Smart cities fascinate me. The ability to use technology and analytics to make cities more efficient, track pollution, and help unravel transportation problems such as parking are well documented. Less well documented are how cities engage with the vendors providing smart city gear and what happens with citizen data.
That’s the focus of a recent report from the Center for International Governance Innovation that was written by Bianca Wylie. CIGI Senior Fellow Wylie goes beyond the dystopian narratives that we often employ in relation to smart cities and lists five things governments need to do to ensure that their pursuit of smart cities doesn’t erode democracy.
If you think this is all theoretical, I encourage you to go look at some of my articles on this topic, including one about Kansas City’s efforts to provide Wi-Fi while sharing all of the subsequent data generated with a mobile analytics company owned by Sprint.
Wylie uses the City of Toronto’s partnership with Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs as the primary example in her report. Sidewalk Labs is trying to develop and commercialize technologies to improve life in cities. The company won a contract with an entity representing Canada’s federal government, the Government of Ontario, and the City of Toronto to develop 12 acres of land along the Toronto waterfront that will be home to a connected city of the future.
Residents won’t move into the developed project until 2020, but if we’re concerned about democratically implementing smart city technology, it’s already gotten off on the wrong foot according to Wylie. She believes that the selection process was opaque, Sidewalk Labs isn’t providing details on data collection, and that it’s pretending to take on the role of government, without actually being bound by the democratic process. Here’s what she thinks municipalities should do instead.
Commit to open procurement and contracting: Given the type of data being collected by cities via sensors and the installation of additional equipment such as cameras, it’s reasonable to expect that citizens know what type of equipment is going in and who will provide and operate it. But in many cases, citizens don’t get input into the type of tech cities want to implement much less how the data is used, collected, or controlled. Wylie says cities should include citizens’ input in the requests for proposals and make sure RFPs define the terms of the deal in plain language. From there, they need to ensure that citizens can easily find both details about the winning vendors and their adherence to the related terms.
Embark on intensive public education and consultation: There are two elements to this. The first is educating the public on what a smart city is and how it actually works. Such education should include details around how data collected by the city will be used for civic purposes vs. marketing purposes, whether law enforcement can access that data and under what terms, and much much more.
The second element is making clear that the gear and some of the services are being provided by private contractors. In the case of Sidewalk Labs, much of its marketing around the Toronto project “co-opts the language of government,” according to Wylie. Doing so can benefit Sidewalk Labs from a PR perspective; it can also encourage citizens to use services without them understanding that their data isn’t going to an actual government entity that’s trying to provide common infrastructure and services.
Think of civic data management as a government responsibility: This is where, when talking to city personnel about smart city deployments, I have focused much of my own questioning. Figuring out what data is gathered, what is anonymized, and what is shared and with whom is tough. In many cases, the personnel I talk to don’t know the answers to all of those questions.
But they should. And so should the citizens of any smart city — ideally without having to file a Freedom of Information Act request or similar effort.
Recognize smart cities as a political issue: I’m not 100% sure what Wylie is getting at here, but she cites as a successful example Barcelona, noting how its residents elected a mayor who campaigned on the creation of a smart city and used it as a means to address social issues. My hunch is she’s focusing on the idea that installing technology for the sake of technology (or broad and indiscriminate data-gathering) isn’t the way to go. Instead, elected officials should campaign for smart cities as a way to solve real problems.
Adopt an agile policy-making process: This is my favorite and possibly the most challenging to implement. It also goes far beyond smart cities. The broad idea is that our existing ways of making laws and policies can’t keep up with the speed of technology. So how do we change that?
Wylie’s suggestions include thinking about how to share existing infrastructure, such as software and frameworks used to develop services in smart cities. She also thinks cities should create digital master plans that can support overall strategic planning efforts. So if a city knows it’s planning to upgrade its airport in three years, it can look at a constantly updating digital plan to see what technology it should consider including. Wylie doesn’t say this, but I think that digital plan should also include a data policy that addresses some of the questions above.
After years of talking to people about smart cities, I like the direction Wylie is steering toward. Most efforts around municipal technology adoption have outsourced expertise and even decision-making to the vendors. Meanwhile, citizens are cut out of the loop. Yes, citizen input can make projects more complex, which means they can take longer to implement. But incorporating citizen feedback in the creation of essential elements such as a digital bill of rights for city dwellers could go a long way to creating the type of democratic infrastructure we need to bring tech into our urban lives without undercutting democracy.
Again, here’s a link to the full report.