How can we put humans/citizens first in our smart city policies?


#1

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:


#2

Hello @pbihr, I am Alberto and have had the opportunity to do a bit of thinking around Smart Cities. I think you are spot on. Like all tech, but in a more direct way, the suites of solutions that make up the smart city encode values and power relationships. Building the smart city is not conceptually far from building the Next Generation Internet: it demands technical choices that encode values. For now, in both cases, the values have been those of vendors and business.

If you de-emphasize them, you can go quite some way towards “smart”. I used to talk of “Type 1-” and “Type 2 smart cities”. Type 2 are non-vendor dominated, and so they can do some smart things that imply the destruction of GDP. They can do repair cafés, and car bans, and community welfare, and mesh networks. They can be cheap and resilient and inclusive.

But even these things are not “smart” for everybody. They encode my values, and those of my tribe. And these are great, but in any healthy city there must be people who steer by other stars, who care about different things. Cities are ambiguous, because their social engine is diversity. Diversity fuels exchange, personal growth and prosperity, but also conflict and uneasiness. A stronger police present makes the parent of young children feel safer, but makes life miserable for African- and Arab-looking teenagers. A late night bar can be a place of joy for the younger citizens in the neighborhood, but a source of nuisance for the older folks that live upstairs from it. For this reason, I am unconvinced that you can find “metrics”. Whose metrics are we talking about?

In his 2013 pamphlet, Adam Greenfield makes a convincing case that there can be no unambiguous, value-neutral metrics to maximize. Cities have to be regulated by endless dialogue and debate, right out in the agora. In other words, though the notion is unpopular, by politics. I am afraid he is right. If by some miracle you could steer a city by keeping metrics at nominal value, you would have reduced its complexity to the point where it is no longer a city, but something like a jail, or an amusement attraction like Disneyland.


#3

Smart cities to me imply that there will be a tight grid of 5G or stronger transmitters densely packed in cities. Does human centered also include studying and adjusting for health effects? So far it seems that it has hardly been studied. And all I hear is the inevitability of it.

And a human centered city would allow users to have pretty sophisticated awareness and control over the date gathered about them. I know that in public places one has greatly reduced expectations of privacy, but the data still goes someplace.


#4

You and @alberto are both raising excellent points. I think the only way to approach this is to start at the very foundational level, which is to organize this part of our lives exactly like all the other big societal areas: By moderating and navigating the various (and often conflicting) interests through democratic means - in other words: introducing transparency, accountability and democratic oversight. Currently, smart city projects are often ushered in through the back door of public procurement in processes so obscure and opaque as to be essentially free from meaningful oversight.

This is where the question of metrics later should be decided (but currently we don’t have the policies in place to make that possible) and where we can decided collectively which aspects of health impact should be studied…


#5

I brought up health effects because in an embedded video in another topic it was admitted by an industry person that although deployment is planned and being carried out initially there have been no studies. It could be that it is all fine, and I for one hope it is. But this is part of the tech Kool-Aid where the benefits always outweigh the risk.
That said, I am also quite wary of wanting to slow down or prevent technological progress because there must surely be some unknown long term bad effect.