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What Makes a City Smart?




The term “Smart City” has become a popular buzzword used by technologists and governments, on projects and deployments in South-East Asia from Phuket to Cebu and beyond. However, there really isn’t anything novel about the“smart city” as it is essentially the latest iteration of a re-occurring concept born out of Richard Florida’s Creative City, or John Kasarda’s Aerotropolis, the “city of bits”, which see cities as hives of creativity and innovation. The city is indeed a ripe pace for innovation and this is a topic certainly worth exploring, but what happens to those who do not live in cities? Are the non-city-dwellers to be excluded from these promised futuristic benefits? Simply put a “smart city” can be defined as cities that deploy the use of sensors or “Internet of Things” technologies to collect data, typically stored in the cloud, with algorithms deployed on various computing platforms to optimize the processes. Many areas are subject to such optimizations: safety and policing, healthcare, transportation and parking, garbage collection, education, and produce sourcing, for example. Some of the goals the technologies address are specific to local conditions such as flood prevention, while many others are more generally applicable in different cities around the world.


As city administrators typically do not have the ability to manage complex technology infrastructures and large-scale software deployments, these solutions are often provided by 3rd-party vendors. This relationship creates the following stakeholder groups: citizens - who should be thought of as the ultimate beneficiaries of the optimized processes, city administrators who are making the budget decisions, and vendors - the ones developing and deploying the technologies. Each stakeholder will have their own interests and points of view, and what can be observed is that these interests are not always aligned.


Smart city operations, for all the benefits they can bring, also raise numerous ethical concerns. For example, the sensors and cameras deployed in public spaces for traffic optimization can easily be repurposed for mass surveillance in support of an authoritarian government. These types of tracking technologies could even be used to control citizens' movements. Technologies that optimize may also regulate, organize, and impose norms that affect behavior and are only as benevolent as those directing them.


Even assuming nefarious goals are not directly being pursued, there is still the issue of data ownership. ven if citizens are consulted and agree to share personal data through sensors in the public space, they rarely if ever read the fine print and are almost certainly not fully aware of how this data could be used in the future. Moreover, algorithms that act on data will evolve over time; and data previously collected can be fed to new algorithms and thus be repurposed for goals than those initially intended. Collected data does not disappear, and therefore the incentive for repurposing the data will also remain.


Smart city use cases include various machine learning and related AI technologies to act on the data collected in the public space. These algorithms are as valuable as the data sets used for training them. Using limited or inaccurate data is a known challenge and could have significant underrepresentation effects, especially in the case of various minorities. Moreover, often times machine learning is tasked with “predicting” future actions based on previously collected data, which contradicts human free will and does not respect individual agency. If a citizen did something in the past it does not necessarily follow that he or she will repeat the same action in the future, and thus machine learning based predictive policing for example is fraught with risks.


To mitigate the potential risks citizens must be truly included in the discussion of smart city risks and benefits. This should be a broad and comprehensive inclusion, especially for those who are and are not technologically savvy. It is also important that citizens living outside of the city hubs are included so that the benefits of these technologies can be more inclusive. This type of broad-reaching inclusion is necessary to ensure that the interests of different groups are heard and involved in the discussion around using technology for the public good. Ultimately it's getting the full inclusion of all important stakeholders that truly makes a city smart.


Written by Julian Petrescu an Expert & Contributor for Aiforgood Asia