Over the last year or so, I’ve been exploring smart cities from a citizen empowerment perspective (for some time, as an Edgeryders fellow; you can find my previous topics here). And since smart cities are a big, big, big market, there are competing narratives here: Are they an opportunity to increase efficiency of energy use or service delivery? A threat to privacy? A bit of both, or something else entirely?
These are legitimate lines of argument, and there are many more. But it’s important to remember that yes, these lines of arguments really are just narratives: Stories told to sell one concept (or product!) or another.
I’d like to share a few of the more interesting aspects that have crossed my radar, even though they’re in a bit of a complex relationship to another, and think out loud — and to humbly ask for your thinking on the matter.
In no particular order, some loosely connected dots:
- Is collecting data for its potential (economic) benefit always worth it, wonders Bianca Wylie. The implication is, of course, that it isn’t, that there are real risks involved. And also, as someone from the IKEA smart home division once mentioned to me, data can be a liability, because handling data securely takes a lot of effort. How would you argue that for the city? Could it be framed in economic terms? Should it?
- SDG goal 11 is about sustainable cities and communities, a goal to which smart cities might have some value to contribute to. (Complementary, see U4SSC (PDF), the United 4 Smart Sustainable Cities initiative that breaks SDG goal 11 down for the smart city context.)
- The European Commission’s White Paper on Artificial Intelligence (“a European approach to excellence and trust”) lays out that among other things, one of Europe’s strong potentials for excellence lies in public sector and industrial data that is currently under-utilized but could be harnessed and made available in so-called “data pools”. Does this apply to smart cities? Should it?
- When in Toronto the government(ish coordinating body) decided that Sidewalk Labs’ smart city proposal should be evaluated for its potential impact, that analysis was to be grounded on human rights and digital rights, specifically as per the UN human rights principles and the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights declaration.
- I’ve argued that for data-driven infrastructures like smart city projects, we need a very high bar to assess risks. Concretely, that the guaranteed improvement must outweigh the worst case scenario.
(The latter few points also led us to launch a new initiative to offer that kind of evaluation and relevant trainings in which we look at smart city initiatives from, equally, human rights (UN) + digital rights (Cities Coalition), and how to align everything to also contribute to SDG goal 11. (We call it the Berlin Institute for Smart Cities and Civil Rights, and I’m curious to see where that will lead us.)
So I’m wondering how these things align, how they relate to one another. At the surface, the points mentioned above might imply that I argue against smart cities. I don’t! I think there are real opportunities here: For sustainability, for participation, for government service delivery. But what are the trade-offs, projecting 10, 20, 50 years into the future? These are big decisions we need to make, and make now.
No matter how you look at it, these are complex trade-offs — and complicated stories. What are promising approaches to navigate that maze? How can we get there without getting bogged down by party politics or overly simplified talking points? Developing meaningful language for this space is tricky; it’s also absolutely essential.