To be truly radical, said Raymond Williams, is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing. Today, his words are both a diagnosis of all that ails the contemporary Indian city as well as the clearest articulation of what we must strive to be in the years to come. Amidst the smart, the inclusive, the global, the world-class, and the sustainable: how does one find the radical city?
This is no easy task. By their nature, cities concentrate both opportunity and risk, hope and despair. If growth rises, so does inequality. If diversity rises, then so does segregation. If infrastructure and built form expand, so do ecological risks. Historically, if cities have held innovation, mobility, and democracy, they have been equally adept at violence, poverty, and inequality. This is then where we must start: to acknowledge the city as a site of trade-offs, not the convenient listing of aspirations where the smart, inclusive or sustainable city can be created at no cost, no price, or without crowding out other visions and alternative futures. As India urbanizes, the only certainty we have is that these trade-offs will become more stark, with the stakes becoming higher for more and more people.
Continue reading City as a Site of Trade-Offs
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. Mr 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 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 Mr 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 Mr 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.
Continue reading Outsmarting the Informal City