Women’s safety has become a rallying cry in Delhi and its environs, where I live. Arguably, it’s become a talking point across India and in many parts of the world. Arvind Kejriwal’s election promise of 100% CCTV coverage reflects the widespread phenomena of the elite fencing themselves into gated havens, imagining they are keeping the unwanted at bay. Extend that thought and you have private cars ferrying kids to school when they should have taken the bus and girls being asked to restrict their choice of college because commuting is unsafe. Clearly, safety and the perception of safety is driving how people live and work, how productive they are and how they interact socially.
Well-designed quality infrastructure is non-negotiable
A large number of studies have shown us that it is quality infrastructure that will provide the base for making spaces safe and livable. A recent study that asked the question “What is the latest time in the day that you feel safe returning home alone?” in rural and urban spaces across India found that amenities and infrastructure had the largest impact on perceptions of safety.
It doesn’t matter whether it is urban or rural, basic infrastructure, including lighting, sanitation, electricity, streets, drainage and efficient public transport, is non-negotiable. More than any other interventions, including quick-fix technology, well-designed hard infrastructure for public use will empower everyone (not just women) and, over time, change attitudes too.
Technology is redundant if physical infrastructure is simply not there
The soft infrastructure that integrates tech can be a great complement, but fails when infrastructure is missing or badly designed. I’ll give you two examples.
#1 School bus alert systems
I get a set of SMSs everyday before the school bus arrives to pick and drop my kids. One of these gives me a time for arrival of the bus. The estimate is made by a computer based on an algorithm that factors in the route map, expected traffic at time of travel, etc. But the large number of uncertainties introduced by water logging, poor quality roads, mismanaged traffic etc mean that the estimated time is almost certainly off. Every afternoon, someone waits anxiously for a bus that announces it will arrive at 4:00PM when it actually shows up 8, 10, even 15 minutes later! A clear case of redundant technology.
#2 Women’s helplines
Asha, who worked as a nursing assistant for my grandmother a few weeks ago, pooh-poohs my suggestion for using the police helpline to report harassment, which she says she faces several times a day on her two-hour, 21-km long commute to work and back everyday. I would say she would not have hesitated to to dial the helpline if her daily commute was largely hassle-free, but as of now she has internalized the violence she faces and the technology appears redundant to her.
Let’s focus on the right things: Fix the pavements, lights, roads…just fix my city!
Personally, I don’t want the protection of my brothers and male friends when I get home late from work or a dinner appointment (As we know from the Nirbhaya case, this is no protection anyway). I want a lit pavement to walk on and the assurance of a late night bus service instead!
I don’t want a CCTV camera on every street corner of my city. Instead, I want clean, lit, accessible public spaces where families, young girls and boys, the elderly, basically everyone can access, frequent and make safe by their participation. The central park in Connaught Place (Delhi’s central business district) shuts down at sunset, while student theater groups who try to practice there have been asked to leave because they are a threat to security!
I don’t want a helpline that is flooded with requests and unable to help anyone. Instead, I want a safe city where the police can concentrate on those who really need their help because the majority of us are able to get on with our lives empowered by decent public amenities and infrastructure!
There’s this guy in office. He’s just got off the phone from an hour long conversation in which he was offering pointless employment advice and life gyaan to someone who I suspect just had nothing better to do.
Whenever my mum calls her driver to ask him to get the car up, his phone is busy. We have to assume he has seen the missed call and the car will usually arrive in ten minutes!
A cousin spends an average of three hours a day in silent conversation with his girl.
The mobile revolution has been a great thing. Cheap phone calls, the ability to stay connected all the time. The ability to have a conversation when it isn’t needed. The ability to while away time spent waiting at street corners, inside cars, at bus stops, on the Metro, between classes, between meetings, during lonely nights, during blank moments in the midst of babbling friends…and so on.
It’s given so many of us a sense of purpose, it’s mind boggling really! What does he mobile revolution mean to you?
Aadyaa is raring to go! She is a few months beyond five and studies in a progressive school where they take it fairly easy in introducing basic concepts and she has just about finished covering the alphabet. However, she is a big fan of Udai, who is nine and is grade 4. Result: We have a super aggressive learner on our hands right now. She wants us to assign her 3-digit addition problems and we struggle to ensure that they do not have the carry-over issue to deal with. She wants to read and write.
Today she has been working on writing out a description for an illustration she has made. This is happening in the other room. So there is a writing pad going back and forth in which I write out a word and she copy-writes it onto her creation. I haven’t yet seen the product of all this activity, but am totally amused by her little frustrations and triumphs.
Learning is such a fun process. Why do we make it such a drudgery? Why do we link learning to fear- fear of failure, fear of punishment? I see the joy Aadyaa takes in discovering each new fact, each new formula (Udai was the same in pre-school) and in contrast, I see Udai starting to get bogged down by the compulsions of learning, and starting to somewhat lose the excitement to discover new ideas. There must be a good way to keep excitement levels high through middle and senior school! Technology, perhaps, could be a good tool, but I see school hesitate to go that way for various reasons.
