Bengaluru’s Self-Claimed Culture of Innovation Cannot Rescue the City from Falling Apart

Technology

Bengaluru’s Self-Claimed Culture of Innovation Cannot Rescue the City from Falling Apart

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

The Bengaluru airport is pretty far from the city, a boon for those visiting for the first time because it serves almost like an outstation tour. It also works into the hands of those trying to come up with a punchline for their next comedy set. We’ve all heard these jokes before, and for those of us like me, who have made this city their home, we laugh as well. Because what else can you do? Bengaluru positions itself as the city of innovation, where humanity’s greatest problems are being solved by tech and innovation and yet this city, beaming with ideas and full-throttle aspirations, is creaking at its heart. As the collapse of public infrastructure due to the recent spell of rains shows, there is no innovating your way out of years’ worth of poor urban planning and disastrous expansion.

It’s been a year since I took that journey, and the city never fails to baffle me. There seems to be an app for everything except waste disposal and public transport. It’s easier to buy things in this city than to throw them, which speaks a lot about the material dreams it nurtures. Every other day you’ll find someone based in the city sharing exotic pictures of its cloudy skies and screenshots of low temperature readings. The perfect place for innovation, except when it rains, it is as good as hell anywhere else on this earth. There is a lot of greenery everywhere — even the money-minting concrete parks are brimming with trees, a solace for those burning their brains day and night for multinational corporates. And yet there is no logical way to travel, rest, access public spaces or simply, get up and leave.

Bengaluru positions itself as the city of innovation, where humanity’s greatest problems are being solved by tech and innovation.

As the Monsoon arrived this year, I felt local enough to dread what was coming. As a Mumbaikar I’m not new to this narrative of urban un-development, but in the city that claims it is the hub of innovation, such dastardly infrastructure rears its head out like a nail. I spent a good deal of my morning scrolling through horror stories of people dealing with waterlogged homes. Their appliances ravaged, furniture and hopes damaged. Despite its eye-watering pay packages, and mercurial innovation India’s Silicon Valley, often functions like the ruin of a once flourishing city. Bengaluru has lost a lot of its forest cover, its lakes, peace and maybe a sense of identity with it. Maybe innovation is not what it stands for but what it holds onto as some sort of tent pole to lean against. What else would a crumbling city turn to for succour?

Isn’t tech supposed to be the answer to all worldly woes? Isn’t that what they do in those start-up towers? Find solutions? When the country’s and maybe the world’s best brains are all here in this city, cashing in on ‘talent’, why do we still not have ways to tackle the wrath of the rains, roads, traffic and basic infrastructure? Or are these problems too unsexy for anyone to want to solve? Bengaluru’s creaking infrastructure has often made me think that self-declared innovators don’t want to find solutions to real-world problems, but instead want to invent the bandage to cover generational wounds with. Bengaluru is going down the drain, but the techies won’t stop fetishizing cloudy skies and low temperatures even if it’s the nightmare of getting from one place to the other that keeps them up at night.

The collapse of public infrastructure due to the recent rains shows there is no innovating your way out of years’ worth of poor urban planning and disastrous expansion.

My years in Mumbai have taught me to be kind to the municipalities. They do the best they can with the sarkari machinery at their disposal. The scope of their work is often too vast to allow for innovation and ideas. It’s the innovators I’m mad at — why are there too many apps to deliver food but next to no operational innovations that can help people lead easier lives? Also why is every solution an app?

But then again, all the aspects that make this city great are linked to privilege. It belongs to those who can spend a thousand bucks for a meal, not to those who sleep on the streets. And those who can hail cabs with apps or buy new ones, not those who use cycles to deliver goods on hilly terrain. Maybe that’s why there aren’t enough innovators interested in these issues, because they don’t see them as issues. I was lucky (and privileged) enough not to get stuck in traffic or stranded without a vehicle in the past few days, because I didn’t step out. But I’ve heard first-hand, horror stories of those who were. Maybe that’s the ideal way to live here — staying indoors and ordering, clicking pictures of your food, interacting with delivery boys as if they were your only view into life on the outside, and posting that mandatory pic to let people know just how cool the climate is over here. It’s what we see that matters, and Bengaluru is nothing if not the hub of selling a make-believe siesta.

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