Making Social Impact Sense of Smart Cities in Canada

A guide to uderstanding the social impact potential — and limits — of smart cities

Why It Matters

For all their virtues, it must be said that smart cities can’t solve all the social issues rooted in complex and entrenched systems. Leader in the world of impact have a role to play in maximizing the social potential of smart city initiatives where you live.

Smart cities are enjoying a moment in the spotlight.

A number of municipalities have been dipping their toes into this domain in recent years, often in conjunction with tech or telecom companies.

The highest profile example of this type of public-private partnership was announced in October 2017, when Waterfront Toronto, a tripartite government agency charged with the development of industrial lands adjacent to downtown Toronto, chose Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, to envision and build a new neighbourhood “from the internet up.”

A few months later, the federal government launched the Smart Cities Challenge, a competition between large cities, small towns, and Indigenous communities with a total prize of $80 million to be divided amongst the winners with the goal of turning their smart city visions into reality.

While there is no consensus on a standard definition, the idea of smart cities typically involves technology and data — and lots of it.

If we embed enough sensors into our civic infrastructure and connect them to the internet, the thinking goes, then we can use the massive amounts of data it collects to make faster and more informed decisions, delivering more responsive and personalized services to residents, resulting in all-important cost efficiencies.

The potential outcomes and benefits are myriad: smoothly flowing traffic, reduced energy consumption, a more engaged citizenry.

These projects may seem well outside of your organizational mandate, or perhaps they just feel like the innovation flavour of the month.

Regardless of your familiarity or affinity for this sort of thing, there is considerable connection to your work as a social sector leader.

The magic that underpins most of the promises of smart cities lies not in the sensors and other networked devices, but in the software that makes sense of the collected data. That real-time stream of ones and zeros is so vast it requires the kind of artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities that are only becoming widely available now.

As the influence and power of technology increases, the ability of our democratic institutions and regulatory bodies to keep pace with the changes they bring and provide the necessary oversight and accountability is rapidly diminishing.

Far from being a futuristic sci-fi scenario, proprietary algorithms are already in control of many aspects of our public and civic life, from determining the prospects of academic and job applicants, to assessing one’s creditworthiness, to setting bail conditions, and even directing how and where police departments deploy their officers.

It may all sound benign: Isn’t the point of technology to make our jobs and lives easier? Why shouldn’t it help us make faster, smarter decisions free from emotional and subconscious bias?

Photo by Scott Blake on Unsplash

Consider this: Artificial intelligence becomes more intelligent by analyzing tremendous amounts of data and with human guidance and corrections, learns to make connections and recognize patterns that it can then apply to new scenarios without any human input. An oversimplification, yes, but the takeaway is that AI is not “born” intelligent—it is influenced by historical data, which reflects entrenched systemic social prejudices, the unconscious biases, and the blind spots of the humans who create and refine it.

In this context, the need for a more diverse workforce in the technology sector (currently over-represented by those who are relatively affluent, white, and/or male) becomes apparent, as does the imperative for public institutions and civil society to have the ability and capability to understand, audit, and regulate how these algorithms work.

If they are to remain a proprietary “black box” of commercial intellectual property, trusted with adjudicating decisions that have a lasting impact on people’s lives without the proper oversight, the people most likely to be harmed are the very demographics you serve as a social impact organization, thereby perpetuating the inequalities that spurred the existence of your organization in the first place.

The challenge for social sector leaders, like you, is to separate signal from noise; the hype machine from the genuine potential for transformative change. It’s easy to leap to a quick conclusion either way—to dismiss or blindly embrace it all, but it’s imperative we get better at knowing when to embrace disruptive technologies in order to break out of the status quo, and when to recognize that we can’t blockchain our way out of an entrenched social problem.

Smart cities are supposed to be better cities, but for whom? How are they making life better, more affordable, and more equitable for its most vulnerable citizens? This is a question that is too important for the social impact sector to sit out. We need a seat at the table and we need to participate with an open mind, but a critical eye.