Thinking back, I found some subjects painful, especially in grades 11 and 12, but now I see the lethargy was either because of poor quality teaching or too many distractions and I’m none the worse for that short phase. For the most part, I have found learning a lot of fun and continue to do so. In fact, I can learn and study all my life! On that note, let me get back to my work….a part of which is trying to find flexible ways to pursue a PhD in migration and urban planning.
Ok, I managed to click a few pics of what she is upto….here you go!
Sometimes I wonder if it’s just the easy access to technology via phone cameras. Or a narcissistic streak. Or a penchant for documentation.
What is it that draws my 5-year old daughter Aadyaa to obsessively take photos of her art work, random creations or just certain objects? It started with her asking me to click pictures of things that caught her fancy. Now she simply asks for permission and does it herself (she has complete mastery over my iphone).
I look back at these pictures often in an attempt to see the world through her eyes. What do you make of them?
“Urban thinking, whether related to architecture or urbanism, has become dramatically less focused on infrastructure, and more on the ultimate goal and reason for the existence of cities — that is, the well-being of the people that inhabit them and constitute their very soul and essence.” I am quoting from the ‘100 Urban Trends’ report brought out by the BMW Guggenheim Labs after a 33-day series of free workshops and citizen consultations in Berlin. This glossary of terms is an attempt to document the “temperature” of a specifc time and place, Berlin in the summer of 2012 and it is interesting to note how some things havent changed and at all and yet, how citizens and urban professionals alike are moving towards a more human, more experiential understanding of what a city is. So much for those bizarre robotic urban imaginations depicted in sci-fi movies. Cities for people are here to stay!
I find it heartening that this sort of people-centric thinking is gaining prominence and read it as a sign that there will be a growing movement towards changing the bureaucratic and technocratic mindset to a more interdisciplinary one. Here are some of the concepts I found really reassuring and exciting:
The idea of community life and accessible and well designed urban commons (better known as public spaces) is now well understood and established. There seems to be concern that urban environments are reducing the number of connections we make and a recognition of a need for city design to help us maximize human connections.
The role of citizens and non-designers/non-experts in how a city evolves- terms like ‘activist citizen’ and ‘bottom-up engagement’ are turning traditional thinking about urban planning and design on its head. Collaboration, crowd-funding, digital democracy, self-solving, place-making are some of the related terms that give an insight into the muria ways citizens can influence their urban environment. The citizen is no longer being viewed as a passive player at the mercy of policy and regulation, but as a powerful force of change.
Sustainability as a growing concern is reflected strongly and is intertwined with the ideal of a healthy city. This in turn includes ideas like the need for experimentation, walkability and cycling as a means to get around, a concern for food security and the links between urban and rural, mixed-use over the typical use-wise classification of spaces, intelligent buildings and smart cities, the reduce-reuse-recycle adage, the need to promote the share culture, the idea of upcycling (increase the value while reusing) rather than merely recycling,…many innovative trends can clearly be seen in this area. To me, these moves towards sustainable living combimed with bottom-up efforts can really be a potent combination for positive changes to happen. However, all of this will hinge on the ability to create awareness, dialogue, debate and a deeper and wider understanding of the issues among non-designer, non-expert citizens.I found it interesting that the report acknowledges the sheer complexity of urban form, and how the megacity is changing our notions of the centre-suburb model. This is a significant shift that will influence lives and the practice of city design considerably.
The idea of “Minimum Variation, Maximum Impact” in which small changes can be made to move towards more “sustainable and socially responsible cities” seems like a good way to do things.
The powerful concept of ‘cities as idea generators’ was in here too, and it is vital for cities to leverage their innovation power in order to grow economically and to survive in an ecological sense as well.
The idea of technology as a driver of change came across strongly, as a means to interact and have dialogue, as a means to deliver services, as a means to collaborate, design, a whole bunch of functions in fact.
[On another note, Disneyfication was a term I loved here. Its something I’ve always thought about and never realized it was an actual term! It refers to “a process of urban transformation that increases homogeneity and simulated reality rather than the preservation of historical elements and cultural difference.”. Poor Walt! I’m sure this wasn’t his intention….]
What does this report mean for another city, another time, another context? I work in India, in the Delhi-NCR area, which happens to be one of the fastest growing urban agglomerations in the world! I certainly see many of these trends relevant for my city. As an urban practitioner, the 100 Trends outlined here help me think through and prioritize issues even as I often gasp with the sheer complexity of what we do as urban problem-solvers! Most importantly, some of the terms here helped me find specific ways to move to a more people-centric, people-driven agenda for city development, and that’s a big reward.
Sherry Turkle has been thinking about the social and psychological impacts of the Internet and that makes this session super exciting. Technology is having a deep impact on us, changing who we think and even who we are. Is it taking us to places we don’t want to go? What are the ethics of advancement? Questions we ask all the time. Are we humanizing tech while we dehumanize ourselves? Robots become men, men become machines. This is her life’s work. Eager to hear what she has to say!
