Beyond Global Visions: Local Imaginaries for Indian Cities

Instead of envisioning “world-class” futures for India’s cities, we need a new imagination for equitable, climate resilient and low carbon urbanisation.

Imaginaries of the “world-class” city are traditionally exemplified by visions of Singapore, London and Dubai; cities with skylines dotted with glass skyscrapers, modern and efficient infrastructure and influential business districts. These global cities boast of competitive markets that attract global investments and have high standards of living, albeit if only for the upper-middle class

Over recent years, there has been a proliferation of research aiming to identify and rank the most Liveable, Global, Competitive and Powerful cities in the world. This fascination with measuring and comparing cities across a set of indicators signifies an underlying interest in reverse engineering the process of becoming a global city, suggesting that there is a ‘recipe’ that can be followed to attain global stature. Indian cities have long aspired to transform into modern and world class metropolises, but is it as easy as copy-paste from the likes of Tokyo or New York? These collectively held and publicly performed visions of the future shape development narratives, policies, institutions and social choices. Instead of envisioning an urban future based on Western imaginaries of utopia, Indian cities need to reimagine equitable and sustainable Future Cities, where the benefits of urbanisation are equitably distributed and cities are able to adapt to emergent climate risks. 

Creating the Global City

Globalisation has led to a change in power dynamics for cities. International markets for financial and specialised services have contributed to the agglomeration of multinational, specialised firms in a handful of global cities. With this power, cities play an important role in the flow of global capital investment and create a network of global cities that other cities strive to join. 

The Globalisation and World Cities Research Network was one of the first organisations that worked to deconstruct the characteristics of these global cities. They used the “incidence and intensity” of advanced service production to evaluate a city’s geopolitical and economic advantage. Today, there are a plethora of companies ranking cities from consulting firms to media houses to multilateral organisations. Many of them have moved beyond exclusively quantifying the economic prowess of cities and are using quasi-scientific indicators to attempt to quantify urban success and quality of life. They explore a vast range of socio-cultural indicators, ranging from airports with international flights and diversity of culinary offerings to the number of broadband subscribers and the volume of international tourism, along with traditional economic indicators.  

To gain a strategic advantage and transform into a global city, these rankings suggest that ambitious cities must invest in infrastructure that supports highly interconnected markets as well as the “creative class” who service them. This lends credibility to the very limited idea that success can be prescribed and its benefits (often in the form of high standards of living and service provision) are evenly distributed within global cities. In reality, inequality and poverty are still rife in many of these “world-class” metropolises. 

Indian Visions of Global Urban Futures

Indian cities have experimented with (re)making themselves into world class metropolises. From concept plans to make Mumbai more like Shanghai to new Singapore-inspired greenfield capital cities like Amaravati, these visions have mostly failed to materialise, with a one notable exception: the ‘Bangalore Model of IT Growth’. 

Bangalore has been touted as “India’s Silicon Valley”, a city that grew from a medium sized town with large public sector research institutions into a global IT hub as it attracted multinational corporations during the IT boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. While this model has inspired other states and cities to create IT parks with the hopes of attracting global capital, there hasn’t been enough attention given to the processes behind such transformations nor the problems that have arisen given the rapid expansion of the city to accommodate new industry. 

It’s been more than a decade since Michael Goldman unearthed the processes behind Bangalore’s transition to a global IT hub. His research uncovered how the evolution of Bangalore into a world class city was highly inequitable and rooted in speculation. The production of the world-city infrastructure projects required to service the growing IT hub usurped agricultural land from rural residents as the city expanded from 226 sq. km in 1995 to almost 700 sq. km in 2010. This was enabled by the newly empowered and internationally funded parastatal agencies who envisioned the transformation of old cities into ‘central business districts’ and ‘corporate campuses’. This dispossession of agricultural communities from Bangalore’s hinterland highlights that the visions of global cities clearly do not benefit all.

Similarly, within the city itself, the benefits of Bangalore’s transformation into a global city haven’t been equitable. Despite “world-class” airports, new malls and luxury housing developments catering to an elite population, the city has witnessed a rise in ‘mega-city problems’ like poor water supply, inadequate sewage, hazardous air pollution and the proliferation of informal housing. The condition of the city’s ecosystems has deteriorated as well: either transformed into land for the burgeoning real estate markets or contaminated by sewage and pollution, previously flourishing lakes and wetlands are now contaminated and serve as breeding grounds for disease vectors. So, while Bangalore continues to grow based on the assumption that the IT industry will forever be dominant, has it really succeeded in becoming ‘world class’? 

Conclusion

With much of India’s urban infrastructure yet to be built, especially in growing, mid-sized cities, it’s clear that the dreams of world cities must be reimagined to meet local needs. While Indian cities clearly need future-oriented planning, including the development of transport, housing and social infrastructure, it’s important to learn from development trajectories of cities like Bangalore and failed visions of greenfield developments like GIFT City and Amaravati: urban development paradigms can’t be based on speculation and infrastructure projects. India’s future cities need to navigate the uncertainty of climate change and the complexity of technological transitions. 

Cities not only need technological and infrastructural change but urgently require social planning for low carbon and climate resilient urbanisation. Instead of rooting visions for the future in indices and standards based on global imaginations, community and local aspirations must be incorporated in shared visions for the future. 

Learn more about how Transitions Research is working to co-create shared visions of urban futures through our People’s Urban Living Lab on our website: https://transitionsresearch.org/pull 

Share this:

Related:

AI-plus blog series

This blog series aims to explore the various dimensions of AI as socio-technological assemblage, and examine its situatedness within diverse social worlds.