Domestic help, and road, drainage, and sanitation workers, for example, are often excluded from lists of skilled professions, and this makes data inclusion and access to civic services difficult for many. Hiding income is also big deal for the poor. And because the thresholds for inclusion in city services and benefits can be confusing or ill-formed, people are very scared to reveal income data, making true costs and benefits of planning difficult to discern.

4. NGO market competition for funding means that reliable data are closely withheld as a resource.

There are over 2 million NGOs in India, and trust between them is scarce. Although some good national data resources exist (e.g. national census and NSSA), getting access to reliable, local data is a big obstacle for long-term urban planning. This means that connecting the loop between city services, outcomes, decision making and the shape of everyday life is often an unmet need.

4. Discussing the future is a better path to public engagement than complaining about the present.

There is ongoing conceptual change around the idea of a public good. One of the biggest challenges is moving discussions of infrastructure and services away from what’s wrong with them and towards effective descriptions of what they could be. This means developing and sharing a clear vision of the future, without embarrassment or concern for individual recrimination. Shifting the context into the future is a clear way to bypass many of the hurt feelings that inevitably arise when discussing issues that diverse stakeholders care about. This may mean creating future-based perspectives that (on the one hand) don’t come true, but which can nonetheless be used to focus community change to identify necessary skills, leverage those skills and abilities towards uncommon problems, and (on the other hand) seek broad responsibility from all stakeholders in the outcomes.

This week saw the failure of the entire north and east regions of India’s electrical grid. The outage affected around 700 million people across multiple states and cities. Discussing the future of cities, information, and inclusion will not directly affect the everyday availability of electricity or solve large-scale infrastructure issues in an immediate way.  However, if we look directly at the assumptions of infrastructure (current technology), how it intersects with the urban fabric of cities (social practice), what externalities are as yet unaccounted for in the system (politics), what data could be leverage to get a better picture (information flows), and which engagement strategies create more direct action (foresight), then yes, I do think we got the pieces in place for creating more resilient cities.

 

One thought on “Civic Labs: Bangalore

  1. gharp on

    Bharath writes:

    Hey,

    Just wanted to mention two points:

    On “Some important top-down or institutional considerations included” for “non-intrusive data collection and reporting”: Given the complete lack of any privacy laws in many countries and with completely paranoid countries at the other end, shouldn’t this be a cause for concern? Shouldn’t this become one of the critical components around which stakeholders such as the government and the organizations monetizing such data be brought in as well?

    A general thought, while the effects of infrastructure on the city seems to have been discussed. I wanted to know if people also discussed the second order effects that large infrastructure projects have on the urban poor? Issues surrounding migrant labour, displacement of slums, effects of “signal-free corridors” on neighbourhoods that are divided can be addressed better by bringing these stakeholders into the discussion. The shift from an opinion/agenda driven debate to that of a debate informed by (Maybe empirical?) data will help. But to do so, it must become clear that the need of the hour is actually long-term sustainable solutions and not short-term, high-visibility quick fixes. This would also take time and would mean that a lot of effort will have to go into bringing this into focus.

    Regards,
    Bharath

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