Hackers gave her a clue that humans now see their minds as a computer. Change in the way we evolve. Changing our identity. Initially celebratory about these changes, Sherry is now not so optimistic. As a psychologist, she thought it fascinating that people could experience playing with identity and learn from their online lives to live better real lives. The situation has turned darker now. She saw in the ‘90s that mobility changes. Transitions between computer identities and real connections become faster. We were never completely present to our reality. Another phenomenon was sociable robots. A new kind that doesn’t try to be smart, but tries to make you think it loves you. By using the right gestures, this robot pushes your Darwinian buttons to make you feel someone is home. Fascinating! We nurture it, we love it. She began to study these bots used in Japan for eldercare and to be nannies. Strong attachments to computers that do not deserve our love and that we never leave ourselves alone at all are disturbing trends we need to be aware of.
Why would we rather text than talk? Because it gives a larger sense of control, which is seductive. We can hide real feelings. Tech allows us to have the illusion of companionship without the demands and intimacy.
So does tech make us lonelier? All those of us addicted to technology, are we actually keeping the real people out? The real relationships away? I wrote about this recently. One of the wonderful things about being here at the Thinkest is to hear experts and researchers take forward my tentative musings about how we live life. That’s why so many of us are back to this fest.
People text at funerals, mothers in the park are texting…Are we losing the sense of human attachment? I find that scary, concerning. Why do we want to be elsewhere when we are somewhere? Why do we go there at all? I don’t want to be this sort of person, who forgets the difference between conversation and mere connection. The person who forget nuance. But yet I love what technology makes possible as well. When we have sessions at Shikshantar where my kids go to school, we often are told about how texting during dinner is not a great thing to do. We roll our eyes, hate the lecture! Well, Sherry used the exact same example today. Children deserve to grow up feeling they are important enough for us to set aside even something as important as technology. And I agree.
We need to set rules for ourselves that will help us achieve some sort of balance. We need to make a better attempt to really connect, with ourselves and then with people around us, then also with issues and events. Many levels of connection make life exciting.
What is reassuring is that Shirley thinks the younger generation is more likely to be able to build a tech Sabbath, build in breaks from technology. We, who came to it later, appear to be completely smitten! Kids might stand a better chance to achieve the balance. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that when children are little, say pre-teens and teens, we adults who ‘parent’ them (I say that in a larger sense) have the opportunity to give them a real sense of how important human contact is. We can love them with all we have got, reach out to them, involve them. Give them a legacy of humanity so that they can use technology to their advantage without being emotionally consumed by it.
This is the day I was waiting for and was wondering how far down my blogging project (Project 365) this would happen! Day 12 nearly spelt the end for my resolution, as my Internet connection refused to work. Was nearly giving up and feeling pretty miserable when, on the umpteenth reboot of the modem, it has started working feebly once again!
Our urban lives have become so dependent on technology, especially mobile phones, computers and the Internet, that it is impossible to imagine what life was before! I am pretty tech-dumb and have taken long to adapt to each new technology change. Today, when I am able to figure out a cellphone menu, its only because these devices have become inseparable from us and literally rule our lives.
So does technology only mean that we do things faster and more easily, or does it signify a deeper shift in the way we think, learn, experience and communicate? Up until recently, I had the more conservative, former view. But as I watch my children effortlessly navigate an ipad, I am changing my views on this.
Not so long ago, I read an interview with a gaming technology expert who talked about how gaming, if used correctly, can help in skill development, education, enhancing reflexes, etc. Then, I went blah! Today, I think there might be something to it.
Sam Pitroda, at a curtain raiser to the India Urban Conference organized by Janaagraha, Yale University and IIHS in November 2011, spoke about our inability to adapt to the mind blowing changing that are taking place in technology. Life no longer has to be the way we have practiced it for so long, but since human nature is to resist change, we continue to live life in the same vein. He gave the example of how much energy was wasted traveling to face-to-face business meetings and how much more efficient it would be to do these by teleconference. In the past few years, I have been on the editorial team of an international publication and have used Skype innumerable times to conduct meetings and interviews. Since I have crossed the invisible line of acceptance in this specific context, I didn’t find his suggestion strange. Many in the room sniggered, though!
My concern is with battling with the mental acceptance of technology change as an inevitable reality that we constantly need to adapt to. Is it crazy to lead your entire social life on social networking sites? We all thought so a few years ago, but many of us are actually able to have meaningful conversations with dear long-lost friends and family only because we DO live our lives on FB!
As a parent, its doubly confusing. I have total screen-time limits for my kids per day, which means computer+ipad+TV+cellphone. Right now, its an hour for holidays and half an hour for weekdays and these are increasing as they grow older. Is this too conventional, based on the thinking that staring at a screen is bad for your eyes, that watching mind numbing programming is killing your brain cells? Already, interactive software on ipads and computers (and even TV!) have blurred the lines terribly!
Technology will continue to blur the lines, challenge our business-as-usual attitude, create excitement and shape our behavior. Will it also impact deeper things like our value systems, the depth of our relationships, the tenor of our emotions?