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Urban security and perception of cities

The security in the cities currently is limited in its imagination of city as a series of physical infrastructure.

The strongest common link between 9/11 and 26/11 attacks are their ability to get two of the biggest cities, known as the engines of growth, to a standstill. Even though innumerable attacks on cities like Paris and New York City have shocked the world in the recent times, our cities continue to rely on cure rather than prevention.

The last few years have made urban security a vital part of the national security discourse. With the incessant rise in urban migration there has been a consistent rise in the density and inequality within the cities. This has had two significant impacts- one, just because of the sheer number of people living in cites, the cost incurred from a natural disaster or a terrorist attack is proportionately higher than any incident is the rural end. Secondly, the rise in inequality and limited availability of resources has perpetuated petty crimes and underground network of illegal activities.

As the criminal activity and vulnerabilities of the cities increases, one can rely on economics for answers. The two important economic concepts in play while planning for security within cities are- network effect and tragedy of commons.

Cities are essentially a continuous built up area with high density. This density within the cities reduces the effort involved in connecting people and ideas. It is this feature of cities that makes it lucrative for cities and conducive to crimes. In addition to the huge population that helps to maintain anonymity, cities also offer a wide range of human and capital resource which helps in promoting a network of illegal activities. It is in this regard that factors like unemployment, low standards of living and illiteracy makes it easier to attract more people into criminal activities. Therefore, city policing is incomplete until and unless these interconnections are kept in mind.

Richard Little in the famous paper ‘Holistic strategy for Urban Security’ points out that “it is more effective and economical to think of urban security in neighbourhood or district terms rather than as protecting individual buildings.” As per Little, the city security infrastructure is limited to protecting important building in the country. This is evident as the Research and Development in protecting infrastructure is unscalable. Thereby a certain building being highly protected does not ensure the safety for the neighbourhood. These shortcomings make city infrastructure highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks and natural calamities, even though enough R&D had been done on these issues for years now.

The other major shortcoming in urban security planning, also highlighted by Little, is that a lot of it relies on the promptness and the rationality of the residents. Security is a public good, that is, no one can be excluded from being safe and one person being safe doesn’t stop another person in the same region from being safe. Hence, there is no incentive for an individual to invest in safety if others around him/her are doing so, also known as free rider problem. This one feature of security is the key reason for the limited amount of investment made on personal security by the individuals. This also the reason why the government has ensure public safety.

Hence the current system relying on residents and the citizens to take responsibility for the safety of the neighbourhood is highly optimistic and unreliable.

These two factors are just a part of the bigger problem of understanding and reducing urban security. Hence, the institutions in charge for urban security will have to re-evaluate their understanding of cities such that they stop another 9/11 or 26/11 from taking place.

Devika Kher is the Program Manger of Takshashila’s Graduate Certificate in Public Policy course and a policy analyst at Takshashila Institution. Her twitter handle is @DevikaKher.

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ICT and the perception of a city

The advent of Information and Communication Technology has changed the perception of cities along with urban designing.

In the last two decades Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has modified all the three aspects of a city- economic, social and political. The evolution has been such that ICT has even changed how cities are perceived.

In a chapter in his book “Urban Theory and the Urban Experience”, Simon Parker explains how the perception of cities is getting closer to the idea conceived by sci-fi writers like H G Wells than the urban sociologists like Bruges. Parker expands on how the movement from the machine age to the information age has affected the organisation of capital, labour and space altogether. The most recent examples being the increase in the amount invested by the venture capital funds on startups completely based on internet. The growth of ICT has altered the idea of an industry from being a machine centric unit to a human centric unit. Hence the cities which were defined by the large industries in the neighbourhood have shifted to IT oriented spaces.

This evolution of the organisation and the economical structure has had a major impact on the cities. Parker has broken down the impact of ICT on  three broad areas- first, based on the impact on the physical cities, second, on the urban designing, and finally, how ‘urban’ is perceived in the cyber space.

