Tack Back the Tech, Mumbai

As a digital native who also inhabits the physical space of Mumbai city, I dream of a ‘digital city’ that knows no demarcations between the virtual and the real worlds. After all, times are strange and the avatars that we take on in cyberspace are seamlessly connected to our real selves in the brick and mortar of our homes.

In my dream, the digital-city mimics aamchi Mumbai in everything but one element: that of democracy. Digital natives practice ‘participatory’ politics and understand that they are the ‘represented’ and can hold those claiming to represent them, accountable. They take it as their right and court debates across public platforms – the entire cyber-space forms their audience pool for matters that concern the city and its health.

In contrast, in the waking world, city-natives always feel a yawning gap in their dreams and the reality that town planners, government departments and architects offer them. They have been left out of the processes of participation a while back and are the recipients of built-dreams rather than active participants of one.

It’s more than irony that the people who are going to live and breathe the city have no say in how better to manage traffic; provide transportable settlements to slums; design eco-friendly streetlights; have a viable and vibrant hawker zone; design learning spaces that sync well with the localities they are in; and the endless list of do-able ideas that never get past the bedrooms and college canteens of most Mumbaikars.

This is where digitalia can help us in better assimilating cyber-technology to the city’s needs. Mumbai’s new digitalists understand the dynamics of instant access and control, one-to-many communication forums, user-oriented platforms and most importantly, a culture that thrives on openness, transparency and a level playing field.

In dreaming of a better, technologically advanced Mumbai, I invite town planners to ‘Facebook’ with architecture students, civil engineers, geo-physicists and scientists, not to forget the electricians, plumbers and interior decorators, the housewives and school kids, the paanwala and beedi maker to all get together on the public forum to discuss, ideate and develop new projects.

Right from the ideation and concept stage, to the time when draft blueprints are drawn and suggestions are sent back and forth for revisions between all stakeholders – the represented and the representors – we would have communities sharing their feedback instantly with planners via ‘Pokes’, ‘Likes’ and ‘Tweets’.

Planning and designing for something as commonplace and neglected as an ATM machine, sulabh sauchalaya, bus stands – would be considerably user-friendly if someone in the area – a construction worker or senior citizen or the physically challenged for instance – are able to experience the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of such facilities through 3D virtual environments. They are already a reality today and it isn’t a giant leap to dream of such technologies being used on the streets of Mumbai.

And In the true nature of ‘crowd sourcing’, I would dream of installing Street TVs on every nukkad, galli and chowk of Mumbai. Jumbo-sized interactive, touch screens that project details of latest plans, design and facilities in 3D – three dimensional like how you experience 3D movies in the theatre – but more real with the technology of ‘augmented reality’.

Weekly voting forums on what is a hit and what’s a miss with the aam junta would be instantly recorded and captured on video camera and the municipal departments can then revise their plans. After all, democracy is for the people, by the people, right?

These technologies do not aim at holding the government hostage, but aim at holding them accountable for citizens’ lives. The spaces that we inhabit everyday shape the people of Mumbai and I dream of a city which is not afraid to ask for opinion and ideas. It in fact, goes a step further in exploring the dynamics of a participatory culture to build and rebuild Mumbai from scratch, right up to its skyscrapers. Take back the tech, Mumbai!

Nilofar Ansher
<With thanks to my friend Nighat Daad for the inspiring title>

This article has appeared in the Mumbai newspaper DNA – Daily News and Analysis. To read the e-edition, click: http://epaper.dnaindia.com/newsview.aspx?eddate=1/11/2011&pageno=8&edition=9&prntid=132607&bxid=924&pgno=8

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