Outsmarting the informal city

Informal is often described as being ‘outside’ the system. So, how do we scale and secure informal services without losing the flexibility and innovation that make them effective?


Photo: Mayank Austen Soofi/Mint
Photo: Mayank Austen Soofi/Mint

In an online documentary archive called Delhi Digest, Saleem Shakeel, founder of an e-waste recycling company in the city, speaks to the camera about e-waste. The setting is familiar. Shakeel sits on the single chair in what looks like a small, partially built room of exposed red brick. There are piles of objects which, like the room itself, appear used or discarded. If you conjured up an image of “informal” and “waste,” this is pretty much what you think of. Ashish Nandy would perhaps describe an outsider’s view of it as he once did for the way we see the “slum”—all that stubbornly refuses to bow out of modernity’s way. It’s hard to imagine technology here, let along big data or smart solutions.

Yet as Shakeel speaks, it is precisely technology and data that flood your mind. He describes how e-waste circulates through circuits and geographies in the city that we rarely see.

Sophisticated flows of work and labour are ready when the computer comes, each finely skilled and discerning. Different workers take the different parts—CPU goes one way, the keyboard another. They break further: mother boards, drives, power supply, wires, the iron, the gold chip. Every last bit is used, and its use is determined by the current market’s daily prices. No two days, says Shakeel, are the same; you have to know, and you have to be ready to adjust. Information—that less glamourous cousin of “data”—flows quickly, endlessly, in many modes and forms. The circuits are opaque, but they work.

These are the circuits of everyday life in the Indian city—not just in e-waste but in any other urban sector you can think of from transport to water supply. They are what make our cities work. Certainly, they are often vulnerable, uncertain, “informal,” unable to do enough. Equally, however, they are also resilient, sustainable and able to survive in conditions where almost every other more sophisticated (and technological) process has failed.

The informal is often described as being “parallel” or “outside” the system. The truth is that, for most urban residents, they are the system. Whether we think that “system” is innovative or exploitative, vulnerable or heroic, the problem or the solution, it is still where we must start.

Listening to Shakeel should remind us that it is not just what looks like technology—after all, what else is the computer he is taking apart—that determines what functions smartly, sustainably and at least efficiently, if not optimally. Smart processes almost always outlast new technologies because they are not dependent on any one technological mode to work. As modes change, the processes shift.

E-waste is the most material reminder that technology quite quickly becomes an object from being a means. Much of the technological infrastructure of the Smart City will indeed end up with Shakeel. The circuitry of the cameras, the plastic of the sensors, the wires of the cables, the skeletons of the multiple computers of the command centre. The mistake we should not make is to read this eventuality as a failure or absence of smart-ness. It is not. It is, in fact, precisely the evidence everyone is looking for—of it working at a very high efficiency.

A search for smartness is a search for how to wield technology and data in the city. Fair enough. Shakeel needs both. He also has both. Yet, current understandings of smartness misunderstand him on both counts. In the first, we misrecognize what kind of technology can be embedded into what it is he already does, where he does it, and who he does it with. On the second, we confuse ourselves by thinking that he is data rather than seeing him as a producer and consumer of data.

Our smartness wants data—big data—that will allow us to control rather than empower.

It is data that “we” use on the policymaking side, not one that is generated and circulates between, for example, the formal and the informal, the institutional and the everyday.

It is not data that he needs that would make what he does even more efficient, more secure, scalable, replicable, moveable.

It needn’t be this way. The irony is that “informal city” and the “smart city” are remarkably alike. They both seek to thrive outside governance, to overcome its limitations, to find ways to operate that are flexible and innovative. In turn, they need dynamic and responsive regulation that offers them stability without seeking to control them.

They are constantly looking for the new next now, quickly responding to new information about opportunities. They both need data and they both trust only particular sources as well as particular ways of gathering information. They are both “disruptive.” They plan, but they wear their plans lightly. They are impatient with yesterday, they don’t take today for granted, and they don’t pretend to be able to ever accurately predict what comes tomorrow.

What they don’t share is that one survives without the recognition and resources of the state and society, while the other leverages them. What separates the informal and the smart is not what they are but what they are able to do and become. Technology could be critical to helping us think through how to secure and scale informal services without losing the flexibility and innovation that make them effective in the first place.

However, it will not do so, unless smartness begins from our cities as they are, not as we wish they were.

Gautam Bhan teaches at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore. He is the author of In the Public’s Interest: Evictions, Citizenship and Inequality in Contemporary Delhi.

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