The impact on physical city, the first broad area, is visible clearly from the present condition of the shopping malls. With the rise in the electronic retail options, the decline in the social relevance of malls as both the shopping and a public space is lost. The easy delivery services and low storage cost has worked in favour of both the buyer and the sellers. The impact doesn’t stop at economic factors though. The virtual world has also affected the relevance of city spaces. For instance, the once thriving fan clubs keeping the cafes in the city alive have all shifted to online forums. It is an outcome of these changes that has eventually penetrated into the current urban designing and planning.

Urban designing is an outcome of the city spaces and resources within the city. The nature of the key economic sector plays a vital role in designing how the public infrastructure is designed. For instance, in the case of Bangalore, the IT capital of India, there are various Tech Parks across the city serving to the needs of the booming IT sector. In other major cities like Mumbai, the financial capital, the expansion is based on the commercial complexes that house various head offices. 

Moreover, the increase in the ICT has modified the way traditional cities were perceived. For instance, with the increase in electronically mediated meeting places, the cost spent on the actual office infrastructure is reducing. The phenomenas like work from home or startups originating in the rented houses are becoming a phenomenon. Hence, the city now are designed to attract highly skilled labour into low cost city spaces that are highly connected both physically and virtually.

This interaction between city spaces and the virtual world is not one sided. As much as the virtual world has modified the perception of cities, the current urban theories and imagination also tend to seep into the virtual world. A common claim with the rise in ICT was of a decline in traditional dense cities. However, as also mentioned by Simon Parker, the rise in ICT is concentrated within the dense metropolis more than the rural ends. Hence, the proliferation of ICT is still reliant on the tradition features of a city like agglomeration economies, and highly integrated networks.

It is therefore evident that the rise in ICT might change the idea of a city from being a cluttered space covered with smoke from the nearby industrial belt to a set of residential and corporate structures relying on ICT to make the city work.

Devika Kher is the Program Manager for Graduate Certificate in Public Policy and a policy analyst at Takshashila Institution. Her twitter handle is @DevikaKher.

Image source: Telectroscope aperture at London City Hall showing Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf, Wikipedia 

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Blockchains and societies

Some practical and impractical applications and implications of blockchain.


Photo Credits: Flickr

Blockchains are useful when you need to maintain an immutable history of transactions in which both parties do not trust each other as well as the intermediary. It is also useful in maintaining the anonymity of the participants in a transaction. Given these characteristics what does it mean for countries and societies at different levels of development and organization?

Close to dysfunctional government

Honduras recently has an incident where the top level bureaucrats went into the system allocated whole swaths of land to themselves. Such incidents do not inspire confidence in the authority which is supposed to safe guard people’s land rights and resolve dispute. A solution using blockchain to maintain land records was proposed to solve this problem.

Fiscally irresponsible government

When Argentina faced run-away inflation in 1989 people lost trust in the value of the currency. A currency such as bitcoin which is based on the blockchain technology can be a recourse for people in such a situation as no country can alter the supply of a digital currency forcefully.

Societies with irresponsible media

News based on photographs and videos taken on mobile phones are increasing becoming common on social media as well as main stream media. Unfortunately, so is their tampering and obfuscation. A system where all media is put on a blockchain before it is shared will ensure that it cannot be edited or deleted later on. Thus there will always be a permanent link to the that piece of information which can be visited in case of confusion or controversy.

Societies with poor banking services

Since trust is in distributed in the network peer-to-peer money transfers can be enabled with the inter-mediation by banks. The commission for mining will still have to be paid but the transaction can be recorded on distributed ledger and no one will be able to contest it.

Societies lacking unique identity documents

Services such as onename or keybase use blockchain technology to authenticate users uniquely. Other features like bio-metric information or attributes like address, birthdate, etc. can also be added on top of this.

Societies with authoritarian governments

The transactions on a blockchain are anonymous and thus difficult to track. They can be used for conducting transactions when the parties involved do not want to reveal themselves. Though the privacy provided is not as strong as it seems and there have been many instances when actual people behind the pseudonyms and keys have been identified.

Societies where stock exchanges do not function properly

Since a trusted intermediary is not needed blockchain can be used to trade digital assets or assets which can be uniquely represented in the digital form. This can also be applied to betting markets.

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