Beware of These Unintended Harms of Smart Cities

Smart cities need to be inclusive cities

Why It Matters

Implementing new smart city technologies or methods without consideration of unintended consequences takes away from the social impact. With rose-coloured glasses removed, and sleeves up, leaders must get into the practical social implications of smart cities.

Many in the non-profit or social services sector may struggle to find the connection between smart cities and their organization’s mandate, expertise, and the interests of their stakeholders. We will explore some examples and contexts below that will hopefully make that connection, as well as its importance and necessity, a bit clearer.

It needs to be clarified, however, that this is more than just about adopting and leveraging technology in your work. There are many good examples of technology being put to use for social change or the public good, from relatively simple apps that help divert food to agencies instead of landfills and enables vision-impaired residents navigate the urban environment, to more advanced uses of blockchain to help people experiencing homelessness manage their identity documents, or data mining and artificial intelligence algorithms that can detect early signs of distress that could lead to self-harm or suicide.

Smart Cities

Even large public institutions and governments are embracing collaborations with the civic technology community. Hospitals participate in co-creating healthcare solutions with technologists through global initiatives like Hacking Health, while public servants are learning there are alternative ways of engaging citizens beyond the typical consultation model, with the help of groups like Civic Hall Toronto and Code for Canada (full disclosure: I serve on the board). Even small-town transit agencies are turning to new tech and data-enabled ways of doing business.

Using technology to further your work is good. Engaging the community to co-create solutions is even better.

But the rise of smart cities demands a higher level of understanding of how technology is impacting people’s lives. The unintended societal harms of many technological advancements are only now being brought to light, and with many more yet to be discovered.

Organizations fighting inequality, in particular, will have to step up their participation game. Social inequalities are already at unacceptable and unsustainable levels in Canadian cities, with the gap widening faster and further, leaving too many people behind. A smart city striving for data-powered efficiencies has the potential to make things better for some, at the expense of others.

The importance and value of your understanding of systemic injustices that disproportionately affect marginalized and minority populations, and your relationships with those communities, cannot be overstated or undervalued in smart city initiatives. Entire networks have been built to advance social equity for demographics ranging from renters and social housing residents, newcomers and refugees, homeless and at-risk youth, and people with language, health, or other barriers—these experiences are valuable lessons in how to help those who are unfairly targeted by AI algorithms, inadvertently harmed by tech-focused policies, or those who simply lack access, literacy, and opportunities in the digital realm.

Digital rights will need to become part of the lexicon and agenda of human rights and civil liberties organizations, and expertise in policy, governance, and the law are needed more than ever.

For organizations one or more steps removed from frontline social services, there remain important roles to play in shaping a more equitable smart city. Those currently engaged in providing STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education or digital literacy may consider expand their mandate beyond teaching kids how to code or use 3D printers to include broader societal implications of tech, and advocate for digital justice and inclusion.

Those involved in innovation and entrepreneurship can apply their knowledge and experience supporting entrepreneurs to help governments with procurement reform, which opens up opportunities for new entrants such as homegrown tech startups to participate alongside massive multinational tech giants when it comes to smart city public-private partnerships.

Research institutes and think tanks can be more vocal in helping residents understand the complex issues at play, and support grassroots groups working in the public interest. And organizations with the ability to mount large-scale public engagement campaigns can mobilize their community to catalyze the political will that is needed to confront these tech issues head-on without coming across as anti-innovation or anti-business growth.

A particularly ripe opportunity for collaboration in many communities is through the public library system. As a somewhat autonomous entity inside municipal government, often with its own governance board, it’s well positioned between the public sector and civil society.

No longer mere repositories of knowledge, libraries are now rightly recognized as critical social infrastructure, and facilitators of civic engagement and participation without financial or other barriers. They understand that offering computer labs are no longer enough—they now offer loans of wireless hotspots so people can access the internet at home, organize offline peer learning circles for people to connect in real life, and lend out musical instruments and run digital media makerspaces so people can connect, collaborate, and co-create.

There are tremendous opportunities for social impact organizations to partner with their local public libraries to offer not just physical access to technology but true inclusion in the digital economy and civic life, and building awareness and capacity of residents and civil society to adapt and respond to new challenges brought on by smart cities.

It’s worth the time to see how your city interprets “smart cities” and its vision and ambitions of how to become one. It’s imperative that you engage your organization’s stakeholders, collaborators, funders, and most importantly, the people and communities you serve, to ensure a smart city is also an equitable, inclusive, and just city.