Technology is an essential element in the Smart City as it is used to deliver services, to enhance urban systems and to engage with their communities. While Smart Cities have long relied on technology to solve their systemic challenges, the Ethical Smart City (ESC) project offers a paradigm shift to reevaluate the role and impact of technology in cities. Driven by the understanding that when used without the right intentions, technology can not only exacerbate existing issues or cause long term problems, but also risk addressing the wrong challenges.
Technology happens to be a double edged sword, as it is equal measures disruptor and enabler. The ESC project and the ESC Framework are guided by the belief that technology alone is not enough to solve challenges. For a city to address its underlying challenges, it must start from the bottom-up – know its values, understand its challenges, and use technology as an enabler. Technology is meant to help address challenges experienced by people. As such, it needs to be intentionally and thoughtfully used and considered.
Technologies such as Broadband, Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT) have become synonymous with the Smart City movement. Broadband is one of the foundational technologies that offers connectivity for other digital technologies to flourish within a Smart City. It provides the infrastructure for IoT devices to stay connected, to collect, send and receive data, for servicing the City. Artificial Intelligence has emerged as a means to make sense of the large amounts of data being collected to help inform and support decision-making within Smart Cities.
Broadband is high-speed data transmission that takes on high-capacities of data.
The deployment of broadband has kept the world more connected in real-time than ever before. During the COVID-19 pandemic it allowed for people to work from home even though they could not physically be at their workplace. With social distancing becoming the norm, broadband has transformed into an essential utility for people to earn and contribute to the economy.
Broadband also cascades to several other technologies as it is fundamental in providing internet services that solutions within Smart Cities rely on to function. Cities such as Tallinn in Estonia are able to host 99% of their public services online because of the deployment of broadband. In 2008, the City was able to use its broadband network to improve its health care services. A comprehensive nation-wide system incorporating an electronic medical record of each patient was created, reducing bureaucracy and giving access to time-critical information in emergency situations. This electronic record is also connected to paramedic services and pharmacies so that the continuum of care is seamless and integrated. All of this was made possible by the city’s widely available broadband network.
The advent of broadband, however, has created a digital divide and left some communities disconnected from their cities and its services. This is because they do not have the same access they might have had before broadband was widely deployed and accepted as the way the world stayed connected. This has also led to the ‘right to broadband’ movement to ensure that everyone has access to the internet. Rural communities are especially affected by this digital divide.
Broadband acts as a backbone for Smart Cities to build and integrate additional digital technologies. Without that initial infrastructure, new digital technologies will not have been able to run as seamlessly or properly integrate with the whole system. As a result of this established connectivity, future technologies can be implemented. Therefore, communities should be granted access to broadband to ensure accessibility to public services amongst other things that broadband connectivity offers.
IoT is the connectivity technology embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.
Internet of Things (IoT) devices, such as sensors, can provide cities with data needed to proactively tackle challenges some of which arise from climate change. With IoT, smart electric systems that provide flexibility in the supply and demand of energy are created. This technology makes it possible for variable sources of renewable and sustainable energy such as wind and solar to operate. IoT can also be deployed in cities to collect, process and transmit reliable data on climate change patterns and preempt and plan for extraordinary events such as flooding. This enables cities to forecast an efficient use of their resources, which, in turn, reduces waste and creates a more sustainable environment.
However, for IoT devices to work as intended, multiple devices have to be deployed and connected to the internet and with each other, which requires an immense amount of energy usage. IoT devices also require the collection and transmission of data, which if not appropriately governed can infringe on the privacy rights of the community. For example, smart meters can track and monitor when people are in their homes just by collecting data on their energy usage. As several IoT devices are connected to each other, they could also provide location tracking details on individuals within a city.
Artificial Intelligence is a branch of computer science concerned with building smart machines capable of performing tasks that typically require human intelligence.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been useful to help tackle some of the challenges in healthcare systems in cities across the world. Algorithms and the resulting predictive models use large data sets to predict unexpected patterns that can provide insights to support decision making especially in times of crisis.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world saw how values could be threatened or upheld while using technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data to preempt and prepare for the challenges associated with reopening the cities and businesses. AI and Big Data proved useful in tackling the challenges within the healthcare systems in cities around the world.
At the beginning stages of the pandemic, a Toronto-based AI firm, BlueDot, developed a disease analytics platform that predicted and warned against the spread of the disease. As the situation worsened, the platform’s capability was leveraged by many governments, including the Government of Canada, to guide their decision-making and to monitor the spread of the disease and the effectiveness of behaviours such as social distancing. By using anonymous data to monitor the response of the public health systems, the platform was able to inform the deployment of valuable resources. It became an example of how technology can be used to uphold the value of safety.
However, AI relies on the collection of large sets of data to function, raising concerns around data privacy. In Israel, anti-terrorism tracking technology was used to surveil citizens and collect data to minimize the spread of the virus. The wide use of this technology included real-time tracking of infected people to pinpoint their current location, where they have been and possibly who they have been in contact with. Without the right measures and governance structures in place, the use of similar technologies could continue for purposes that could infringe on people’s privacy.