As co-founder of the ThingsCon community (https://thingscon.org) that advocates for a responsible and human-centric approach to Internet of Things (IoT), smart cities have become an important focal point for my work: While the term “Smart City” itself is a little vague and ill-defined, smart cities are where the digital and the physical world meet, and where algorithms actively impact our daily lives.
The more cities are being connected and thus turned into Smart Cities, the more our society faces complex issues around power dynamics, control, and access. In other words, where machine decision making (artificial intelligence, machine learning; take your pick) starts impacting and shaping our public space, every single citizen is impacted by technological systems that are largely black boxes.
Today, the discourse around Smart Cities is largely dominated by the vendors of smart city tech: The debate is using their language, the framing of possible solutions matches their products. There isn’t anything malign going on, either - but the arguments are one-sided and myopic: They are selling technical “solutions” to complex societal challenges. This can never work, and is problematic in a myriad of ways.
I propose to re-frame the Smart City discourse away from a technology focus and towards a focus on societal impact and ask a different set of questions than the tech vendors’ solutions are trying to answer - like the following:
What are the potential impacts we can have when introducing a data layer and machine decision making into public space? What are the desirable consequences, what are the damages we need to avoid? What are the intended vs unintended potential consequences, and what are the known unknowns? How can we design a city to be resilient and worth living in, instead of just a little more efficient?
In other words: What are better urban metrics in cities increasingly governed or shaped by algorithms? How can we put people first and make sure that their cities, their public spaces and agoras work for all of them and not just for the companies that sell some of the infrastructure?
Working out these metrics, an analytical framework for assessing what’s desirable in a Smart City, is the key to unlocking a real, meaningful debate. It’s the basis on which policy makers, using participatory processes and involving all stakeholder groups, get empowered to start drafting meaningful Smart City policies and procurement guidelines. It’s an important building block in allowing us to move society forward, one city at a time.
At this point, I’m convinced we need to build all Smart City policies around citizens/digital/human rights first, and with a strong priority on participatory processes, transparency, and accountability.
Beyond that, these metrics need fleshing out. It’s this project that I’m proposing to tackle together with the Edgeryders community.
For some background on me, some links: